Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a progressive member of the so-called “Squad” who has been said to have a “problem with Jews,” drew the ire of a Somaliland official and colleagues in the U.S. Congress last week for a talk in which she appeared to adopt a Somalia-first approach.
“We were profoundly surprised, even shocked on discovering the remarks,” Rhoda Elmi, deputy foreign affairs minister of Somaliland, wrote on social media. “The language she employed was regrettably unbecoming of both the office she holds and the constituents she represents.”
Omar says that she was misquoted, and that rather than saying—as Elmi suggested—that “As Somalis, one day we will go after our missing territories,” she actually said that no one will take Somalia’s “sea.”
Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 but most countries, including the United States, don’t see it as independent.
Scholars told JNS that the progressive, Mogadishu-born Democrat is acting inconsistently when she denounces the Jewish state for “occupying” Palestinian areas but insists that Somaliland doesn’t have the right to be independent of Somalia.
“The translation of Omar’s remarks is highly contested, but even the most forgiving ones I’ve seen include what appears to be a slap at Somaliland,” Joshua Meservey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told JNS.
Meservey, who studies “great power competition” in Africa, African geopolitics and counterterrorism, is lead author of a book about Al-Shabaab—a terrorist organization designated as such by Washington since March 18, 2008, that is active in Somalia—and penned a chapter in the 2019 book “War and Peace in Somalia.”
Somaliland and Gaza are “obviously” very different and have varied realities and histories, Meservey told JNS. “But there is an incongruence in Omar’s approach to the two,” he said.
The Isaaq, the majority Somaliland clan, “suffered a genocide at the hands of Somalia’s federal forces in the late 1980s, yet I’ve never heard her mention that trauma or acknowledge how it affects Somalilanders’ desire to be independent,” said Meservey. “She does, however, denounce what she says is Israel’s genocide of Gazans while simultaneously advocating to keep Somaliland shackled to Somalia.”
Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on Middle East, Africa, Turkey and diplomacy, agreed.
“If Omar wants to comment on Somaliland, the tack she should take would be to recommend to Gazans that they should try to replicate the Somaliland model of accountability and responsibility rather than the Somali model of sowing hatred and irredentism,” he told JNS.
According to Rubin, who has visited Somaliland five times, it is a successful state. “It has been independent longer than it was ever in Somalia, and most Somalilanders have never lived under Somali control,” he said. “Unlike Gaza, it is democratic, has demonstrated capacity and has done far more without meaningful economic aid.”
Many Somalis say that Somaliland has no right to independence “because they say it is ethnically the same as Somalia,” Rubin added. “But there are 22 Arab countries, so that argument doesn’t hold.”
Meservey told JNS that although Omar’s comments were reported widely in the news, there has been less attention to their “irredentist flavor,” that is, their advocating for the restoration of former Somali territories.
“Even the most benign translations from pro-Omar, pro-Mogadishu accounts include her referencing how Somalians might someday seek the lands ‘stolen’ from them,” Meservey said. “That’s a reference to chunks of land in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti populated by ethnic Somalis.”
He added: “It’s obviously a dangerous concept to invoke, and no doubt the governments of those three countries, all of which are extremely important in a strategic region of Africa, take a dim view of a sitting U.S. congresswoman stirring up that sort of trouble.”
An even bigger mealy-mouthed actor lies to the south of Somalia, according to Meservey.
“Arguably the biggest of all the hypocrites on Israel and Gaza are South Africa and the ruling African National Congress,” he said, noting that the country led the recent charge against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the primary judicial arm of the United Nations.
“Their voting record at the U.N. Human Rights Council is appalling, and they have a long history of remaining silent on some of the most violent regimes of the current era,” including Syria, North Korea and Iran, and of actively protecting Zimbabwe, Cuba and Sudan, said Meservey.
“The west still gives the ANC—because of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle—a moral regard it does not deserve,” he said. “The moral victory lap Pretoria and the ANC are currently taking on the ICJ case against Israel is a triumph of either cynicism or delusion, considering their actual record on human rights.”