Mohamed Barre, who left Somalia as a young man during the civil war in the early 1990s, likened the Somaliland deal with Ethiopia to a state like California making a land deal with Mexico without agreement from the U.S. federal government.
Thursday February 8, 2024
By Abdirizak Diis and Joey Peters
An ethics complaint filed against Omar by Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer will be reviewed to determine whether it should be further investigated.
At a meeting at the University of Minnesota on August 23, 2023, Representative Ilhan Omar thanks Senator Tina Smith for her work securing funding in the Senate for environmental justice efforts. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal
Minnesota Somali community members are feeling a mixture of concern and confusion over how some Republican lawmakers easily fell for the misrepresentation of recent comments made by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Omar, a Democrat, addressed a sizable gathering of Somalis at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Minneapolis on January 27, expressing concerns about an agreement between landlocked Ethiopia and the breakaway republic of Somaliland that granted Ethiopia access to the sea.
Somaliland is located in the northwest of Somalia and is not recognized internationally as an independent country. In her speech, Omar criticized the agreement and underscored her support for the unity of Somalia as a nation.
Some Republican leaders, including Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer, called Omar’s comments “un-American” and pushed for sanctions against her. Omar’s speech addressed a geopolitical issue and gave mainstream positions in line with the U.S. State Department and the opinion of many in the Somali diaspora.
Mohamed described himself as someone who is sometimes critical of Omar, but said he agreed with the principles in her January speech.
“We stand with every Somali who will defend the land, the sea, the air and dignity of our country,” Mohamed said. “So, of course we stand with her.”
Mohamed said that the mistranslation of Omar’s speech appears to be from people who are taking advantage of the Somalia-Somaliland conflict.
A misinterpretation of her speech distributed by a Somaliland politician quickly spread online. Emmer, the House Majority Whip, filed an ethics complaint against Omar as other Republican leaders called for her censure and deportation.
“For these critics, what Ilhan said didn’t matter,” said Abdi Warfa, author of “Cries in the Hinterland: Untold Stories of the Somali Region in Ethiopia, 1948-2018.” “What mattered was that an opportunity to criticize her and her community presented itself, and they ran with it.”
Siyad Salah, director of Somali TV of Minnesota, said Omar’s critics are wasting their time on a trivial matter while ignoring their broader responsibilities.
“These are local matters and have nothing to do with betraying the American government or being a foreign agent,” Siyad said.
Siyad, who live-streamed the speech, said that Omar was speaking to her constituency to express solidarity with their feelings about the difficulties in their homeland. Whether Somalis in Minnesota hail from the north or south of Somalia, many are concerned about Ethiopia illegally occupying their home country, Siyad said.
“No one else is better suited to convey their message to the American government than Ilhan,” he said.
Local community members and leaders urged lawmakers and the public to be careful in their consumption of news, and to verify information before sharing it or responding to it.
“This misrepresentation underscores the broader challenge we face with media sensationalism and the dissemination of misinformation, compelling us, as leaders, to prioritize truth and integrity in our political dialogue,” said Faisal Deri, a member of the Minnesota Republican Party’s state central committee. “It is time for a paradigm shift in political engagement, where depth, integrity, and the meticulous verification of information, especially in the face of language translation challenges, are valued above sensationalism and opportunistic tactics.”
Warfa, who is Somali and an assistant professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, said the incident harms the local Somali community’s trust in government.
“Unfortunately, the disregard for what is fact and the use of fiction and generated controversies is becoming commonplace,” he said. “It leaves you disheartened and disillusioned with today’s politics.”
Warfa emphasized that historical context is missing from the debate, and that Omar’s remarks align with U.S. interests.
The current Somalia-Ethiopia conflict Omar addressed is “directly tied to U.S. security interests and global peace,” he said.
Emmer filed an ethics complaint against Omar, describing her speech as “Somalia-first” and “anti-American.” Separately, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, introduced a resolution to censure Omar, and Florida Governor and former Republican Presidential candidate Ron DeSantis called for Omar to be deported from the country.
“No sitting member of Congress should be able to blatantly spew anti-American rhetoric and get away with it,” Emmer posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Emmer’s office did not return multiple messages seeking comment about the incident. Omar’s office also did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
The ethics complaint is in its early stages. As of press time, the U.S. House Committee on Ethics had not yet decided whether Emmer’s complaint warranted an investigation.
