To meet the man with one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, I must pass 10 separate security checkpoints. Five groups of Somali soldiers, three of Ugandan soldiers, one of Somali presidential bodyguards and finally a Ugandan close-protection officer all ask for my pistol. (To general bewilderment, I don’t have one.) They then scan me with handheld metal detectors, squeeze my armpits, my shoes and my ears, relieve me of my phone, my flashlight, my computer and then my entire bag, finally leaving me with the clothes I am wearing, two pens and a notepad. The reason for this stringent security is not hard to spot. There are bullet holes in the windows of Villa Somalia, the complex in central Mogadishu where Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud works. Inside, fresh plaster and paint vainly try to hide more scars of battle — more bullet holes and grenade splashes — on the walls. The curtains in Hassan’s office are drawn, even at midday, but from behind them comes an intermittent crack-crack of gunfire and the occasional, distant boom. “Every single hour, someone is trying to eliminate me,” says Hassan. “But hundreds of thousands of Somalis have died, and if I die, I would be just one of them. It is not that I will live longer if I am not a politician.”
Hassan, 57, hasn’t been a politician for very long. He founded the Peace and Development Party (PDP) only in mid-2010. During Somalia’s presidential election on Sept. 10, 2012, he went from all but unknown to main challenger to President-elect in a single day. That would be unusual enough. More remarkable for Somalia, however, Hassan is not a warlord or a clan leader or a terrorist. He is, instead, a married father of five and former teacher who has become the first President of the first permanent civilian government in Somalia since the country erupted in civil war in 1991.
His task is immense. It is President Hassan’s job to stitch back together the world’s most failed state and establish peace and prosperity in a nation that, in the past two decades, has given the world the American military debacle known as Black Hawk Down, a militia affiliated with al-Qaeda, a hoard of 21st century pirates and recurrent famines that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and created millions of refugees. All while trying not to be assassinated. Hassan may represent a new beginning for Somalia, but few fresh starts were ever so colored by the past. “We’re starting everything from scratch,” he says. “We lost everything in the war. Everything has been destroyed. We’re walking in the dark.”Still, even if the guns are yet to fall silent, signs that Somalia may be emerging into the light are plentiful and dramatic. In 2008, Somalia’s al-Qaeda-allied Islamists, al-Shabab, controlled most of southern Somalia, including nearly all of the capital, Mogadishu. But in July 2011, after two years of fighting block-by-block in Mogadishu with an advancing African Union force of Ugandans and Burundians called AMISOM, al-Shabab abruptly left the city. Today, after mass defections and more defeats, the Islamists hold only a small section of southern Somalia.In the wake of their departure, Mogadishu has blossomed. All but a handful of the 60 or so neighborhood militia checkpoints, at which teenagers chewing the stimulant khat used to extract bribes at the point of a gun, are gone. Shop owners have patched up their broken walls, repaved their sidewalks and thrown open their doors once more. They are being joined by a mass of returning expatriates from countries like Britain, the U.S. and Australia who are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars to fix up their homes and invest in new businesses. A line of ships arriving with concrete, cars and mobile phones, and then departing with Somali camels, mangoes and bananas, sits at anchor outside Mogadishu’s now inadequate port — an indication both of sudden economic growth and an equally rapid decline in piracy, a consequence of ship owners’ hiring armed guards.
Suddenly, what was a bullet-riddled no-man’s-land only a year ago is now teeming with life. Despite the threat of bombs, like one at a beachside restaurant on Aug. 16 that killed at least one person, every Friday sees a crowd of thousands gather on Mogadishu’s stunning white-sand beach, the Lido — a former stronghold of al-Shabab — to swim, play football and enjoy an ice cream or even a barbecued lobster. Thousands of Somalis walk previously deserted streets and sip coffee and smoke shisha under the protective aura of relit streetlights at roadside cafés late into the night. International hotel chains are buying up seafront property. Coca-Cola has reopened its Mogadishu factory. “It’s a sea change,” says Augustine Mahiga, U.N. special representative to Somalia.
With the warlords largely pacified, the Islamists routed and pirates turning to fishing once more, whether Somalia’s moment of hope graduates to becoming a new normal for the country depends largely on the new President. Even the most optimistic admit to crossing their fingers. “Every time I see him I discover some new positive, remarkable thing about him,” says Mahiga. “But he faces a very serious challenge. And he’s never worked in government.” Asked if he is up to the job, Hassan is confident. “Of course,” he says. “There is no doubt about our will.” And to convince me, he tells me about his career as a teacher.
Back to School
Before the war, says Hassan, Mogadishu had 350,000 schoolchildren. But once the fighting started in 1991, the education system was one of its first casualties. Within a year, barely a school in the city was operating. “Schools became refugee camps and graveyards,” says Hassan. The engineering graduate and sometime consultant to the U.N. foresaw disaster. It had been narrow clan thinking that brought Somalia to its knees, reckoned Hassan. How could Somalia ever hope to break out of that if a whole generation never went to school? In 1992, with the assistance of the Red Cross, Hassan began reopening many of the city’s schools. But parents, many of whom in wartime needed children to earn their keep, didn’t respond, says Hassan. Most needed their kids to work. “So then we [linked] food with going to school,” Hassan says. To reward attendance, school administrators would give children supplies of rice, cooking oil and sugar, he says. “And that’s how kids started to come back.”
