Speaking in Minneapolis, Somali president promises a new era

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2013 - 7:17 AM

Visiting the Twin Cities' Somali population after meeting with President Obama, Hassan Sheik Mohamud said his country is "ready to move on."

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About 4,000 jubilant, flag-waving Minnesota Somalis greeted their homeland's new president Friday at the Minneapolis Convention Center, hailing his vows to bring peace, stability and opportunity to the nation after a generation of chaos.

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud asked for patience in rebuilding the nation, as well as for a spirit of forgiveness among Somalia's tribal factions. Injecting a few brief words of English into his speech, he promised "a home for all Somalis."

He spoke at the end of celebratory evening of song, dance and speeches, a day after meeting President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who agreed to recognize his government, re-establishing a relationship broken since 1991.

"It's like Independence Day," said Dahir Hassan, a Minneapolis South High School teacher, referring to Somalia's independence from Italy and England in 1960. "He's bringing Somalis and Americans together. We need to build a bridge between the two countries."

Minnesota has an estimated 70,000 immigrants from Somalia, believed to be the largest concentration in the country and possibly North America.

Not all are pleased with Mohamud. Several dozen staged a raucous protest outside the convention center, saying they believed Mohamud had turned his back on promises to centralize governmental power and allowed tribal control to continue.

"I celebrated [his election], but his policies are not going the way they were supposed to," said Roda Rabi of Minneapolis, one of the protest organizers. "I wanted a fair and balanced president for all the Somali people. He has set off on the wrong foot."

But Abdi Rizak Bihi, a Minneapolis man whose nephew was killed after he went to Somalia to fight with a group the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization, said Mohamud's election and his government's international recognition indicate that Somalia is on the verge of attracting the talent and investment it desperately needs.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who drew a loud ovation when he was introduced, said the diplomatic recognition of a Somali government is historic.

"It's now time to strengthen our relationship with Somalia based on mutual interests," Ellison said.

Ellison called Mohamud the best man to lead Somalia from chaos because he is a well-respected educator and activist who remained in Somalia during its decades without a government.

"I don't think people should be blamed for leaving, but I do think people get credit for staying," Ellison said. "He always rejected warlordism."

Minnesota stands to have a visible role in Somalia under Mohamud. One of his cabinet ministers, Abdullah Elme Moge, has been a Somali immigrant advocate in the Twin Cities.

Somalia is known primarily in this country as the scene of "Black Hawk Down," the book and movie that recounted the 1993 death of 18 U.S. military personnel in a Mogadishu battle with fighters loyal to clan leader Muhammad Farah Aidid. During the ensuing years, U.S. intelligence operatives attempted to support various sides in clan warfare as an Islamist insurgent group, Al-Shabab, grew in strength.

In recent years, a U.S.-backed African military coalition has made significant strides against the extremists.

'We are ready to move on'

Political progress in Somalia appeared to catch up with military gains in September, when a newly elected parliament chose Mohamud as president, ending years of transitional governments considered ineffective and corrupt.

Mohamud said his priorities are security and judicial and financial reforms. Somalia is "very much aware of all past mistakes. We are ready to move on," he added.

Mohamud was effusive in his gratitude, noting that U.S. aid has built schools and airports and provided humanitarian assistance when Somalia was "so close to being wiped out."

"American boys and girls in uniform have sacrificed their lives to save Somali lives," he said.

The relationship with the Twin Cities community has included a dark twist. In 2007, Al-Shabab declared its allegiance to Al-Qaida. Since then, federal authorities have prosecuted some local Somalis in connection with the departure of dozens of young men to fight with Al-Shabab.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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