Professor leaves ivory tower to run for president of Somalia


Ahmed Samatar has been thinking about Somalia for more than 35 years, ever since he left the country to attend the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in his 20s.

A leading scholar on Somalia, he's written five books and dozens of articles about the affairs of his homeland, often with a critical eye toward its government.

After spending so much time thinking, Samatar has decided to act, leaving the ivory tower for an unusual assignment: He's running for president.

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Samatar, an international studies professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, has taken a sabbatical to play a part in a new era as Somalia lays the groundwork for what many hope will be a lasting stable government.

"Thinking and doing have always been part of each other," he said from the capital city of Mogadishu. "The moment has arrived in which I, too, would like to see if my own ideas can be planted on the soil of Somali politics, and might be therefore able to have the Somali community move beyond war, chaos, famine, and corruption."

Samatar is widely seen as one of the most serious contenders in the presidential race. But his political ambitions surprised his own peers, including his younger brother Abdi Samatar, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

Earlier this month, the elder Samatar, the former Macalester dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship, was sworn into Somalia's new federal parliament. That same parliament will select a new president in the coming weeks. But the process has been rife with allegations of vote-buying and other signs of corruption.

"The Somalis are like bees... When they smell honey, or flowers, everybody comes."

Meanwhile, the field of candidates has grown to more than 60.

"The Somalis are like bees," Samatar said. "When they smell honey, or flowers, everybody comes."

The Somali people will have no direct say in who becomes the next president, in part because the country is still mired in a decades-long civil war. The nation hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, and some doubt that the current political changes will lead to any kind of lasting peace.

"The last 25 years have given the rest of the world, and many Somalis, [a sense] that maybe history is written forever for the Somalis -- and the best they can hope for is to become the Haiti of Africa," Samatar said. "But there is the other side that says that there is nothing eternal about this condition, and that if Somalis are getting new leadership that is ethical and legitimate -- and competent -- then I think a new dawn will probably come."

If elected, Samatar plans to harness his connections in Minnesota and the rest of the United States to bridge the gap between Somalia and the West. He said Minnesota is home to nonprofits, colleges, talent, and an abundance of collective goodwill that can help bring Somalis out of poverty and chaos.

Samatar said people inside Mogadishu have heard all about Minnesota, and the success of the Somali-American community here.

"When I tell people I've been living in the United States, and that I'm from Minneapolis-St. Paul, there's a certain glow in the faces of the people," he said. "There's a sense of fate, that the Twin Cities are directly connected to Somali society. And it's helped me gain better access to the communities and families in Somalia."

While Samatar is considered a top candidate, many observers think the election will go toward either the incumbent president or prime minister.

Like Samatar, most of the presidential candidates are Somalis who have spent the past several years living outside the nation's borders, said Abdi Aynte, a Somali-American journalist based in Qatar.

"That's because people from the diaspora are thought to have better education, better access, and better understanding of the world system, and maybe that's one way they have better credibility within the country," he said.

Aynte said Samatar is an unusual candidate because he's running on a political party platform. Most other candidates, Aynte said, are appealing to their clans for support, and have failed to articulate a nationalist vision in a way that Samatar has.

Even if Samatar loses the election, Anyte said, the Minnesota professor is still planting the seeds of democracy. He said that as a member of Parliament, Samatar can still bring about important legislation — but only if he sticks around to serve out his four-year term.

"I think Professor Samatar and other civic forces stand at a critical juncture, where if they cut and run away if they don't make progress in the election, it's going to be a loss for the Somali people," Aynte said. "What they need to do is stay in the system, to be advocates from within, and introduce changes and lead the change because they have the capacity, the education, and the ability to convince and win friends."

For his part, Samatar said he misses Macalester, his Highland Park neighborhood, and the rigors of academic life. Win or lose, he said he'll one day come back to the classroom and tell his students about his incredible journey. He also plans to write all about it in his next book.