Ilhan Omar Democrat
Ilhan Omar with the backdrop of the US and Somali flags

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe considers how Somalia has become caught up in the US election campaign.

President Donald Trump is making Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar one of the bogeywomen of his campaign for re-election to the White House in November – and by proxy her country of birth, Somalia.

In his most recent attack, at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he tore into the 37-year-old alleging that she wanted to bring the “anarchy” of Somalia to the US.

“She would like to make the government of our country just like the country from where she came – Somalia. No government, no safety, no police, no nothing, just anarchy. And now, she’s telling us how to run our country. No, thank-you.”

Ms Omar, who arrived in the US as a child refugee in 1995, is a congressional representative for Minnesota, which includes the city of Minneapolis where African-American George Floyd was killed by police in May, reigniting Black Lives Matter protests.

Media captionCongresswoman Ilhan Omar spoke to Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis about the George Floyd protests

But it was Ms Omar’s Somali heritage the president chose to focus on in Tulsa, perhaps to distract from all the turmoil and unrest closer to home.

In response Ms Omar said his remarks were “racist”. She added that his anger came out of a recent poll that had shown him trailing his rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, in her state, which is home to a large Somali-American community.Children play with the wreckage of a US Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia in December 1993GettyPerhaps the view of Somalia for Mr Trump and his supporters is still tarnished by events in 1993… when US troops launched a disastrous raid in the Somali capital”Ismail Einashe Journalist

The president described Ms Omar as a “hate-filled, American-bashing socialist”, warning she would have a role in shaping the country if Mr Biden were to win.

This is despite the fact that the pair are on opposite ends of the Democratic Party – Ms Omar had been a prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic ticket.

But such rhetoric plays well to his base, so the electoral stage has been set, the cast chosen – and Ms Omar and Somalia have starring roles.

In fact they both debuted last year at Mr Trump’s rally in North Carolina, where the crowd chanted about Ms Omar: “Send her back! Send her back!”

Media caption”Send her back” chants at Trump rally

It echoed the “lock her up” phrase adopted by his supporters against his rival Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Ms Omar, who is a fierce critic of the president, had been in hot water at the time – censured by both Democrats and Republicans – for stoking stereotypes about Jews and had apologised for tweets implying US lawmakers only support Israel because of lobby money.

Republican Senator Rand Paul had offered to buy a plane ticket for the “ungrateful” Ms Omar to go to Somalia. He suggested she should return to get a better appreciation for the United States.

Somalia ‘not a Hobbesian nightmare’

It seems Mr Trump’s view of Somalia stems from the aftermath of the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991, since when it has popularly been considered one of the world’s most failed states.

This label has stubbornly stuck even as the situation has improved in the country.

While Mr Trump imagines that Somalia has no laws, no police and no government, this is far from the reality on the ground.

A child playing in a park in Mogadishu, Somalia in May 2020
Image captionThere are lots of places where Somalis can go to enjoy themselves

While al-Shabab does still stage attacks in Mogadishu, it is not the Hobbesian nightmare of a country that President Trump describes.

The impressive new National Theatre was unveiled just last week – there are fancy hotels, cafes and beach-side restaurants in Mogadishu and the city even has a literary festival, the annual Mogadishu Book Fair.

Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, is one of the most peaceful cities in the Horn of Africa, with libraries, the Hargeisa Cultural Centre while the Hargeisa Book Fair, which has been taking place for more than a decade, draws in thousands every year.

And even though it has not been recognised internationally, Somaliland has held successive free and fair elections, making it the strongest democracy in the Horn of Africa.

Presentational grey line

On the economic front, while there are lots of challenges made worse by drought, coronavirus and a locust infestation, there is also good news.

Dahabshill and World Remit, two of the largest money transfer companies in Africa, were founded by Somalis and the country is virtually a cashless society with everything paid by mobile money.

A UN-backed government is making small steps in rebuilding the country and tackling Islamist militants – helped by the many Somalis in the diaspora returning home.

A one-time Republican runs Somalia

The returnees include current President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, popularly known as “Farmajo”, who was a registered Republican in Buffalo and gave up his US citizenship to run the country in 2017.

President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed
Image captionMohamed Abdullahi Mohamed gave up his US citizenship to become Somalia’s president

Perhaps the view of Somalia for Mr Trump and his supporters is still tarnished by events in 1993 – one of the most important American foreign interventions in Africa, when US troops launched a disastrous raid in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to capture a powerful warlord.

Two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, and 18 US soldiers and more than 500 Somalis were killed in the battle.

Media captionThe Somali battle that changed US policy in Africa

The scenes of the soldiers being dragged through the streets shocked Americans and had a significant impact on US foreign policy in the region.

But under President Trump the US has been engaged in a secret war in Somalia against the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, using drones and special forces, something few Americans know about. Some Somalis find Mr Trump’s view of their country disconcerting, arguing that it is in part his policy that has made the country more dangerous – and saying Somali civilians, not militants, are often the casualties of US drone attacks that have increased under his presidency.

Proud Hijab-wearing Muslim

Somalia’s collapse, nearly three decades ago, dispersed Somalis around the world from the arctic circle to New Zealand.

In the US, Minneapolis is home to one of the largest Somali diaspora populations in the world – a visibly black and Muslim community.

Since 9/11 there have been fraught conversations over the place of Muslims in America. Mr Trump often uses anti-Muslim rhetoric in his portrayal of good versus bad migrants, playing into these fears.

Ilhan Omar
Image captionIlhan Omar moved to Minneapolis, where there is a huge Somali community, as a teenager

For the president, Ms Omar does not fit into his idea of a “good migrant”. The proud Hijab-wearing politician fought for her right to wear headwear in the House of Representatives, overturning a 181-year ban.

She is not afraid of being Muslim – something that differentiates her from another prominent American-Somali woman Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch politician, who is a vocal critic of Islam.

Last year, Tucker Carlson, a host on Fox News – Mr Trump’s favourite news channel, contrasted Ms Hirsi Ali and Ms Omar, saying: “Two Somali immigrants, one among the most impressive people in America. The other, among the least.”

As the US campaign drama unfolds over the next five months, you can expect more of these culture wars to be played out at Mr Trump’s rallies.

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