Ex-DC bureaucrat who once tried to fix failing schools now trying to fix Somalia
By KEVIN SIEFF | The Washington Post | Published: April 27, 2016
MOGADISHU, Somalia — Fifteen years ago, he was working for the mayor of Washington, trying to turn around crime-ridden neighborhoods and a failing school system.
Now, Abdusalam Omer is trying to turn around a failed state. The former D.C. bureaucrat known as Dr. O has a new title: foreign minister of Somalia.
Each morning, Omer climbs into a bulletproof SUV for the drive to his office, surrounded by young armed men in green uniforms. He lives behind layers of blast barriers in a city where al-Qaida-allied rebels regularly target government officials. Several of his friends have been killed.
He tries to traverse a range of diplomatic interests – the Turks want a port, the Kenyans want a border fence, the United States wants counterterrorism operations. And yet Omer's own government is still in its infancy. When the top U.N. official here asked him what his short-term goals were as minister, Omer responded:
"I want to have clean bathrooms and I want people to answer their emails."
He wasn't kidding.
"You have to be realistic," he says.
It's not a position he expected to occupy. He had thrived in Washington, learning to navigate the District of Columbia's cutthroat local politics. He could rattle off the names of all its high schools. He knew who mattered in which ward. Diplomatic Washington could seem a world away. He was a man who lived for city hall.
"He brought enthusiasm and valor in helping me tackle the mess in D.C.," ex-mayor Tony Williams said of his former chief of staff.
Today, Omer's home is a modest, heavily guarded hotel he shares with visiting aid workers and journalists. He would be a target if he settled in any of Mogadishu's residential neighborhoods. It's too dangerous for his wife, two adult daughters and son to live in the city; he sees them on trips abroad.
"I used to say D.C. was like a third world country. Then I came back here and I realized what a third world country really was," Omer said on a recent balmy evening at the hotel, sitting on a patio and sharing a plate of watermelon. His only perk is a special cushion that the owner places on his rickety wooden chair before he sits down.
Omer left Somalia when he was 16, eventually migrating to Boston, where he attended Boston College. While he was in graduate school, guerrilla groups began fighting Somalia's dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, who was toppled in 1991. Omer felt he couldn't go back.
By then, he was a U.S. citizen. He studied public administration, earning a PhD from the University of Tennessee. During the 1990s, he held a series of jobs managing finances in the D.C. government, eventually becoming deputy chief financial officer. In 1999, he was appointed Williams's chief of staff.
But he never forgot Somalia.
From his home in Washington, he watched reports on Somalia flash across the evening news. After Siad Barre fell, the country was consumed by fighting between rebel factions. A flood of Somali refugees escaped to Kenya. The U.S. military lost 18 soldiers in a 1993 mission documented in the book "Black Hawk Down." Numerous attempts to create a functional federal government in Somalia have failed.
"I did feel like a part of him wanted to be there," Williams said in an interview. "He would talk about it all the time. I'm like an expert on Somalia after all these years with Dr. O."
In 2001, Omer was fired from the chief of staff job. Williams had found himself under pressure, in part for an unpopular plan Omer had pushed to privatize D.C. General Hospital.
Omer was 47 then. He decided it was time to return to Mogadishu and became a contractor with the U.N. Development Program.
When he saw the destruction of the capital, 100-year-old buildings reduced to rubble, he was racked with guilt.
"The problem was us – Somalis who left and didn't come to the rescue of the country," he said.
He returned to Washington for one more job with the city government in 2007, becoming the chief business operations officer of the D.C. public schools. But that same year, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was launched with U.N. support. It was a peacekeeping mission that promised to bring security to Somalia.
Omer wasn't the only member of the huge Somali diaspora to return and try to help it build a functioning government. The former prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, was once the commissioner for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. The former minister of education, Abdinur Sheikh Mohamed, worked for the Ohio Department of Education. Yussur A.F. Abrar, the former governor of Somalia's central bank, was once a vice president of Citigroup in New York.
In 2013, Omer accepted an offer from President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whom he had met when Mohamud was running a university in Mogadishu, to become the head of Somalia's central bank. But just months after he took the job, the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea accused Omer and other officials of using the bank as a "slush fund." Eighty percent of withdrawals from the bank were made for private purposes, according to the report.
"Key to these irregularities has been the current governor of the Central Bank, Abdusalam Omer," the report said.
Omer says he was shocked. In Washington, he had typically been the one calling out financial mismanagement. "I don't know if anybody knows the magnitude of problems at D.C. public schools. It's mind-boggling," he told the Post in 2007, after he had been named chief business operations officer.
He denies the U.N. monitoring group's claim that the central bank funds went missing at all, but particularly on his watch.
"During the period they claim funds were missing, I was not the governor and I was not part of the government," he said in the interview.
Although Omer resigned under pressure from the central bank, Mohamud has defended him and he was not charged with a crime. Omer was appointed foreign minister just over a year later, in 2015. He decided he would rent out his D.C. home for a while longer.
Since then, he has welcomed John F. Kerry to Mogadishu, the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Somalia. Omer has watched as the Islamist al-Shabab rebels have killed government officials and carried out suicide bombings in restaurants and parks. There have been times when he felt hopeless, even though it was his job to boast in foreign capitals of Somalia's successes.
One of those capitals is Washington, which Omer visited this month with the Somali president. He walked through the city he once helped run. Now he was a diplomat from the country the World Bank calls the fifth poorest on the planet.
He thinks frequently about the way his job in Somalia and his old ones in Washington overlap. Back in the District of Columbia, he helped oversee a school district that had no accurate list of its roughly 55,000 students. Now, he's working for a government that has no list of its soldiers. There are supposedly 22,000; some say there might be as few as 10,000.
"When humans are not governed properly, they act like animals," Omer said. "Between D.C. and Somalia, it's just a question of magnitude."