By Hassan M. Abukar
It was the phone call of a lifetime—one that would take me back to the land of my birth with a job offer that would catapult me into a rarefied position of serving the country’s top leadership.
On February 6, 2018, while I was driving outside Phoenix, Arizona, on my way to Southern California, I received a phone call from Ahmed I. Awad, the Foreign Minister of Somalia. Until a few months previously, Awad had been Somalia’s Ambassador to the U.S. After exchanging pleasantries, Awad asked me:
“If offered a position as a speech writer for President Mohamed Farmajo, would you accept it?
Honestly, I was shocked. Awad, after all, was a serious man not given to making asinine jokes. After a few seconds of silence, I said I would accept such a position if it was fine with the people of Villa Somalia—the seat of the presidency.
“Good, then stay tuned,” he said and ended the call.
Two days later, Awad called and asked if I could send him my resume. I did immediately.
This was not the first time I was approached about being a speech writer for a Somali president.
In 2012, Abdi Hosh, now the Minister of Constitution and then a legislator, introduced me—via email—to Kamaal F. Gutaale, then Chief of Staff of President Hassan Sheikh. He recommended me as a speech writer for the new president. Neither Gutaale nor I followed up on the matter.
On February 13, 2018, I received a missed call from Abdirizak Shoole, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Office of the Presidency. He left me a message in which he requested my presence in Mogadishu. Soon after that, I received a text message from him reiterating the request:
“Greetings, Hassan. I request that you come to Mogadishu at your earliest convenience and meet with the [officials] in the Office of the Presidency.”
“Ok, I will let you know before I arrive in Mogadishu,” I replied.
I thought things were going fast and that my speech writing services were badly needed in Villa Somalia. My understanding was I would be interviewed first, followed by a background check, and then a decision would be made whether to hire me or not.
I was wrong.
On February 20, I let Villa Somalia know that I would be arriving in Mogadishu in the early morning of March 16. I estimated that the interviewing process would take a week. I checked with the Deputy Chief of Staff to give me a date detailing when the process might finish so I could buy my return ticket early.
The response I got was firm and unequivocal: “Get only a one-way ticket because you will start working from day one.” There was nothing to worry about, I was told, because everything would be taken care of.
When I hemmed and hawed about getting the return ticket, I was told in no uncertain terms that the job was for me to have and I should avail myself to work, “at least for one year.” Again, I was told “everything will be taken care of.”
The new directive changed everything for me. Now, I had less than three weeks to prepare myself for a big move to Mogadishu after decades of absence. In short, I had to get rid of the stuff I had accumulated over the years—from furniture to stacks of books. It was a sudden and drastic downsizing. As an independent contractor, I told my clients I would be gone for a year. They were not pleased.
Friends and family members assured me I was doing the right thing by taking the job and serving my country in my capacity as a speech writer.
“You write a lot anyway,” one friend said jokingly, “you might as well start writing some meaningful speeches for the president.”
On March 16 at 10 a.m., I landed in Mogadishu ready to start my work in Villa Somalia. I was received well at the airport, and a young man was told to drop me at a hotel on Makka al-Mukarrama Road, and then take me to Villa Somalia. Things were going smoothly, I thought, but that was wishful thinking.
When we arrived at the heavily guarded hotel, no one would let me in because I had no reservation. After waiting about 20 minutes in front of the hotel, the hotel clerk finally came outside and said he had received a call from Villa Somalia to let me in. While I was checking in at the hotel, the young man who had dropped me off, left quietly without informing me. There went my ride to Villa Somalia, a heavily protected government compound into which only authorized cars are allowed.
My first day in Mogadishu was a time to rest and sleep. I had endured a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Istanbul, followed by five hours in transit, and then an eight-hour flight from Istanbul to Mogadishu. I showered and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was dark.
The next day, I dressed and waited for someone from Villa Somalia to come and fetch me, but no one showed up. I called and sent text messages to the official designated to coordinate with me, but to no avail.
On the fifth day, at dusk, the Deputy Chief of Staff came to my room in the hotel and asked me to get ready to start working on a speech. While he was in my room waiting for me, Foreign Minister Awad, who was in Rwanda for a conference, called him. After a few minutes, he asked for me and I talked to him briefly.
The Deputy Chief of Staff said he would wait for me downstairs. But then, in a split second, he changed his mind and said his driver would take me to Villa Somalia. That was the first and last time I rode in a bulletproof vehicle.
At Villa Somalia, two officials received me: a senior presidential advisor on policy nicknamed “Balal,” and Abdinur M. Ahmed, the Director of Communications of the Office of the Presidency. The two seemed curious and inquisitive:
“So, tell us about the circumstances that led to your presence in Mogadishu in general and in Villa Somalia in particular,” was the first question Balal asked.
I was surprised by the elementary nature of his comment. Hadn’t these two been briefed by the Foreign Minister and the Deputy Chief of Staff, I wondered?
