From the beginning, many Western-educated Somalis welcomed Abdiweli Ali Gaas because he was an outsider and not part of the corrupt Somali political sphere. And who would not welcome a technocrat who holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard, a master’s degree in economics from Vanderbilt, and a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University? In a country where brain drain is at its peak because of a protracted civil war, Somalis looked favorably upon a technocrat like Gaas who was willing to return to Somalia with the hope that he would use his education for the betterment of the country.
On Jan. 8, 2014, Gaas was elected the fifth president of the Puntland State of Somalia. Since he came from a country that cherished free press, people, particularly the intellectual class, were overjoyed by Gaas’s arrival. But he did not live up to his resume in delivering the changes promised. To the contrary, Gaas has misled the public, has made free speech a crime, and has been involved in corruption. He began to tighten a suffocating grip on freedom of expression in a major crackdown that led to the arrest of numerous independent journalists, critics, and opposition voices.
The worst part is his blatant political betrayal after rallying thousands of his supporters to oppose the infamous 4.5 clan power sharing formula in Somalia. The 4.5 formula gives equal quotas to the four “major” clans and a half-quota to a coalition of “minority” clans. Because the 4.5 clan power sharing formula had been in practice for four years and had further broken the Somali people apart along clan lines, it was easy for Gaas to agitate Puntland’s 3 million inhabitants to voice their opinions in opposition to the 4.5, which was up for renewal for the next four years. As they welcomed his political message, he exploited their euphoria.
On Jan. 28, 2016, hundreds of people protested in cities like Garowe, Bosaaso, Galcayo, Qardho, and Ceyn as they waved Somali flags as well as Puntland regional flags demanding the death of the 4.5. “I will never accept 4.5,” Gaas said to the protesters.
On March 8, Gaas was welcomed in Toronto, Canada, where he rallied the crowd of hundreds of supporters. “Somalis are more than clans,” Gaas said. “Even if Ban Ki-moon comes, I will never accept the clan formula of 4.5.” He paused. “If Somalia gets the right leaders, Somalia will change,” Gaas said. “And I am telling you I am not among the right leaders.” He said this in a political move to garner trust from the audience.
The following week, Gaas stood at Minnesota’s conventional hall, where he made a moving speech in front of thousands. He dazzled the crowds, confirming his opposition to 4.5. That same week, the residents of Garacad, a remote fishing town in Puntland, awoke to an estimated 250 well-armed al-Shabab militia walking around, digging in trenches, and preparing to march toward the main cities of Puntland.
As Puntland entered a wartime crisis, Said Dheere, commander of the Puntland Defense Forces (PDF), prepared his men and local fighters for war, but Gaas stayed in Minnesota for another day. Then he flew to Washington, D.C. and gave an interview to Voice of America radio. In the interview, he contradicted his own words as he said, “I support the 4.5, but my people oppose it.” He had worked the people up against the 4.5 formula for his own political gain—a strategy to remain relevant—and only later revealed his support for the policy.
On April 3, Gaas convened U.N.’s Special Representative for Somalia Michael Keaton, Ambassador Francisco Madeira, Prime Minister of Somalia Omar Sharmarke, and other dignitaries in Garowe’s presidential palace. Without consulting either Puntland parliamentarians, who had rejected it before, or his people, Gaas signed the renewal of 4.5. Hassan Sheik, the current president of Somalia, saw the return of 4.5 as a way for him to win a second term. Gaas seemed to get along with Sheik, but if he made any monetary gain, it would be hard to trace in Somalia’s cash economy.
Repression of Dissent
According to Article 25 from Puntland Constitution, “the person can freely express his/her opinion in oral, press, writing, media, audio-visual, literature and other methods according to the law without any interference.” In direct violation of the constitution, under Gaas’s leadership, even Facebook posts became a crime. In May 2015, Gaas ordered an arrest warrant against Deperani, a journalist working for the London-based Somali Channel, for posting withering criticism on his Facebook page. The National Union of Somali Journalists joined with the Media Association for Puntland in condemning Gaas’s stifling of the journalists’ voices. His government subsequently ordered Golis Telecom Somalia, the largest telecommunication company in Puntland, to block the news media sites Puntlandnow.com, Puntlandtoday.com, and Galgalanews.com. Those sites were reporting on the reality in Puntland.
Furthermore, Gaas is suspected of misuse of public funds. When Gaas became the leader of Puntland, he implemented a taxation system, increasing Puntland’s budget from $29 million to $60 million, but PDF members and other public sector workers have not received their salaries for over a year. Commander Dheere threatened to resign if Gaas continued to lie to the public about paying the members of the armed forces. In a cash economy such as Puntland’s, money is difficult to trace. While Puntland is experiencing a severe drought and its people are in need of relief, it has been reported in Somalia that Gaas made a substantial property investment in the United States.
In November 2014, Abdirashiid Dhuubane, a well-known politician, spoke in a detailed manner about the administration’s corruption, the media restrictions, and the long-term consequences of President Gaas’s policies. Gaas ordered the arrest of Dhuubane and he was immediately arrested and remained in Puntland prison for a few nights. Gaas continued to label any dissenting voices as part of a political witch-hunt.
According to Article 56 of the Puntland Constitution, the president can be dismissed when he is accused of “direct and secret on the accusation of high treason, failure of responsibility, Constitutional abuse and other serious crimes.” By signing the 4.5 clan sharing formula, defying his words as well as his constituency, and by engaging in corrupt practices, has Gaas murdered democracy in Somalia? By examining his political footprints in a country where men like him do not face any scrutiny, one can satisfactorily argue that President Gaas had committed offenses punishable by his removal from office.
Boyah J. Farah is a writer who was born in Somalia, but grew up in the U.S. He is an adjunct professor at Bunker Hill Community College.
[Photos courtesy of Boyah J. Farah]