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Somalis take to streets, protest Mohamed's firing Prime minister left WNY to serve troubled homeland

Hundreds, maybe thousands, took to the streets last week in the capital of Somalia in a show of support for a guy from Grand Island.

The firing of Somali Prime Minister Mohamed A. Mohamed -- the New York State government worker who has spent the last nine months as premier of his homeland -- is stirring up protests by Somalis, who would appear to be comfortable with the job this novice statesman has been doing for the troubled country on the Horn of Africa.

And now Mohamed, who learned a thing or two about hardball politics while in Buffalo, isn't going away quietly.

Mohamed is refusing to step down as prime minister, unless Somalia's parliament votes him out of office.

"I really feel if I leave, I abandon the people," Mohamed said during a phone interview last week with The Buffalo News.

"Rather than just resign, I decided to stay and continue my work and let members of parliament decide whether they give me a vote of confidence," said Mohamed, 49.

And so continues the extraordinary -- if not bizarre -- story of how a Somali immigrant resettled in Buffalo, graduated from the University at Buffalo and went to work for the state Department of Transportation on Main Street before returning to his homeland to lead his people.

Two vastly different pictures of Mohamed as prime minister have emerged.

Some say he's an honest professional who has done a good job battling al-Qaida insurgents, fighting political corruption and bringing back basic government services to win over the Somali people.

Others say he's totally unqualified to tackle the day-to-day problems of a poor, lawless country that hasn't had an effective government in 20 years and faces a situation that grows worse -- not better.

"So far," states an independent report on Somalia's government, "every effort to make the administration modestly functional has come unstuck."

It was September when Mohamed traveled to New York City, where he managed to speak with Somalia's president at the United Nations.

Mohamed, who offered the Somali leader some ideas, was as surprised as anyone when President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed suggested he submit his application for prime minister.

He got the job.

> Initiatives win support

Reports by the New York Times, the Associated Press and other news outlets, indicate Mohamed enjoys popularity among Somalis.

He saved money by trimming the government's cabinet to 18 from 39.

He promised to clean up the government of crooked politicians lining their pockets with international aid.

He reopened schools, repaired roads and made sure soldiers and civilian workers were regularly paid.

All the while, Mohamed's life has been in danger. Authorities recently uncovered an al-Qaida plot to kill him by infiltrating family in Toronto, the prime minister said.

Behind the scenes, though, there has been tension between the Somali government's two most powerful figures -- the president and the speaker of parliament, said J. Peter Pham, an expert on Somalia.

The two adversaries have been locked in a feud for months over what to do when terms of Somalia's fragile transitional government end in August.

The speaker insisted on holding elections. The president wanted to hold off and extend the government's term for another year, while soldiers wrestled the country free from the grip of Islamic terrorists.

Both, meanwhile, were under pressure by the United Nations Security Council to get their act together or face losing financial support from the international community.

The two leaders this month finally cut a U.N.-backed deal to hold off on elections and extend the government's term for another year.

One condition: Mohamed goes.

The motives behind his ouster are many, Mohamed said.

"I fought corruption," he said. "That's why we were able to pay workers, repair roads and bridges. That's why people think I should get the opportunity for an extension, like the president and the speaker."

In response to his firing, hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of civilians and government troops took to the streets of Mogadishu, where they ignited huge bonfires, erected roadblocks in the streets and waved pictures of the Somali prime minister, according to media reports.

The prime minister's supporters say he's being thrown under the bus.

"Everyone said Mohamed did a good job," said Hodan Isse, a University at Buffalo finance professor and a Mohamed friend. "People for the first time were paid some of their salary. He tried to create a strong defense for the country to fight all these forces working against them.

"The youth, the poor, who are just so sick and tired of 20 years of corruption, they want Mohamed," said Isse, a Somali native. "They definitely want him."

Pham, director of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank on international policy, is more critical.

He views reports of public activism in a dangerous country like Somalia with a degree of skepticism and suggests there's more of an organized political agenda involved.

In fairness, Pham said, Mohamed did cut the number of cabinet members, which saved money, and he has said the right things during international gatherings.

But, Pham said, any progress in pushing back the Islamic insurgents was made with the blood and sweat of the African peacekeepers, not the Somali government.

"There have been a few cosmetic changes, a few ground gains by the peacekeepers," Pham said, "but overall, we're not any closer to a resolution than we were a year ago."

In fact, Pham believes Mohamed was appointed because his American ties could be spun as progress for Somalia. At the same time, he added, Mohamed wasn't considered a political threat to the president's power.

"Despite the spin put on it," Pham said, "the prime minister was utterly unqualified for the job."

> Somali regime faulted

A February report by the nonprofit International Crisis Group also gave a damning indictment of the Somali government.

"Somalia's transitional federal government has squandered the good will and support it received and achieved little of significance in the two years it has been in office," the report said.

Mohamed, however, continues his work as prime minister, boosted by the apparent outpouring of support from Somalis.

One of his actions was hiring his old boss, former County Executive Joel A. Giambra, to lobby the U.S. State Department to take a stronger role in what's happening in Somalia.

"I'm extremely proud of him," said Giambra, who hired Mohamed as a county employee in 2000. "He's honest as the day is long, and he's sincere about trying to do the right thing for his people."

But for now, Mohamed awaits a decision on whether he'll still be their leader.

"I'm waiting for members of parliament to decide that," Mohamed said. "Whether it could be next week, or two weeks, I don't know."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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