Ilhan Omar stirs up controversy in the Horn of Africa, local media ignores

Here we go again. The congresswoman from Minnesota (representing the 5th district–Minneapolis and nearby suburbs) has stirred up another international controversy. And, as always, local media show little interest.

[Update: four days late, the Minneapolis Star Tribune limps in with a “fact check” that reaches no conclusions about the event.]

Apparently, Ilhan Omar gave a speech at the downtown Minneapolis Hyatt hotel on Saturday, where she speaks in her native Somali language to a Somali-ethnic local audience. The video, and an accompanying translation, circulating on Twitter (X) can be found here, among other places.

For her part, Rep. Omar doesn’t dispute the authenticity of the video (which runs for 3 min. and 18 sec.), but she challenges the translation, spelling, and interpretation of her remarks.

To understand the various controversies imbedded in the 3+ minutes of video requires a review of the last 150 years of history and geography of the Horn of Africa region.

The current Republic of Somalia sits at the eastern edge of the continent and features a long shoreline bordering the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, across from Arabia.

To grossly oversimplify, the current Republic of Somalia achieved independence in 1960 and united two former colonies, one British and one Italian. The former British colony lies in the north, mostly along the Gulf. The former Italian colony lies in the south and east along the Indian Ocean and hosts the federal capital of Mogadishu.

In 1991, during the Somali civil war, the western part of the former British colony unilaterally declared independence as the Republic of Somaliland.

This breakaway province is conducting its own independent foreign policy.

The nation of Somalia borders three other nations: the formerly French Djibouti to the northwest along the Gulf, the landlocked and formerly Italian Ethiopia to the west, and the formerly British Kenya to the southwest along the Indian Ocean.

All three neighbors host significant Somali minorities, either native or refugee/immigrants. A large Somali-majority province sits in the east of Ethiopia. This Ethiopian subdivision is named the Somali Regional State and its provincial capital is named JigJiga.

To recap: the Republic of Somalia contains the breakaway province Republic of Somaliland and borders the Ethiopian province of the Somali Regional State.

[The belated Star Tribune piece does add one detail: the Saturday event at the Hyatt was held to celebrate a recent election in the Somali province of Puntland, which borders the disputed Somaliland province.]

The breakaway province of Somaliland has unilaterally agreed with the nation of Ethiopia to allow Ethiopia to build a naval base on the Somalian Gulf Coast.

At the beginning of the video (from 0:25 to 1:00), this is the agreement that Omar is complaining about. She sides with the federal government in this dispute. Somaliland partisans and the Somaliland government disagree with her on this point.

Omar herself points to a different translation of her remarks, embedded in this Twitter (X) post. This rendition is not synced to the video and omits the verbatim transcription of her stumbles and asides. This alternative summary offers a softer tone, but is entirely consistent with the content shown in the video.

For conservatives, the trouble starts at the 1:00 mark. Here Omar appears to frame her role as advocating for the federal Somali government and Somali diaspora to the U.S. government. At the 1:19 mark the translation reads,

The US is a country where one of your daughters (myself) is in congress to represent your interest

In this context, “your” appears to refer to her immediate audience of Somali immigrants, rather than the representation of the larger interests of Minnesota, the 5th District, or Minneapolis.

Later she adds (1:35),

Sleep in comfort, knowing that I am here to protect the interests of Somalia from inside the US system

Omar’s preferred translation renders the above as,

My response was: the US government will do what we ask it to do. We should have this confidence in ourselves as Somalis. We live in this country. We are taxpayers in this country. This country is one where one of your daughters sits in Congress. While I am in Congress, no one will take Somalia’s sea. The United States will not back others to rob us. So, do not lose sleep over that, O Minnesotans. The lady you sent to Congress is on this, and she is as cognizant of this interest as you are.

The Star Tribune offers a third take,

My answer was the U.S. government will do what we tell the U.S. government to do. We as Somalis should have that confidence in ourselves. We live in this country. We pay taxes in this country. It’s a country where one of your own sits in Congress. As long as I’m in Congress no one will take Somalia’s sea. And the United States will not support other people to rob us. Rest assured Minnesotans. The woman you sent to Congress is aware of you and has the same interest as you.”

“Tell” vs. “ask.” “Has the same interest” v. “cognizant of this interest.”

At 2:42 she issues a call for “Somalia for Somalis only.” It only gets better.

Here is the video’s translation of her remarks from beginning at 2:53,

Ethiopia and Kenya have stolen and continue to occupy the Somali Region state, which belongs to Somalia.

We will liberate the occupied territories stolen from Somalia–Djibouti, Somaliland, and the North Eastern province (in Kenya)–that belong to Greater Somalia


Omar’s preferred translation of the latter part of the speech reads as follows,

I would like to tell President Hassan Sheikh that we are impressed with the great work you have done. You have made it known to those living in Somalia and other places that, in spite of the many challenges we face as Somalis, we are nonetheless competent people. People who believe in their country and will not allow it to be endangered.

Thus, I want to congratulate the Somalis in Minnesota and everywhere on how united you are. How you all stood by our president, because he needs our solidarity. Somalia belongs to all Somalis. Somalia is one. We are brothers and sisters, and our land will not be balkanized. Our lands were taken from us before, and God willing, we may one day seek them, but what we have now will not be balkanized

The Star Tribune does not supply its own translation of the speech’s last sections.

Neither of the two alternative translations offered so far exonerate her. All three translations of Rep. Omar’s remarks show that she:

  • Puts Somali interests above all (“rest assured”)
  • Does the bidding of the current Somali president (“our president”)
  • Favors the reconquest of lost Somali territories (“we may one day seek them”)

As of now, the Tweet (post) imbedded above has received 5.6 million views. But perhaps it’s all a tempest in teacup.

As of now, the only legacy media outlet to cover the controversy has been Newsweek. The writer from Newsweek was interviewed on Australian television.

It’s been mentioned by national conservative outlets such as the Washington Times. Of course, the New York Post and the UK Daily Mail cover the controversy. Outlets as far flung as Israel and India have reported on the incident and its aftermath.

Local media completely ignored the affair until the Star Tribune piece, four days after the event.

AlphaNews had previously reported that her fellow congressman Tom Emmer (who represents Minnesota’s 6th District) has called on her resignation based on the latest incident. A full video of the Saturday event can be found here, on Facebook, without an English translation. Omar’s appearance is shown near the end of the video, at the 2 hour, 15-mintute mark.

After the Star Tribune weighed in, KARE-11 summoned the courage to post this piece, with the headline,

Rep. Ilhan Omar fires back at critics amid calls for ethics investigation into Somalia speech

The NBC outlet is awaiting “an independently verified translation of Omar’s remarks.” So the outlet’s viewers will be on tenterhooks until we know what she “really” said.

With the Star Tribune and KARE-11 pieces finally out, Minnesota political newsletters (Morning Take, MinnPost, Reformer) felt free to mention the controversy, on Day 5, under the cover of the “Republicans pounce” angle.

By the way, Ilhan Omar married her brother. I have assembled the proof here.