I told them I was not a job seeker and that a Somali government official from Villa Somalia had called me and offered me a job as the president’s speech-writer.
“But, we do not need a full-time speech writer,” said Balal. “The president gives speeches once every three weeks at the most. What would you do in the meantime? You would be sitting in your hotel bored.”
The Director of Communications nodded in agreement.
I explained to them that speech writing involves team work, and that no single person can do the job without input from senior officials, including the president. It is a huge task because it involves explaining and messaging.
“We have an occasional speech writer who is a lawyer,” added Balal. “I don’t believe we need a full-time speech writer. Maybe the Foreign Ministry needs one because Awad travels a lot and gives many speeches.” Balal was insinuating that the whole job offer was the work of Awad, who needed my speech writing, but was using Villa Somalia as a cover.
It was obvious these two officials were anything but eager to see me employed in the position promised to me. I was rudely intruding into the cocoon they had made for themselves inside Villa Somalia.
“I wish I had known about your concerns before I left the U.S.” I said ruefully.
“We will consult with Awad and other officials here in Villa Somalia and I will get back to you in two days,” said Balal.
The short meeting was over and we exchanged contact information. Before I left the presidential compound, I was told to stop at a trailer that served as an office for making IDs and permits. I was photographed.
Back in my hotel room, I wondered if I were in a bad dream. What was this all about? The whole episode of my visit to Villa Somalia seemed bizarre. I immediately wrote an email to Awad, the official who had initially recommended me for the job. I explained to him what had transpired in Villa Somalia. Unfortunately, I never heard from him. Neither did I hear from the two officials who had met me in Villa Somalia.
As I stayed in the city for two more weeks, waiting to hear any news from Villa Somalia, I decided to put my time in good use. My phone calls and text messages to the Deputy Chief of Staff fell on deaf ears. I made myself busy, walked a lot in the city, and sometimes took the three-wheeled vehicle known as Bajaj, dined with friends and new acquaintances, and interviewed people, especially young people. I wanted to understand the new Mogadishu and write about my impressions. I am glad I collected enough materials to write a five-part series about my trip.
While I was in Mogadishu, the whole city was buzzing with chatter about a motion in parliament to impeach then speaker Mohamed Osman Jawari. President Farmajo was staying in the Defense Ministry instead of his usual residence in Villa Somalia. The Chief of Staff, according to sources, had vowed not to come back to Villa Somalia until Jawari’s matter had been settled. I had a tough time making sense of why Jawari’s political ordeal was crippling the functioning of the entire federal government. There were days the city was under curfew for fear of armed clashes between warring factions.
After getting no responses from Villa Somalia, I became concerned about the piling up of the bills from my hotel accommodation and meals. I decided to leave Mogadishu. I bought a return ticket from Mogadishu to Los Angeles and paid off my hotel and meal costs—expenses, I was told, Villa Somalia would pay for.
At Mogadishu Airport, I was spotted by the same airport official who had received me during my arrival.
“Are you leaving us already?” he asked, smiling.
“I have a few things to take care of in the U.S.,” I said, embarrassed. I felt like a small child that had been caught sneaking. “Hopefully, I will be back during Ramadan.”
In truth, I wanted to go back to Mogadishu after the political storm surrounding speaker Jawari had subsided.
Twenty minutes before boarding, the same airport official came running to me and handed me his cell phone:
“Talk to the Deputy Chief of Staff,” he said.
I was not surprised Villa Somalia had gotten a whiff of my imminent departure from Mogadishu.
“I hear you are returning to the States,” the Deputy Chief of Staff said.
“Oh, yes. You guys have no time for me. What am I going to do—sit, wait, and worry?”
“I am really sorry for what has happened. As you know, the timing of your arrival was hectic. I did not sleep last night because I was consumed by the issue of the speaker.”
“I understand there is political tension in the city, but hopefully I will be back by Ramadan.”
“We will pay all your expenses. Make sure you have all the receipts and send them to me as soon as possible.”
“Ok, good luck then.”
I left Mogadishu in a heartbeat. It was a long flight from Somalia to Turkey and then to California. I am glad I came back safely—that was priceless. My trip to Mogadishu was financially draining, emotionally exhausting, but personally enriching with insights and a new appreciation for my beloved city. Overall, it was not a lost cause. In fact, I learned a lot.
A friend, a former presidential advisor from a previous administration, was flabbergasted I had not consulted with him before my departure to Mogadishu.
“You don’t know these people,” he said. “No one will ever contact you or even pay the expenses you have accrued.”
“I can live with that,” I told him.
In the end, there is one truth: Somalia does not belong to a few figures—it’s a country for all of us. As my esteemed colleague, Faisal Roble, once wrote, “At times, I feel that Somalia is hopeless; but again, giving up is worse. May God help us.”
Hassan M. Abukar
Hassan M. Abukar is a contributor to Wardheernews and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at [email protected].
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