The majority of attendees at Omar’s January speech originally hail from Somalia’s Puntland region. Saeed Abdullahi Deni, president of the Puntland region, was recently reelected to a second term in office.
Omar’s speech was translated and posted on X by Rhoda Jama Elmi, the deputy foreign affairs minister of Somaliland. Two parts of Rhoda’s translation of the speech triggered the backlash. The first part misquoted Omar as saying that Somalis are an “organized society” and that “they are Somalians first.”
The second part of the misinterpretation quoted Omar as saying that the United States “will only do what Somalians in the United States tell them to do,” and that they “must follow our orders” to safeguard “the interests of Somalia.” It inaccurately said she told attendees she was there to protect Somalia’s interests from “inside the United States’ political system.”
Multiple Somali language speakers—two journalists and an author—who translated and reviewed Omar’s speech for Sahan Journal said Rhoda’s translation was inaccurate, left out context from her speech, and added new language that Omar did not say in her speech.
According to the translated version that Sahan Journal reviewed, the first part of Omar’s speech accurately translates to the following:
“As Somali people, we are people who love each other. We might have some disagreements, but when things get real, we are people who have each other’s backs. We are brothers and sisters, courageous people, and people who know they are Somalis and Muslims, and support each other and their brethren.”
The second part of the speech accurately translates to the following:
“When we heard the other day that some Somali people—or who claim to be Somalis—signed an agreement with Ethiopia, many people called me and said to me, ‘Ilhan, you should talk to the U.S. government. What’s the U.S. government going to do about this?
My answer was that the U.S. government would do what we ask it to do. We should have this kind of confidence in ourselves as Somalis. We live in this country, we are taxpayers. This is the country where one of your own is sitting in Congress. As long as I am in Congress, no one can take Somalia’s sea, and the U.S. government won’t support others to rob us. Don’t stress over it, Minnesotans.”
Omar defended herself in a series of social media posts after news of her speech spread.
“It’s not only slanted but completely off,” she said in a January 28 post on X, “but I wouldn’t expect more from these propagandists. I pray for them and for their sanity.”
She added that no nation can survive if an unrecognized government within its borders negotiates leasing land with other countries without the consent of its federal government.
“Somalis in Somalia and in the diaspora are united in that effort and I stand in solidarity with them,” Omar continued in her post.
Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991 after the Somali government collapsed due to civil war. Somaliland, which self-governs, holds elections and is relatively peaceful, hasn’t been successful in gaining international recognition.
According to the U.S. State Department, “The United States recognizes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia within its 1960 borders in accordance with the Somali provisional constitution, which includes Somaliland and Puntland.”
On January 1, Somaliland President Muse Bihi entered a memorandum of understanding with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that grants landlocked Ethiopia a 50-year lease to use coastal land for its own interests.
Under the agreement, Ethiopia will use a 20-mile stretch of Somalia as a naval base and develop a seaport for imports. In return, Ethiopia will recognize Somaliland as an independent state.
Several countries and governing bodies condemned the agreement, including Somalia, the United States, the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-country trade bloc in East Africa.
Omar’s speech highlighted the potentially devastating effects Ethiopia’s actions could have on U.S. national interests and security, Warfa said.
The Gulf of Aden is a major international trade route tied to U.S. national security, he said, and Omar’s position is consistent with the U.S. policy of recognizing a unified Somalia.
He added that Omar spoke to the potential political leverage Somali Americans have in influencing U.S. foreign policy.
“As a Minnesotan, home to a large Somali-American community, it’s what is expected of her — to speak out on issues that matter to her constituency.” Warfa said.
Nimco Ahmed, a Somali activist from Minneapolis, offered similar thoughts. To her, the nature of Omar’s speech was no different from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks in Israel following the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack in Israel when he said, “I come before you not only as the United States secretary of state, but also as a Jew.”
“Somalis are united when it comes to protecting our native land,” Nimco said. “Whether we are Somali Americans, Somali Canadians, or Somali Norwegians, no Somali will ever allow any foreign country to take an inch of our land or our waters, period.”
