Somalia Keeps Plucking Its Leaders from Overseas Obscurity

A London teacher is the latest exile to return to the volatile country

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There's a story making its way through the British press today about Mohamed Ibrahim, a 64-year-old north London test prep teacher who recently informed his headmaster that he wouldn't be returning to school this year because he'd unexpectedly been appointed as Somalia's deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs. The headmaster, Richard Kolka, told The Telegraph that he had no idea he was employing someone who was such an important figure in his native Somalia. "He was always such a humble guy," Kolka explained. "I was gobsmacked." Ibrahim, pictured above in late July at emergency talks on Somalia's drought and famine in Rome, promised to stop by the school when he passes through London after attending a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York later this month. We imagine his students might see him a bit differently this time around.

It's a fascinating tale, but also a familiar one. Somalia's U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government, which controls little more than the capital, Mogadishu, has a penchant for recruiting Somalis living modestly abroad to serve as top government officials in a country that hasn't had a functioning central government since 1991, when many of the recruits went into exile. Last month, the Buffalo News ran a story about Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who had returned to his cubicle and job as a compliance officer at New York's Department of Transportation in Buffalo after serving a nine-month stint as Somalia's prime minister. Mohamed, like Ibrahim, had been offered his post unexpectedly after traveling to the U.N. in New York to interview with Somalia's president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. His only political experience was working on campaigns in Buffalo. When Mohamed (meeting with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi on right) was eventually forced out of his position in a power struggle, he requested that his friend Abdiweli Ali, an economics professor at Niagara University in Niagara County, New York, succeed him, at least until a permanent replacement is found (Ali's Niagara faculty bio currently reads, "Dr. Ali has been appointed Prime Minister of Somalia and is currently on leave," but his CV hasn't been updated). Yes, you read that right. Western New York is becoming an improbable breeding ground for Somali leaders.

The stories just keep coming. Maryan Qasim, Somalia's Minister for Women's Development and Family Affairs, had been working as an English primary school teacher in Birmingham for over 20 years before returning last year to Somalia, where she had worked as an obstetrician and gynecologist until 1991. "My family said, 'You're mad,'" she told the BBC at the time. "But my country needs me." Mohamed Nur, pictured on right, resigned from his job as a business adviser to a local London council around the same time in order to become Mogadishu's mayor, having flirted with politics only once before during a failed attempt to win a Labour council seat in Camden. Abdulkareem Jama left a six-figure salary in Washington, DC for a low-paying position as Somalia's Minister of Information. Abdirashid Hashi, a journalist and book publisher from Canada, is now Somalia's Minister of Public Works and Reconstruction.

There's a method to all this madness. The Globe and Mail explains that Somalia is trying to "solve its massive problems by luring home a technocratic elite of educated exiles from the Somali diaspora." The theory, the paper explains, "is that these exiles are not beholden to extended networks of friends and family in Somalia, so they are less prone to corruption and less likely to be loyal to the Somali clan leaders and warlords who have controlled most of the country since the civil war began in 1991. But some analysts worry that the exiles will be weaker in influence, lacking local support and knowledge of the country." Others criticize their lack of political experience.

The Washington Post adds that Somalia isn't the only country to recruit top officials from overseas. In war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Liberia, the paper explains "returning immigrants have entered politics and built businesses, providing linchpins amid war and instability. Unlike those in previous generations, these immigrants remained intimately connected to their homelands via the Internet and satellite television."

"None of us requested this job," Hashi tells The Globe and Mail. "We were drafted. The prime minister asked us to serve. We're not doing it for the glamour of the job."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.