Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses a nearly packed auditorium at the Minneapolis Convention Center on December 15, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addressed a nearly packed auditorium Thursday evening at the Minneapolis Convention Center, praising the resilience of the Somali people and vowing to combat religious extremism abroad. 

About 300 community members turned out to see Hassan, who appeared onstage just before 11 p.m. The president spoke for approximately 40 minutes in Somali without an English translator, eliciting cheers from attendees who waved mini-versions of the Somali flag throughout the festive, hours-long event that also drew local political leaders.

Hassan pledged to help create Somali consulates in areas of the United States with large Somali populations.

“Tonight, I want to promise Minnesota’s Somali community that we will open a consulate here in Minnesota,” he said. 

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Minnesota boasts the largest Somali community outside of Africa. More than 73,000 foreign- and native-born Somali people live in the state, according to U.S. Census data from 2020 and a report from Minnesota Compass, a demographics research organization.

Hassan also spoke about curbing the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia, and about creating designated spaces for mosques and Islamic education in the country. Hassan said his administration now understands how al-Shabaab misuses religion. He called for a future that is “post-Shabaab.”

“Al-Shabaab is like a fish that has been starved without its water. Can it still survive?” Hassan said. 

“No!” audience members shouted back.

Hassan touched on the strength of the Somali diaspora, and people’s ability to find community all over the world after fleeing the country’s civil war.

“These are the same people who were fighting between clans back home,” he said in his speech. “This is evidence for the fact that Somalis can never break up or leave each other behind.”

Several attendees wore bright blue baseball caps emblematic of the Somali flag, which features a single white star in the middle of a light blue background. One man walked in with the flag tied around his neck like a cape.

The auditorium slowly filled up throughout the evening with attendees wearing the blue baseball caps and blue headscarves with white stars. Enthusiastic attendees, dozens of whom arrived seven hours before the president took the stage, waved small Somali flags in the air as music played over the speakers.

Anisa Ahmed, who attended the speech, has lived in Minneapolis since she was three. She said she’s only recently become more connected with Somali politics. Hearing Hassan encourage Somali youth to one day return to Somali and give back to their home country was inspiring, Anisa said. 

“It’s not an Islamic movement,” Anisa said of al-Shabaab. “It has nothing to do with our religion. He found the tactics for how to stop them.”

Minneapolis resident Farhiyo Mohamed said many Somalis are afraid to visit home is because of security issues.

“In the last six months, he has achieved so much in terms of fighting terrorrism,” Farhiyo said after hearing Hassan speak. “It’s not just a fight of guns, but also a fight of ideology. He has energized the whole country.”

Hassan encouraged Somali youth to prepare for a modernized version of Somalia. 

“Prepare to return to your home country, even if it’s just when you have a break or holiday, or when it’s extremely cold like this,” Hassan said, joking about the snowstorm that hit the Twin Cities upon his arrival. “I’m sure the parents [and older generation] will return. But we’re hoping the youth will, too.”

The program began at 8:30 p.m. with an opening speech, a recitation from the Qur’an, and the Somali national anthem. The president arrived at around 10:40 p.m.

A few event organizers, Somali government officials, and local community leaders gave short speeches thanking the president for his visit and for denouncing al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is al-Qaida’s largest, wealthiest, and most deadly affiliate, the U.S. State Department reported in March

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar arrived with Hassan and gave a short speech. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis City Council Member Jamal Osman also attended the event. Frey spoke briefly, speaking in Somali at times.

“It is a great honor to have you here in Minneapolis,” Frey said to Hassan. “This should indeed be a home away from home. This is your city. This is our city.”

Singers and dancers from a troupe with the Somali Museum of Minnesota also performed prior to the president’s arrival.

Ali Elmi, a Minneapolis resident, said he attended the event to support the president and the Somali government because of their ability to curb al-Shabaab’s influence. 

“Some of my family, where they live, it was controlled by the terrorists of al-Shabaab. Now they’re not controlling it anymore,” Ali said. “I’m feeling good. In the future I can go back to visit. Before it was hard.”

Fartun Hayir, 26, a student at the University of Minnesota, volunteered at the event. The Minnetonka resident said she was excited to hear the president speak, which has been on her bucket list. 

“I hear a lot of times that there aren’t that many opportunities there,” Fartun said of life in Somalia. “A good quality of life isn’t found there like it is here. So I want to hear what he’s willing to do to make people that are living in Somalia have a better day-to-day life.”

Hassan’s Minnesota visit comes after his attendance at the U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Joe Biden in Washington D.C. Nearly 50 heads of state from Africa attended the summit from December 13 through 15.

Hassan served as president of Somalia from 2012 to 2017, and won another term in May 2022. He last visited Minneapolis in 2014.

Community members wave the Somali flag and gather at the Minneapolis Convention Center to hear Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud speak on Thursday, December 15, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Minneapolis-based social justice organization Civic Ark, said he was appointed by the government of Somalia to host the Minneapolis event. 

“The community has been waiting to see the Somali president because the last five years the president didn’t come to Minnesota,” Hashi said prior to the president’s arrival. “We have concerns about what is going on in Somalia—about the war, the violent extremists who want to destroy our home.”

Hassan was elected in September 2012 by Somalia’s parliament in the first election held in the country since the 1960’s. He visited the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium during his term in 2014 and gave a speech urging the Somali community in Minnesota not to raise money for al-Shabaab. Hassan called on parents to keep their children away from the group.

“Somalis in Minnesota, you should also play your part,” Hassan said in his 2014 speech. “The enemy that is in [Somalia] is also in here. Keep your children safe.”

About a hundred or so protesters gathered outside the auditorium in 2014 and denounced Hassan’s visit, calling the president tribalist and corrupt. 

“If we fall down, do not criticize us, but cheer us up,” Hassan said in 2014. “If you ridicule us whenever we fall down, we may not move forward.”

Hassan’s visit in 2014 also followed the last U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit. The summit was hosted by then–President Barack Obama to promote trade and investment in Africa. 

This year’s summit included discussions about health, food scarcity, climate change, civil unrest, and space exploration. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Hassan; Ismail Omar Guelleh, the President of Djibouti; and Mohamed Bazoumon, the President of Niger; on the first morning of the summit. The leaders discussed the countries’ efforts to strengthen defense and counter violent extremism.

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Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...