Ethics complaint in early stages
Conservatives who reacted to the mistranslation of Omar’s speech pounced on the “Somalians first” phrase, condemning it as unpatriotic.
Emmer said on X that he was requesting an ethics investigation into Omar’s “appalling, Somalia-first comments.”
Emmer’s complaint, sent on January 31 to the House Committee on Ethics, characterized Omar’s “shocking remarks” as “expressing allegiance to the interests of Somalia, the failed state and terrorist stronghold.”
Emmer alleges in his complaint that Omar’s statements broke a Congressional rule that requires all members to “behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect credibility on the House.”
“Her remarks suggest a disregard for her oath of office in a manner that is unbecoming of an American elected official, reflect poorly on the United States House of Representatives and is a slap in the face to the Minnesotans she represents,” Emmer wrote. “Such behavior is not immune from review of your committee for compliance with our internal ethical standards.”
“It was particularly disappointing to see his disregard for the facts, and for what, scoring cheap political shots?” Warfa said of Emmer’s comments about Omar. “It was particularly disappointing because Somali-Americans who call Minnesota home are among the constituents Representative Emmer is supposed to represent. His comments were nothing short of ‘a slap in the face’ of this community which he clearly disdains.”
The ethics committee is made up equally of Democrats and Republicans. Its chair, Representative Michael Guest, R-Mississippi, and its ranking member, Representative Susan Wild, D-Pennsylvania, have five legislative days or 14 calendar days—whichever happens quicker—from the date the complaint was filed to decide whether it meets the committee’s rules of how complaints are defined.
If both members deem that the complaint meets committee rules, they have five legislative days or 45 calendar days—whichever comes later—to determine whether the complaint should be investigated. During this time, the respondent—in this case Omar—has 30 days to offer their side of the story.
At the end of this period, the chair and ranking member can decide whether to proceed with an investigation or to dismiss the complaint. Moving forward with a complaint would include establishing a subcommittee to conduct an investigation. The subcommittee can take a year to investigate, and if it concludes that a member of Congress engaged in wrongdoing, it can make recommendations to the ethics committee, which can then recommend an action to the full Congress.
Sanctions can be ordered by a majority vote in Congress, and can include fines and reprimands and censure—which are statements of disapproval. Fines usually apply when a member of Congress is found to have used their public office for personal benefit. Congress can also decide to expel one of its members, which is rare.
Sahan Journal reporter Hibah Ansari contributed to this story.
Ihan Omar’s January 27 speech
Below is the translated version of Omar’s speech. This translation was completed by three Somali professionals from Minnesota to ensure its accuracy, and was reviewed by Ahmed Ismail Yussuf, author of the book, “The Lion’s Binding Oath.”
As Somali people, we are people who love each other. We might have some disagreements, but when things get real, we are people who have each other’s backs. We are brothers and sisters, courageous people, and people who know they are Somalis and Muslims, and support each other and their brethren.
When we heard the other day that some Somali people—or who claim to be Somalis—signed an agreement with Ethiopia, many people called me and said to me, “Ilhan, you should talk to the U.S. government. What’s the U.S. government going to do about this?
My answer was that the U.S. government would do what we ask it to do. We should have this kind of confidence in ourselves as Somalis. We live in this country, we are taxpayers. This is the country where one of your own is sitting in Congress. As long as I am in Congress, no one can take Somalia’s sea, and the U.S. government won’t support others to rob us. Don’t stress over it, Minnesotans.
Your congresswoman is in the loop and empathizes with your concerns.
And for [Somalia] President Hassan [Sheikh Mohamud], I would like to tell him that we’re pleased with the great work you have done in reassuring Somalis at home and those living elsewhere.
Despite all the challenges we face as Somali people, we are courageous people, we are people who believe in their country, and we are people who won’t allow anyone to endanger their country.
So, I congratulate Somalis in Minnesota and Somalis everywhere on how united you are and how you all stood by your president because he needs all of our support.
Somalia belongs to Somalis, Somalia is one. We are all brothers and sisters, and our land will not be divided. We have had territories taken away from us, and we will get them, Insha’Allah. But the land we have now will not be divided.
Thank you all for how you always welcome and honor me. May Allah honor you in the same way.