Monday, December 04, 2006

Ex-Marine Mohamed Abdi (left) with US Senator Barrack Obama is slated to kick-off his
bid to become a member of Kenyan parliament Minneapolis, MN (HOL) -

Ex-Marine Mohamed Abdi focused on Congressman-elect(Minnesota) Keith Ellison’s campaign for the past several months, all the while making important national and international connections for his own bid to the Kenyan parliament.

Ellison is paying back the favor. He was a keynote speaker at a fundraising event on Saturday, where dozens of Abdi’s friends in the Marines and others from around the world pledged to support him financially and morally.

In the words of one attendee, it was a “mini United Nations gathering in Minneapolis for the sake of a man who vies to represent Mandera,” a small town in the porous border between Somalia and Kenya, in the elite-dominated Kenyan parliament.

Abdi, who moved to the U.S in 1995, resembles the United Nations in many ways. He grew up in the Somali-inhabited Northeastern region (NFD) in Kenya.

He’s fluently multilingual in English, Swahili and Somali. He’s a dual U.S and Kenyan citizen, who can probably easily obtain a Somali citizenship.

Frustrated with the lack of infrastructural development and acute corruption in his native Mandera East, where he visits once a year, Abdi decided “enough is enough.”

He’s running against an experienced incumbent, Honourable Shaaban Ali Issack,the current Member of Kenyan Parliament, a Kenyan government Assistant Minister of Local Government incharge of urban authorities Councils)...

who dazzles his opponents with cash and connections—two key ingredients to easy reelection in that part of the world. By all accounts, Abdi says he’s mindful of the nasty battle ahead.

Nothing in Abdi’s simple upbringing, which was marked with pinching poverty, foretells what was in store for him.

Gaunt and tall, the 30-year old Abdi served in the Marines for eight years, setting his foot in places he never dreamed of: Japan, Australia, Bahrain and Kuwait .

“One day, I was driving in downtown Tokyo and I hoped it was Mandera,” he recalled. “But if wishes were horses, beggars could ride.”

He’s hauling his wife and two kids back to Kenya at the end of November to kick off his bid to become a member of the Kenyan parliament (MP), which’s one of the most handsomely compensated parliaments in the world, despite being a poor nation.

A bright-eyed Abdi insists he’s not motivated by that, but to fix what he calls a “chronic corruption.” Indeed, Kenya is one of the most corrupted nation on earth.

American experience helpful?

Realistically, Abdi is no match for the notorious corruption apparatus in Kenya, but he feels that his American experience grants him a unique prospective that could appeal for voters come election day in December of 2007.

“People are elected for being different,” he said. “And I offer a completely different approach—an American education and experience.”

That’s a degree in Human Resources Management, eight years in the Marines and five eventful months mobilizing new voters for Keith Ellison’s successful bid to Congress.

Indeed, Ellison’s primary victory over fellow Democrats, which was crucial to his general election victory, was in part credited to an unprecedented turnout by Somali immigrants in south Minneapolis. Abdi was the Muslim and youth volunteer coordinator for Ellison’s campaign.

“You’ve the chance to put your hopes to merit by supporting Abdi,” Ellison told the Saturday crowd, as he extolled Abdi. “I’ve seen him working very hard for months.”

“Make investment in a better world by helping this young man become [an MP] in Kenya.”

While door-knocking for Ellison on Sept. 11, a day before the primary, Abdi was put to the test. After gawking at him, a man told him that he can’t believe that a person named Mohamed is telling him to vote, particularly on Sept. 11, the fifth anniversary of a day when fellow Muslims slammed planes into U.S buildings.

Chagrined but subtle, Abdi revealed to the man, who worked for the Postal Service, that he spent eight years in the Marines, defending this country. The man apologized.

Though Abdi doesn’t expect like that episode in his native Mandera, he says he’s harnessing campaign tricks he learned while working with Ellison.

Pioneering American campaign techniques in Kenya

Abdi launched a campaign website that’s likely to remain uneventful, since electricity is scarce in Mandera, let alone internet connection. But he could well be the first candidate in a Kenyan parliamentary election to pioneer the idea.

What’s surely pioneering, however, is the picture on the front page of his website, which shows him with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a son of a Kenyan immigrant, and Democratic virtuoso believed to be running for president in 2008.

Another presidential hopeful that Abdi met with is Raila Odinga, who was here last month to stump Kenyans in Minnesota. Odinga, who hails from the same Luo tribe that Obama’s father hails from, is considered a front-runner for the top job in Kenya.

As slick as that sounds, Abdi says he learned to strike a balance between his American experience and his native ambitions.

People in Mandera wouldn’t be flattered to learn of his big connections, if that would strip him of the local edge that his success hinges on. So, he discounts the big connections, tactfully changing subjects to starvation in Northeastern (NFD) Kenya.

“The past two administrations ignored NFD,” he said.

The current president of Kenya, he added, was recently vacationing in a cozy resort, spending thousands of dollars, while people in that region were dying from starvation.

In a fundraising event earlier this year, Abdi and colleagues from NFD collected over $50,000 and sent a container of food and medicine to alleviate starvation.

Big support here, but no votes

Hundreds of NFD citizens live in the U.S, but it’s illegal to cast an absentee ballot in Kenyan politics. If elected, Abdi hopes to introduce the absentee ballot in the parliament.

But that’s hardly the only thing he craves to take away from American politics.

For the first time, he would like to debate his opponent on the only radio station in the area. “If he doesn’t show up, I’ll,” Abdi says of his opponent. He also wants to utilize the grassroots campaign concept he learned in Mandera. (do you think Hon Shaaban will face him on a talk-show anyway)

I’ll be knocking doors, delivering speeches at schools and mosques,” he said. “I’ll even speak to camel herders who gather beneath trees.”

In fact, those camel herders are often the clan elders who serve as the tribe’s endorsement caucus.

With no newspapers to woo an endorsement for, Abdi, whose mother herded three cows to raise him and six siblings, says he will cajole those elders for now. But he hopes to transform their approach in the future by challenging them on the demerits of clan politics. By his admission, that’s a daunting task.

“I’d like to ask [the clan elders] what has the clan system done for you?” he said. “Why are your schools performing so bad?”

As foreign as his campaign sounds, Abdi says the issues he wants to tackle are mundane to American voters: education, healthcare and infrastructure.

One thing that would totally change for his two U.S-born children, Abdi jokes, is that their favorite Chicken Nuggets meal at McDonalds will be replaced by Camel Nuggets

Asked of what he’ll do if he doesn’t get elected, Abdi said: “I’ll become a hero or zero.”