When Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud speaks Saturday at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium, he’s expected to address thousands of Somali-Americans about a host of topics: the current situation in their homeland, his political plans for the country, the community’s political involvement here in Minnesota, and the opportunities for developmental partnerships between the state and Somalia.
But even amid the pomp of presidential visit, Mohamud is expected to encounter a community divided over his arrival. As some in the community prepare for a major welcome during the president’s 2-day stay in Minneapolis, others plan to protest his visit over allegations of clan favoritism and creating division among different regions in Somalia. Indeed, the president will face many Somali-Americans who say they’re disappointed in his leadership given the renewed political tensions in Somalia, corruption allegations and increased security threats in Mogadishu.
A longtime peace activist and educational champion, Mohamud ascended to prominence two years ago when he became president by securing a majority vote from members of the Somali parliament.
Mohamud, 59, defeated a pool of political heavyweight Somali-American candidates, including longtime Minnesota resident Ahmed Samatar, a leading scholar on Somalia and a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Since he took office in 2012, though, Mohamud has been battling mounting political and social challenges in a country engulfed by decades of war, anarchy and famine.
In recent years, a rebel group, Al-Shabab, has exposed his administration’s vulnerability as the Al-Qaeda-linked cell intensified attacks on government centers, increased suicide bombing on populated areas and targeted killing of government officials. All with little or no resistance from government forces.
Last month, Al-Shabab fighters attacked the presidential palace compound in Mogadishu, engaging government forces in a gunfight that left 14 dead. This year alone, the group has killed four government officials, including Saado Ali Warsame, an internationally renowned singer from Minnesota who was recently shot and killed in Mogadishu.
Despite the ongoing unrest in the region, Mohamud has claimed that Al-Shabab is losing the battle, and he sees reasons for optimism and hope. Speaking on Al-Shabab’s recent attacks, Mohamud told CNN: “This is a sign of defeat. It’s not sign of strength. They cannot confront … the joint operation of Somalia national army and the African Union mission. So they changed the tactic and make it asymmetrical urban warfare.”
Mohamud also noted that his government is working on rebuilding the country’s formal institutions, which have essentially gone extinct since the civil war erupted in 1991. “In two years’ time, we reversed the whole thing, the whole situation in Somalia,” he told CNN. “We have financial institutions that we are now building in collaboration with the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the IMF.”
For many years, one side of Africa’s story has been told repeatedly in western countries: Conflict. Poverty. Disease. Famine.
But at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Barack Obama this week, which Mohamud attended, stories of entrepreneurship, investment and development outnumbered the challenges the continent faces, including the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and raging conflicts in parts of the continent.
Speaking at the summit Monday, President Obama said: “Even as Africa continues to face enormous challenges … we cannot lose sight of the new Africa that’s emerging. [Africa has] some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, a growing middle class, expanding sectors like manufacturing and retail, one of the fastest-growing telecommunications markets in the world … It is the youngest and fastest-growing continent, with young people that are full of dreams and ambition.”
Like his counterpart, President Mohamud told CNN that his country isn’t seeking mere handouts, but investment and business partnerships in the west. “What we are looking [for] right now is investment,” he said. “It’s not in a show of grants and donations only.”
On Saturday at Northrop Auditorium, Mohamud is expected to deliver a similar message.