Heritage Moments: From a cubicle on Swan Street to the presidency of Somalia
Three world leaders have called Western New York their home. The first two, the American presidents Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, are well known to people living in the region. The third is less celebrated here.
But the story of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed — the Buffalonian better known as Farmaajo, elected president of Somalia in February 2017 — is every bit as incredible, and momentous, as that of practically any leader anywhere.
His ascent to the presidency touched off ecstatic celebrations, both in war-torn Somalia and in the Somali diaspora around the world. The first term of his presidency has been dangerous and difficult, as was always expected in a country riven by violence for so long—“There is a daunting task ahead of me, and I know that,” he said upon accepting the position—but his reputation for honesty and good governance has so far remained largely intact. He will seek a second term in elections scheduled for 2020.
Farmaajo, the son of a civil servant, was born in Somalia in 1962. He earned his nickname for his childhood love of cheese (formaggio in Italian, the language of the country that colonized Somalia in the early 20th century). From 1985 to ’89, he worked at the Somali embassy in Washington, but like so many of his generation, he was forced into exile by the collapse of the central government at home and the rise of warlords and disintegration of civil society that followed.
In 1989, he moved to Buffalo and enrolled at UB. His long stay in Western New York had begun.
Farmaajo graduated with a degree in history in 1993 and over the next 16 years worked at the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the Erie County Division of Equal Employment Opportunity and the New York State Department of Transportation -- a hat trick of civil service jobs with the city, county and state. Throughout this period Farmaajo was known to his American friends and colleagues as, simply, Mohamed A. Mohamed, a smart, nice, soft-spoken guy who lived with his wife, two sons and two daughters in their homes, first on the West Side, then in Amherst and finally, on Grand Island.
But in Buffalo’s growing Somali community he was recognized as a man of prominence who might play a role in the future of his war-ravaged homeland in the Horn of Africa. He conferred with other notable Somalis living in Western New York, like Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, an economics professor at Niagara University, and Gaas’s wife, Hodan Isse, a UB economics professor. He taught his job specialty, conflict resolution, at Erie Community College. And he earned a Master’s degree in American Studies at UB. His thesis: “U.S. Strategic Interest in Somalia: From the Cold War Era to the War on Terror.”
Suddenly, in October 2010, Farmaajo was appointed Somalia’s new prime minister, the second most powerful post in the government. It seemed like a bolt from the blue to his Buffalo friends, but the Somali community was not surprised at all; they knew he had met with the Somali president at the United Nations in New York.
Still, Farmaajo’s task seemed impossible -- the Somali government controlled only parts of the capital, Mogadishu, and little else in the chaotic country.
“Every morning when I was brushing my teeth I heard bullets hitting the metal over my window,” he told The New York Times. “It was like, pop pop pop pop. The first day I was shocked. But after that I knew the bullets would not get through, so I continued brushing.”
Farmaajo quickly earned a reputation for honesty and transparency in government, winning international praise for creating stability in notoriously unstable Somalia. But infighting among factions of the government forced him to resign in June 2011. Protests broke out across Somalia and among Somalis living abroad, from Nairobi to London to Toronto. (He was succeeded as prime minister by his deputy, Gaas, the Niagara University professor, who lasted only four months in the job.)
So it was back to Buffalo for Farmaajo, back to his job at DOT, and back to his old cubicle, with its window facing Swan Street.
“It’s a different feeling when you're heading a whole nation and you come back to your normal life,” he told The Buffalo News. “It’s a little awkward, to tell you the truth.”
And yet, five and a half years later Farmaajo was back in Somalia, this time to run for president.
The election was held in a secure zone at Mogadishu airport. The voters were the members of the Somali parliament; the majority of them, like Farmaajo, had lived in North America or Europe for many years and were familiar with the protocols of good government. The voting was monitored by international observers. Security was provided by troops of the African Union.
Farmaajo won on the second ballot, on Feb. 8, 2017. Eight days later he was sworn in. As president, he would put to use some of the skills he developed in Buffalo.
“Violence comes from conflicts, and I’ve learned how to resolve conflicts,” he once said in his old office, gazing out over Swan Street. “That’s exactly what I do here.”
This article was updated from an earlier version on Feb. 4, 2020.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Narrator: Susan Banks
Actualities: K24 News, Nairobi
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)