A CHALLENGING TRANSITION IN SOMALIA: A BOOK REVIEW
Reviewed by Hassan M. Abukar
Book: A Challenging Transition in Somalia
Author: Abdiweli Mohamed Ali
Abdiweli Mohamed Ali “Gaas” was Somalia’s prime minister for 14 months, from June 2011 to October 2012, and is now the head of Puntland regional government. His new book is a memoir of his childhood, his early and later schooling, as well as his tenure as premier. Oddly, the book does not include his years as President of Puntland.
Born in the 1960s to a nomadic family in the rural area of Galkacayo, Abdiweli grew up in central Somalia and later moved to Dhusamareeb, where he spent his formative years. As a teen, he dabbled in Marxism and “was on the edge of becoming an atheist.” After graduating high school, he attended Mogadishu’s National University, where he majored in economics. After graduation, he worked briefly for the ministry of finance and then won a rare scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He returned to Somalia after finishing his Master’s degree but came back to the United States shortly afterwards to pursue a doctorate. He settled in the Washington D.C. area where he struggled to juggle school, work, and supporting his budding family. He worked as a security guard, a cab driver, and did whatever he could to help his family. Finally, he completed
his doctorate at George Mason University and subsequently found a teaching job at Niagara University in Buffalo.
While in Buffalo, he met Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo,” Somalia’s current president. In 2010, Farmajo was appointed as prime minister and asked Abdiweli to join his cabinet. Abdiweli was initially reluctant and asked for two days to consult with his wife. Farmajo called him again the next day, but this time he was prepared with a new enticement and a better offer. He asked Abdiweli to serve as his deputy and minister of planning and international cooperation. Abdiweli immediately accepted the position. After seven months, fate again favored Abdiweli when Farmajo was forced out of office. Farmajo then asked Abdiweli to replace him as premier. The once provincial kid from central Somalia, who had never dreamed of becoming prime minister, suddenly rose swiftly to unexpected heights.
This book is well written, thanks to people like Professor Lidwien Kaptejins, who helped the author. It is the story of a young man who excelled in school, received a rare scholarship in America and obtained a Ph.D. in economics. It is a personal story of survival, hard work, ambition, discipline, and being in the right place at the right time.
However, aside from the personal success story, the book lacks insight and forthrightness. Moreover, it is stingy with details. It does not tell us much about Abdiweli’s contributions as a minister of planning and international cooperation (devoting only one and half pages to the topic) and his tenure as prime minister. When he became a minister of planning, he found a computer in his new office, which did not contain a single government file. He said he appointed a capable director general, re-organized the bureaucracy, instituted a system of division of labor, and made sure employees were paid regularly.
By the time he left the ministry after seven months, there were “computers, printers, and internet.” That is all Abdiweli said about his experience as a minister of planning and international cooperation. The former college professor found himself preoccupied by the prosaic day-to-day concerns of bureaucracy. In his book, nothing is said about public policy development, socioeconomic planning, statistics management, implementation monitoring, or evaluation.
Abdiweli’s tenure as prime minister was buffeted by an endless power struggle between President Sheikh Sharif and Speaker Sharif Hassan. He was caught between these two powerful figures who made sure he consulted with them in the affairs of his government. The two succeeded in blocking Abdiweli’s first proposed cabinet. After some wrangling, a compromise was reached in which a new cabinet that precluded ministers who had served under Farmajo and Omar Abdirashid was to be appointed. What did Abdiweli do next? His managerial gaffe was so blatant he asked the departing ministers to pick their own replacements. He told them, “Since you are not returning to the cabinet, please give me your recommendations for the right person to replace you.” The department ministers showed their true colors and selected representatives of their own clan.
Conveniently, one glaring cabinet selection by Abdiweli is not mentioned in his book: The man who became his deputy and minister of defense, Hussein Arab Isse. Abdiweli appointed Isse, a man with no known education and no government experience who—until his appointment—had been in the transportation sector in Sacramento, California. Many years later, Isse spoke about that fateful day when he was asked to become a cabinet member. He told an audience in Minneapolis that Abdiweli had called him and asked him to be defense minister. “I was utterly shocked by [Abdiweli’s] offer,” said Isse in a deadpan voice.
Abdiweli writes extensively about his pioneering work in laying the foundation for the “Roadmap,” which he said was initiated by him and other stakeholders. “The Roadmap was a detailed list of dozens of tasks designed to steer Somalia out of the transition period and toward more permanent political institutions and greater national security and stability.” There were four key areas of the Roadmap (security, political outreach and reconciliation, and good governance and institution, as well as drafting the constitution for adoption by a National Constituent Assembly).
By all measures, the implementation of the Roadmap remains incomplete. Security has been a big problem in the country even though Al-Shabaab withdrew from major cities such as Mogadishu, Baidoa, and Kismayo and some smaller towns. However, the militant group still controls a swath of the country. The provisional constitution was adopted and approved by a National Constituent Assembly, but has yet to be approved in a referendum. No genuine reconciliation has taken place in Somalia and the country has consistently been identified among the world’s most corrupted nations in the world.
Abdiweli’s book is full of boasting and bluster. It is littered with pictures of the former prime minister meeting with world and local leaders and there is not a single photo of him with ordinary Somalis. There is insight into Abdiweli’s contentious and debilitating relationship with then-President Sheikh Sharif, Speaker Sharif Hassan, and Abdirahman Farole of Puntland. Farole has been a stubborn problem for Abdiweli and the two have been involved in numerous tiffs. There is no love lost between them.
In 2012, Abdiweli ran for the presidency, but failed miserably. A newcomer, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, outwitted him and asked Abdiweli to endorse him in return for keeping his job. When Abdiweli hemmed and hawed, Mohamoud told him bluntly, “Abdiweli, this is Mogadishu, the Hawiye stronghold. All I want is to protect you from the problems of the Hawiye.” Abdiweli ended up backing Mohamoud instead of his boss, President Sheikh Sharif. To his dismay, when Mohamoud became president, he lost his job. Paradoxically, Abdiweli is restrained in talking about his secret agreement with Mohamoud.
In a nutshell, Abdiweli’s book is a good read, but it lacks an honest assessment of his tenure as prime minister. It is unfortunate that a highly educated man with a purview in economics has failed to articulate a clear vision of development under his tenure and, instead, has been busy collecting every trapping of material wealth. Abdiweli’s short tenure as premier represents at best an affirmation, rather than a repudiation, of the status quo.