By Matthew Stolle
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
How is it that a Rochester man 8,000 miles from his native country and who has lived in Rochester for nearly two decades could be considered for one of Somalia’s top political posts?
Local Somalis say that answer lies in both the man, Mohamoud Hamud, and the country’s unique political situation.
“He knows what’s going on in Somalia,” said Mohamed Nur Sumaya, a close friend who has known Hamud for three decades. “More than anybody else — I’m talking about the Somali people who live overseas — Hamud has been greatly involved with the politics back home.”
Even those who don’t know Hamud personally say they are aware of his ambition.
“I know that he has the ambition, which is the first thing that you need in order to run for a certain position,” said Ahmed Osman, a Rochester resident who works for the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association.
Hamud’s life has encompassed many of the highs and lows of the country’s recent history. Hamud was a boy in 1960 when the country declared its independence after years of foreign occupation and administration. Over the next half-century, Somalia would go from a fledgling democracy, to a military dictatorship, to a country riven by a two decades of civil war.
Raised in the north by a family that cherished education, Hamud pursued his educational goals in globe-trotting fashion. He graduated with an engineering degree from Cornell University and taught at King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia. In the early 1980s, Hamud worked in Washington, D.C., as a program director for Africare, overseeing agricultural development projects.
He worked as country director for that same agency from 1984 to 1990, managing relief activities in Kenya and Somalia, before civil war broke out in Somalia. Hamud said he was outside the country when the fighting started, but he returned to move his mom to a safer area in the north.
In the early 1990s, while living in Fairfax, Va., Hamud’s wife spotted a Money Magazine article that told about the most livable city in America. For two years, Hamud said, he resisted his wife’s pleadings that they move their family to this Midwestern paradise called Rochester.
“I can’t be a Midwestern farmer,” Hamud recalled telling his wife. “And I fought her for two years.”
Their arrival was a near meteorological disaster with Hamud and his young family driving into Rochester on a freezing, blustery December day. “You couldn’t see anything,” he said.
But they quickly made Rochester their home. Hamud said he delayed his return to Somalia to help his wife, who had her hands full raising their children. Then events intervened to freeze those arrangements. In 1995, the United Nations pulled out of Somalia.
“So that was the end, so I stayed here by default. I never went back,” Hamud said.
Yet his country was never far from his mind.
Although Somalia is a country exhausted by civil war and warlordism, its government still rests on a fragile foundation built on clan identity. Instead of a government of elected leaders, political leaders are selected through a nomination process dominated by clans and clan agreements, Hamud said.
Hamud said one factor that weighed in his favor as a prime minister candidate was that his clan was “not in conflict with anybody” during the long civil war. Situated in the northern part of the country, it avoided the bloodshed that brutalized and engulfed much of the country. A person chosen from that clan was thus seen as having the potential to be a “unifying force” for the country.
Regional politics also played a role. Although Somalia’s politics is byzantine to many outsiders, it shares one quality with the American political system: The quest for regional balance. Presidential nominees often weigh vice presidential candidates who hail from different parts of the country to broaden their ticket’s appeal.
So too in Somalia. There, the president, speaker of the parliament and the speaker’s two assistants are all from the south, “so the logic was to bring somebody from the north,” Hamud said. Instead the president chose somebody from the south.
Hamud, 58, said Somalia remains in a fragile transition. Although the terrorist group Al-Shabaab has been defeated in the field, individual members still live among the people of Mogadishu, the country’s capital, and “it’s still dangerous.” Hamud said he stayed at the hotel where previously a group of masked men tried to kill the new president in a suicide attack that failed.
Far from home
But why the search for a prime minister who has lived much of his life outside his native country? Indeed, the last two prime ministers were Somali Americans, and there are several reasons for this trend, local Somali leaders say. After years of civil strife, the country is beginning to create the mindset and practice of consensual government. Who better to lead the Somali government into such a future than people who have participated and lived under democratic governments and not been immersed in clan-based rivalries?
“You have to understand, we all belong to a certain clan in Somalia,” said Ahmed Osman, a Rochester resident who works with the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, a group that helps immigrants make the transition to life in the United States. “And the biggest disease that has plagued my country is clan. Because of this allegiance to a certain clan, it has been a specific problem.”
The country’s salvation is seen to rest with Somalis who have been educated overseas, savvy enough to interact on an international stage and “capable to run the country,” said Omar Hassan, a Rochester resident who owns a Medicare-certified home care agency.
“We want to build the country, and the people inside are also looking for outside people to come up with solutions,” Hassan said.
There is also a certain cachet that attaches to Somalis who have lived in the U.S. Mahamoud Ghedi Hilowle, a Rochester resident who served in the Somali parliament, recalled a meeting between one of Somalia’s former presidents and members of parliament. The president remarked on the dozen or so members present who were Somali-Americans. Their presence, he said, offered hope for the country because they had no experience with war, went to college and “know how the world community works,” Hilowle said.
Hamud said he wasn’t disappointed in not being selected prime minister and said he will remain involved in the rebuilding of his native country.
“When you seek something, you don’t take for granted that you will be chosen,” he said. “But you work hard to try and make inroads. I know the president in person now. I know the problems of Somalia. And I will still be involved.”