Ilhan Omar: The American politician 'serving' two countries

Ilhan Omar

Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar is hugged by her husband’s mother after appearing at her midterm election night party in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US on November 6, 2018.

Photo credit: Eric Miller | Reuters

American congresswoman Ilhan Omar is no stranger to controversy.

But she probably did not expect that a low-key speech she made on January 27 to a gathering of Somali-Americans in Minnesota — delivered in the Somali language — would cause a political storm.

What she said on that day may have touched on many subjects, but some segments of the speech touched a raw nerve of Somalilanders. Then it ignited controversy in the US with political rivals baying for her blood.

Omar, of course, was born in Somalia 41 years ago in today’s South West State.

Somaliland is the region of Somalia that unilaterally declared independence in 1991 following the fall of the government of Siad Barre.

Omar’s father had served as a colonel in Barre’s army but he had to flee with his family via Kenya before settling in the US in 1995. Omar is thus firmly an American citizen but with roots in Somalia.

The outspoken politician, who was sworn into office in January 2019, represents Minnesota's 5th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives, which includes Minneapolis and surrounding areas.

Her official website describes her as “the first African refugee to become a Member of Congress, the first woman of colour to represent Minnesota, and one of the first two Muslim-American women elected to Congress”.

What did she say on January 27 and why is it causing so much controversy? An original translation of her Somali speech, which had suggested she worked for a foreign entity, not American interests, was quickly debunked even though most observers agreed she was responding to concerns about the latest MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland.

Somali language expert Abdirashid Hashi, a former Communication Director for Villa Somalia, helped translate the controversial bits to English:

“The other day, when we heard that some Somalis, or those who say they are Somalis, entered an MoU with Ethiopia, many people called me and said, “Ilhan, you should talk to the US government; what is the US government going to do about this?” 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.”

“We are brothers and sisters, and our land will not be balkanised. Our lands were taken from us before, and God willing, we may one day seek them, but what we have now will not be balkanised. I thank you all for how you always welcome me and honour me; may the Lord honour you. Peace and blessings of God be with you.”

The speech, however, became fodder for rivals in the US, and critics abroad. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful, said Omar should be “expelled” from Congress, denaturalised and deported. Omar has been expelled before from the Foreign Affairs Committee for making ‘anti-Semitic comments’ which she denied.

On Thursday, US Congresswoman from Georgia Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to censure Omar accusing her of making “treasonous statements that she is serving as a foreign agent for a foreign country.”

“I urge my colleagues to vote to Censure, but I wish I had the votes to expel and deport her,” she argued on X.

In a statement shared with the media, Ilhan Omar’s office said the accusations were false and “rooted in xenophobia and Islamophobia.”

“This is a manufactured controversy based on an inaccurate translation taken entirely out of context," Omar said. She told the Minnesota Star Tribune “I'm no stranger to these types of misinformation campaigns targeting Muslim elected officials.”

In Somaliland, Rhoda Elmi, a deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs shared the video and accused Omar of some type of racism targeting an ethnic community and lampooned her public conduct. In a way, Omar had stoked controversies in both the US (for speaking for Somalia) and in Somalia for targeting Somaliland's ambition to secede.

Omar’s father served in a military that was accused of atrocities by Somalilanders. But even her family was a victim of that civil war, fleeing as refugees into Kenya before settling in the US. Yet the Somali identity is always an elephant in the room. Ethnic Somalis are a significant constituency in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia itself. Legend has it Siad Barre had the ambition to expand Somali territory by tapping neighbouring territories in these countries, a project that violently collapsed.

Abdisaid Muse Ali, a former Somali Foreign Minister and now Chairman of the Lome Security and Peace Forum told the Nation that Omar was a victim of mistranslation by trolls. But he did say some of the old ambitions to expand territory are now mitigated by the continued integration of countries in the Horn.

“Somalia's membership in the EAC aims to boost regional integration, and economic development following three decades of violence and political uncertainty,” he said indicating this will still serve Somalia’s foreign policy.

“The foreign policy of Somalia is also premised on the protection and promotion of Somalia’s national interests and values, safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity; enhancing security; protecting the rights of its citizens, promoting unity within its borders, and promoting peace and harmony through non-interference in the internal affairs of other states in the region.”


According to him, Africa’s colonial and post-independence history, and entanglements has shaped the lives and attitudes of its current leadership and structures of institutions.

“Colonialism led to the formation of three geographies in the minds of Africans i.e., the administrative territory of a country, determined by its borders; one reflecting pre-existing sociocultural groups, which transcends the boundaries of one country; and another reflecting the actual presence of the State, which tended to be concentrated in a few urban centres.”

Some Somali politicians in Mogadishu argue Omar is fighting on two fronts. Somali legislator Abdirahman Abdishakur said her first battle is against far-right extremists in the US who harbour hatred towards her religion, race, and ideology.

“The other stems from those who oppose the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Somalis. However, her steadfast determination and perseverance will help her withstand any pressure. We stand in solidarity with Ilhan.”

Omar became the first ethnic Somali woman to be elected into the US Congress.