Five years later, Hassan suddenly had thousands of high school graduates. “So that’s when we started a university.” The Somali Institute of Management and Administration (SIMAD) opened in 1999 offering two-year diplomas in management, accounting, computer technology and business administration — subjects chosen for their “employability,” says Hassan, who left SIMAD in 2010. The university now has over 3,000 undergraduates, 150 lecturers, an annual-fees-paid budget of $2.3 million and offers four-year courses at three campuses in the city, with a fourth planned.
Hassan and his staff had built an education system for much of the city during a war. But it was never possible to shut the fighting out. “Many times we had stray bullets fly into the classes and kill a boy or a girl,” says Farah Abdikadir, then a lecturer in business at SIMAD. Every few years, adds Hassan, “there would be a big war here in Mogadishu and everything would just fall to the ground. Faced with having to start from scratch every four or five years, my friends and I realized that until we fixed the political problem, nothing could flourish here in Somalia. So we decided to establish a political party.”
When Hassan first started it in 2010, the PDP was more of an aid group. Members distributed food to refugees. They held classes in the camps. They started refugee football teams. But Hassan soon realized the PDP was still dealing with the fallout of the war, not its primary causes: the fighting among the city’s clans and their warlord leaders. “So we decided to go back into the clans. Our members would try to become clans’ MPs. Then when we all got to parliament, we would catalyze change from within.” The PDP was not welcomed by the clan warlords, who dominated Somalia’s transitional government. But under pressure from donors, the government agreed in 2011 to draft a new constitution and hold elections in 2012 for a new parliament, which would elect a new President.
The PDP saw the presidential election as its big chance to transform the country. Targeting Somalia’s new MPs, who would elect the new leader, “our strategy became to advocate for change,” said Hassan. “We said: ‘If you re-elect the same people, we can expect the same mistakes.’ We used the media a lot: the Internet, television, FM radio across Somalia, billboards. Our message was simple: ‘These guys should not come back.'” The donors added their weight to the campaign. “The warlords were bribing MPs,” says one diplomat. “But the vote was a secret ballot. We told [the MPs]: ‘Take the money, but vote with your conscience. The only person who will know how you vote is you and your God.'”
On Sept. 10, 2012, the incumbent President Sheik Sharif Ahmed, whose administration was accused in a 2012 U.N. report of widespread corruption, won 64 out of 271 votes. Hassan came in a shocking second with 60. In the hours before a second round of voting, says Hassan, “My team went to work. [Our] message was: ‘This is the only chance we have. This is the only time you can save Somalia. Do it now.'” In the second round, the President got 79 votes and Hassan got 190. “It was overwhelming,” Hassan says. “And I was sworn in the same night.”
Quite how completely Hassan’s life had changed was soon bloodily apparent. Just two days later, on Sept. 12, as Hassan held a press conference with the Kenyan Foreign Minster at a hotel close to Mogadishu’s airport, two al-Shabab suicide bombers tried to kill him. One was shot dead by guards at the gates, the second inside the hotel. An African Union soldier and a third attacker, a backup gunman, were also killed in the shootout. Inside the hotel, Hassan continued his speech even as the noise of the gunshots and the detonation of one of the suicide vests echoed around the room. “This is the Mogadishu we are trying to change,” he said.
But if his life changed, Hassan has apparently not. He says that a few days after his election, some clan elders arrived at his office seeking favors. They had brought with them, he says, a suitcase containing $200,000. Hassan politely asked them to deposit the money with the central bank, he says, so that the funds could be incorporated into the central government budget, and bring him the receipt. They did. When word got around that the President had refused a bribe, says Hassan, “everybody wanted to join in. We collected $1 million in 20 days like that.” The story was confirmed by Abdusalam Omer, governor of the central bank.
Hassan has applied the same standard to his Cabinet choices, all of whom are academics, technocrats or civil-society activists chosen for their skills and their reputation for having clean hands. Instead of the bloated Cabinets of Somalia’s past, in which every clan and warlord was bought off with a position, Hassan has appointed just 10 ministers, two of them women. “I didn’t know him at all,” says one, the new Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Fawzia Adam, 58, formerly a businesswoman and social activist from the autonomous northern region of Somaliland. “He called me out of the blue and said he wanted a few carefully selected and capable people who would focus on efficiency and delivery.” What Hassan is attempting after decades of clan chauvinism and Islamist stricture, says a Western diplomat focused on Somalia, is nothing less than “replacing ideology and dogma with academic pragmatism and, quite simply, reinjecting Somalia’s government with a little intelligence.”
The President also wants to teach the international community some new ways. “Before, the world was doing things for us,” he says. From now on, while almost every government program will still rely on foreign funding, he says, “we will do all we can by ourselves.” Gone are the days when foreigners could expect to run their own development programs separately from the government, even manage them from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Mahiga says the new outlook draws directly from AMISOM, an African force that is, as the new continental mantra of self-sufficiency has it, solving an African problem and whose success has prompted a rethink of peacekeeping at the U.N. “It’s an attitudinal change,” says Mahiga. “It’s looking at this government and this country and recognizing there is now unmistakable ownership and leadership.”
Asked about Somalia in decades to come, Hassan describes a country others can learn from. “I see this very, very old history of conflict changing in the Horn of Africa,” he says. “I dream of a Somalia that is a contributor of ideas, an example to the rest of Africa and other parts of the world. Many Somalis became citizens of other countries. I see people demanding to become Somalis.” Somalia as a global model might sound unlikely. But then Hassan has already taught Somalia a lesson few ever imagined it would learn. That is, says Farah Abdikadir, now a presidential adviser, “the lesson of getting into the top seat without using guns or killing people.”