Macalester professor takes sabbatical to run for president -- of Somalia

Dr. Ahmed Samatar, international studies professor and former dean at Macalester, is running for president of Somalia.
Dr. Ahmed Samatar, international studies professor and former dean at Macalester, is running for president of Somalia.
screenshot from Dalmar Media interview

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Professors tend to go on sabbatical to write a book, conduct research, or just think deeply without the distractions of teaching. But Ahmed Samatar, a professor of international studies at Macalester, has taken time off from his university duties to see if he can apply his writing, researching, and thinking to life. He's running for president of Somalia.

"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," he told MPR by phone from Mogadishu, the country's capital.

Samatar left Somalia for Wisconsin as a 20-something-year-old student. Now, more than 30 years later -- plus a doctorate, five books, and two turns as a dean at Macalester -- he's back in his home country. This time, Samatar is a recently sworn member of a new parliament, the federal body that is trying to lay the framework for a stable government, and that will select a new president in coming weeks.

The nation he's returned to is a stark contrast to the academy's ivory tower. Somalia has had no working government since 1991, and remains in the grip of a decades-long civil war. Samatar is one of more than 60 presidential candidates hoping to turn things around for his country.

Many believe the professor has a shot. Saeed Fahia, director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, says that, while the incumbent president or prime minister are top prospects for the presidency, Samatar is "a great contender."

"He's well known," Fahia says. "He says what he means and he doesn't sugar coat things. In the corruption of the Somali government system, he was always trying to talk directly to Somalis."

Samatar's connections to the Twin Cities diaspora, a community of Somali immigrants and refugees more than 50,000 strong, will likely aid his political ambition. "People in Somalia see the community here as very successful," says Fahia, "and they want to be part of that success."

Samatar says he's seen those benefits. "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 told MPR. "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."

Whatever the outcome of the presidential selection, Fahia, for one, hopes Samatar stays in Somalia to serve out his four-year parliament term. "You can't just go there and say, I'm running for the highest office," Fahia says.

Samatar tells MPR that he'll eventually return to the classroom. And, of course, write his next book about his time in government, however short or long it ends up being.

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