Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s Trip to Minneapolis

I had a trip to make last week and another coming up this week, so I’m falling behind somewhat on blogging. But important things have been going on. In particular I’m frustrated that various commitments are preventing me from writing more about Mali. Public commentary on that country’s crisis has begun to really upset me, especially commentary that seems to celebrate violence.

Anyways. Today I have a quick point to make about Somalia, whose (relatively) new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud visited the United States last week. On January 17 Hassan Sheikh met with President Barack Obama and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, and (separately) with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After the latter meeting, Clinton announced that the US government had official recognized the government of Somalia, the first time Washington has done so for any government in Mogadishu since 1991. Hassan Sheikh also spoke at a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies – you can watch the video here.

The US recognition of Somalia’s government was, in one sense, the big news of the trip. But what struck me most was that on January 18, President Hassan Sheikh traveled to Minnesota, where he addressed the Somali diaspora community there (Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community in the US).

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called on Somalis living in Minnesota to help rebuild their war-torn homeland.

Mohamud spoke to about 4,000 people late Friday night at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Although most of his speech was in Somali, he said in English that it was, “the beginning of a new foundation.”

Semhar Araia attended the event and collected her reactions and photographs here; I highly recommend reading/viewing them.

The trip struck me not because it is surprising but because it is unsurprising. Two data points don’t necessarily make a pattern, but let’s recall that the previous president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, toured Somali diaspora communities in the US in 2009, visiting Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, home to another sizable Somali community. Sheikh Sharif was the first Somali president to make such a trip, and it is noteworthy that Hassan Sheikh is building on this precedent. One reason, of course, is that the Somali diaspora is a critical source of money and minds for Somalia. The relationship between diaspora and homeland is also, it should be stressed, far from simple.

I am aware, in the abstract, that large-scale diasporas are reshaping our world and transforming notions of community and nation. But this emerging tradition of Somali presidents making official visits to Minneapolis makes that trend particularly vivid. In a legal sense, no part of Minnesota is part of Somalia. But in an existential sense, an important part of Hassan Sheikh’s country is in Minnesota. I would be very surprised if this is the last trip a sitting Somali president makes there.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed Visits Minneapolis, Kismayo Erupts in Violence

Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed began his US tour recently after arriving in the country for the UN General Assembly meeting last week. For the weekend Ahmed will be in Minneapolis, where he will speak with local Somalis and Somali-Americans and address students at the University of Minnesota. His tour has also included stops in Washington, DC and Columbus, OH.

Somali-Americans protest the 2008 RNC convention in St. Paul, Minnesota

Somali-Americans protest the 2008 RNC convention in St. Paul, Minnesota

Many analysts believe Ahmed hopes to attract support from the Somali diaspora:

The visit, the first ever to Minnesota by a Somali head of state, is seen as vital to both Ahmed’s attempts to unify and rebuild his country and to the local community’s desire to play a role in that.

“He has a lot to gain or lose with this trip,” said Abdisalam Adam, chairman of the board of directors of a Minneapolis mosque. “It is more than a courtesy visit. It is critical to his survival, I think.”

It is estimated that Minnesota is home to about 70,000 Somalis — most of whom live in the Twin Cities. The community is the largest concentration of Somalis in the United States.

Adam said many local Somalis maintain close ties with their homeland.

“Psychologically, many of them are connected to the country and feel the pain and loss to see how bad things have gone,” he said.

Ahmed I. Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College in St. Paul, said the president and the displaced Somalis here need each other.

“Like refugees all over the world, they are obsessed with how bad their country has gone. … So they need him in that sense. He needs them in the sense that the diaspora represents a significant part of the small, educated elite among the Somalis.”

While the Star Tribune article quoted above does not spell out the nature of the support Somalia’s president desires from his brethren abroad, it seems to me there at least three appeals Ahmed will make, explicitly or implicitly: first, for Somalis in the United States to pressure political leaders here to support him and the Transitional Federal Government; second, for Somalis here to preserve – or expand – their economic ties to Somalia; and third, for Somali communities to prevent their young men from going to the Horn and participating in jihad, a phenomenon that could substantially affect US policy in the region and potentially diminish Washington’s support for the TFG if it is seen as ineffective in the face of terrorism.

Meanwhile, the civil war in Somalia continues, with al Shabab rebels apparently blocking a challenge to their authority. After several days’ tense stand-off in the port city of Kismayo between al Shabab and rival Islamists Hizbul Islam, al Shabab appears to have gained the upper hand after fighting broke out. Ahmed will thus return to a Somalia potentially even more fragmented, but at any rate no less violent, than the one he left.