MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now to one of the toughest political jobs on the planet: running Somalia. The country has suffered two decades of civil war. It has no effective central government. Last November, a new cabinet took office in the capital, Mogadishu.
And as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, it is loaded with Somali Americans who sacrificed quiet lives in the U.S. suburbs to return home.
Mr. ABDULKAREEM JAMA (Somali Minister of Information, Post and Telecommunications, Transitional Federal Government): My name is Abdulkareem Jama. I am the Somali Transitional Federal Government Minister of Information, Posts And Telecommunications. I used to work in IT management for Congressional Quarterly Press.
FRANK LANGFITT: Jama grew up in Mogadishu before the war, when it was a beautiful, seaside city. Like many Somalis, he left, eventually settling in Northern Virginia. One day, Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed asked him to join Somalia's transitional government.
Mr. JAMA: I told my wife, and she thought I was nuts.
LANGFITT: But they talked it over and decided he should return and try to make a difference. Jama is one of eight Somali Americans in a cabinet of 19. Their task is overwhelming. Foreign Policy magazine rates Somalia the world's most failed state. Transparency International calls it the most corrupt.
Jama says the new government is trying to change that, beginning here at the port of Mogadishu.
(Soundbite of ocean waves)
LANGFITT: Ships arrive each day carrying cars, televisions and emergency food. But the port had never collected more than $900,000 a month in taxes because of graft.
Jama says the government reshuffled the port administration and, voila, monthly revenue jumped to two and a half million dollars a record.
But changing habits here is hard. Jama recently received bids on a building renovation project for $2.6 million.
Mr. JAMA: The gentleman told me that this includes my cut. I said, OK. And what exactly is that? So he said, it's a million and eighty thousand. He said, you get 40 percent, usually. I said, wow.
LANGFITT: Jama says the government will consider the bid, minus the kickback.
Moving to Mogadishu has turned Jama's life upside down. He used to live in a four-bedroom, red brick colonial. Now, he sleeps in a walled compound, guarded by soldiers with machine guns.
Mr. JAMA: Our view here is the Indian Ocean, which is really nice. And when you open the window, you get a good breeze.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
LANGFITT: And the steady sound of mortar and rifle fire.
(Soundbite of explosions)
LANGFITT: Two decades of violence have left Mogadishu in ruins. Mohamed, the new prime minister, left in the 1980s. He returned last fall from the suburbs of Buffalo, where he worked for the New York State Department of Transportation.
Mr. MOHAMED ABDULLAHI MOHAMED (Prime Minister, Somalia): After 20 years of civil war, I could not recognize the areas that I grew up because of the destruction.
LANGFITT: Have you been back to your old house?
Mr. MOHAMED: No. No.
LANGFITT: Where is your old house?
Mr. MOHAMED: My old house is where Al-Shabab controls now.
LANGFITT: So if you went there, what would happen?
Mr. MOHAMED: You know, I'm worrying about where I am right now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LANGFITT: Al-Shabab is a ruthless group of Islamist insurgents who are affiliated with al-Qaida. They're trying to topple the government here and create a strict Islamic state.
The main thing standing between the government and collapse are 8,000 African Union troops. But Mohamed says the government is continuing to build its own force to provide security.
Mr. MOHAMED: We mobilized our troops and boost their morale and pay salary, which has not happened before, and give them a sense of purpose.
LANGFITT: In fact, government soldiers are routinely accused of robbing people in the streets and selling ammunition to the enemy.
E.J. Hogendorn works for the International Crisis Group, which monitors Somalia. He says Mohamed and his cabinet are the most technocratic the country has ever seen. But he says they lack the political skills to rally Mogadishu's various factions and effect real change.
Mr. E.J. HOGENDOORN (Director, Horn of Africa; International Crisis Group): You need to have a constituency, and you need to know your constituency quite well. And, I mean, I hate to say it, but if you're from the Somali diaspora and you've been living in Buffalo for 20 years, you really don't have those contacts with people on the ground.
LANGFITT: Americans aren't the only ones returning to try to help Somalia.
Mr. MOHAMOUD NUR (Mayor, Mogadishu): OK. My name is Mohamoud Nur. I'm the mayor of Mogadishu. Before I took this job, five months ago, I lived in London.
LANGFITT: One of the things the new mayor has done here in Mogadishu is put in street lights. And I'm driving at night in an armored personnel carrier through the streets, and sure enough, there are a bunch of fluorescent lights along some of the buildings. And, in fact, there are people out and about. Even though it's well after dark, there are a bunch of people walking up and down the street.
Earlier this month, Nur tried to hold a cultural festival with singing and dancing.
Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)
LANGFITT: After so much carnage, he wanted to cheer people up. It didn't work out that way. A pickup truck pulled up with a machine gun on the back and opened fire on the crowd.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
LANGFITT: A Somali reporter captured the sound. Four people were killed, 16 wounded. The government arrested Mohamed Dheere, Mogadishu's former mayor, a powerful warlord and political spoiler.
Prime Minister Mohamed says this marks a new era of accountability.
Mr. MOHAMED: We are investigating who did and what. And definitely, we will bring them to justice.
LANGFITT: This is yet another test for an administration that has little legitimacy with the people of Mogadishu. Somalia's government wasn't elected, but created by a peace process. And its mandate ends in August.
E.J. Hogendoorn says unless it shows real progress by then, the United States should pull its support and look elsewhere for a solution to Somalia.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.