By Faisal Abdi Roble
“To whom much is given, much is required,” goes one of the oldest biblical sayings that has morphed into a universal measurement of privilege and responsibility. Much was given to Abdiweli Gaas (President Gaas), and much is expected. How much of this edict he had satisfied is the subject of this two-part essay.
Part 1 will be about my personal acquaintance with Gaas, while part II will focus on (1) his political wishy-washiness; (2) his failure to move the region towards an electoral system beyond clan politics; and (3) a runaway corruption which he presides over. The portion on corruption will primarily focus on how President Gaas managed the $15 million paid to him as an installment in the renting of Bossaso port to DP, and the illegal act of printing Somali monetary notes.
I met President Gaas for the first time in December, 2006 at a conference that I helped organize for Northern Somalis for Peace and Unity (NSPU),whose objectives included to develop a counter narrative to secession and to promote the territorial integrity of Somalia. With me on the frontline of this organization were Gamal Hassan (Minister for Planning and International Cooperation), Ahmed Hassan (Minister of the Presidency – Jubbaland), Ismail Ali Gaildoon, the late Abdale Hirad, Kamal Hamud, and several other comrades. Held at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), December 1-2, 2006, the conference assembled over 100 Somalis from different regions and backgrounds.
Among the invitees were Ali Khalif Galaydh, Ali Abdulrahman Hersi, the late Burci Hamsa, Ali Faqi, Ahmed Nasir Abdi, Ahmed Hamud, Mohammed Maasheeye, Ahmed Ismail, Abukar Arman, Ali Bahar and Abdiweli Gaas, to just name a few. It was an effort to show Somali unity. At the time of the Conference, Abdiweli Gaas was the least active on Somalia issue (see link on NSPU Conference and participants).
Until that time, I did not know President Gaas at all. Neither have I seen him or known him during the Pan-Somali discussion groups the likes of ISRAAC or earlier groups. In the 1990s and beyond, many Somali intellectuals and professions were connected through email lists to engage the Somalia crisis. I don’t recall ever seeing Abdiweli Gaas in those groups.
The second time I met President Gaas was in Toronto at a conference organized by Abdi Hosh, currently Minister for Constitutional Review, and his comrades under the banner of SomaliaMove. Gaas and I had a brief encounter at the lobby area of the Holiday Inn hotel, Mississauga, where both of us stayed; after a brief exchange of niceties, we departed company. Henceforth, our relation became only meaningful following subsequent multiple telephonic conversations between 2007 and 2009. Mostly small but substantive talks characterized our infrequent contacts.
President Gaas was gracious enough to call me, I believe from Atlanta, when Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, Somalia’s Prime Minister at the time, offered him the job of Minister for Planning. Once he settled in Mogadishu, and especially after he became Prime Minister (June 2011 to October 2012), President Gaas and I kept infrequent contacts with each other.
In general, President Gaas is a decent and a good-natured person and I will always respect him for that. His leadership qualities are entirely a different subject.
When I met him in Rome to partake in a consultative meeting hosted by an affiliate of the Italian foreign Ministry – Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) – in May, 20015, I saw a man who puts less effort into the sociopolitical issues facing the country. As a matter of fact, I saw in Rome a man who does not like discourse and problem-solving regarding the challenges his region or the nation at large is facing. Instead, I met a man who is wedded to his smart phone through which he listens obsessively old Somali songs he used to listen when he was growing up in Dusa Mareeb. Rarely has he shown interest in political or social discussions. This trait of President Gaas’ bewildered me!
A second conference I participated with him took place at Tufts University in October 2013. Under the title of “Patterns of Violence in Somalia,” Alex de Waal organized it and invited many academics and practitioners. President Gaas, also an invitee, was at the time living in Addis Ababa and was working on what has become his memoir. After we finished the conference in Boston, President Gaas invited me to a political rally that his supporters organized at Harvard University. I accepted the invite but declined to take sides on the competition between him and Abdirahman Faralo. President Gaas was uncharacteristically cruel to his opponent, and waged a take-no-prisoner campaign. Just like Trump, he ranted and extremely inflated what he would do for Puntland.
The night of the scheduled event, many enthusiasts packed the hallway. As promised, I attended the event but largely ignored the agenda of the night, and instead spoke in general terms on global issues about Somalia and the failures of Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud’s administration. Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, who was the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia at the time, was a huge disappointment to the nation. I completely downplayed Gaas’ political campaign. As will be discussed in the following section, his engagement in big ideas did not meet anyone’s expectations.
Education vs. Vision
President Gaas is perhaps the most educated – that is formal education – executive officer Somalia ever had. With a Ph.D. in economics from George Masson University and a certificate on taxes from Harvard’s School of J. F. Kennedy for Public Policy, President Gaas has impressive credentials in formal education. What is also remarkable about President Gaas is that he pulled himself by the “bootstraps,” as Americans would like to say. In addition to his humble beginning – a child from Somalia’s forbidding arid countryside where members of his family have been famished to death by the 1974 famine Somalis called “dabo-dheer,” (the long-tailed famine), his achievements educationally and professionally are remarkable.
As a Prime Minister in the government of Sharif Ahmed, most people would agree that President Gaas has done a decent job, mainly thanks to his team of “Saviors of the Nation or “Badbaado Qaran.” In short, he was getting the counsel of a strong diverse technocratic team.
Once he took power in Puntland, however, he chose to surround himself with a less diverse and less capable people. Without “badbaado Qaran” on his side, his train derailed fast. As Puntland’s chief executive, he has proven to be ambivalent to ideas and input, less transparent and indecisive. I have a direct experience of these traits of his, and the following three examples will illustrate.
First, as soon as President Gaas took office, I assembled for him about 20 well educated and professional Somalis from all regions with the idea of giving him counsel on many areas free of charge. We expected that a positive influence radiating from his court could be a catalyst beyond Garowe. Alas, after one telephonic meeting, President Gaas disappeared and never reached out to the team until we disbanded it.
Second, I saw early on how less transparent Gaas Presidency was about to become. The potential floundering of Gaas’ presidency was gleaned from his failure to hire a highly qualified “anti-corruption czar;” As soon as he assumed office, a number of us shared with him a couple of potential candidates for the post. The thinking was to show the people of Puntland as well as the rest of Somalia that President Gaas was “serious” about fighting corruption.
Without ever saying no, he slowly but surely killed the effort. Instead he institutionalized the culture of corruption and let it thrive under his watch. In lieu of “anti-corruption czar,” President Gaas decided to invite a close friends of his from Canada, someone with no experience in public policy, and put him in charge of all public works projects (airports, road constructions and as a liaison to World bank and other donors).
In addition to a hefty salary paid to this individual through donor monies, he became a powerful non-portfolio kitchen cabinet and a confidante of President Gaas, often accompanying him to the president’s frequent overseas trips. It is ironic that almost after four years in his reign, Puntland is gripped by a chronic culture of corruption (Part two will revisit this issue).
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.