Just 24 hours after debating the future of Somalia at a United Nations meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador to Somalia Augustine Mahiga stood before members of its largest diaspora in North America at the University of Minnesota Law School on Saturday.
The third installment of “Rebuilding Somalia: The Role of the Diaspora” was marketed as an opportunity for Mahiga to engage Somalis in a conversation about the U.N. roadmap to peace for the country facing the worst humanitarian crisis in 60 years. But conversations for peace gave way to peaceful demonstration.
Community members opposing Mahiga’s policies and non-Somali heritage made their voices heard both within the discussion and outside Mondale Hall’s front door.
Aman Obsiye, who helped organize the event, said the “Rebuilding Somalia” series aims to engage the community in dialogue toward a more positive future for Somalia. He said all forms of peaceful expression — including demonstration — are encouraged and embraced.
The event happened through collaboration between the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School and the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, along with the Somali Institute for Peace Research.
“We hope they were not only able to gain some new information, but Mahiga was able to leave with the advice and concerns of the people in mind, as well,” said Obsiye, who is also an Oslo Center intern and law student.
The series is part of ongoing events to discuss rebuilding Somalia hosted at the University, said Kristi Rudelius-Palmer of the University’s Human Rights Center.
She said it gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions about how the U.N. is involved in the transitional process and created a space to discuss the international players involved in efforts to rebuild Somalia.
During his opening statements, Mahiga said the Somali diaspora in Minnesota is “not only the biggest, but also the most vibrant and probably the most connected to peace keeping efforts in Somalia.”
He also outlined his personal history with the country —something protesters outside of the event called into question.
The protesters expressed discontent with Mahiga’s involvement in the Kampala Accord which extended the tenure of the transitional government for another year.
“He’s not a Somali representative,” Faiza Aziz said of Mahiga, a Tanzanian native. “From the beginning, his actions have been against Somalia.”
Aziz, a University of Minnesota graduate, said she found no substance in what Mahiga said.
“You have no respect coming here and trying to tell me about my history,” she yelled out as Mahiga began his talk. Shortly after, she was asked to leave.
“That was a slap in the face of Somalis,” she said. “The one word everyone — even if they don’t even know where the hell Somalia is — ties with Somalia is crisis. He didn’t even address that crisis and how we can help.”
After being escorted from the event, Aziz joined the group of protesters outside, who held posters with red X’s over Mahiga’s face and chanted under the careful watch of four University police officers.
As “No Mahiga Minnesota” rang from megaphones, Hassan Togane looked on from within the Law School before the speech. Tailgaters for the Gopher football game curiously observed from the school’s parking lot.
Togane said he found beauty in the protesters’ actions, though he didn’t share their opinions.
“Had this happened in my country, you would have seen bullets flying all over,” he said. “Look at the beauty of the U.S. We are all protected by the Constitution. We can do that here.”
Rudelius-Palmer agreed that the peaceful protests added to the overarching message calling for more voices, especially women and youth, in the discussion of peace in Somalia.
Mahiga spoke with the Minnesota Daily about the power of youth voices many of which — such as Obsiye and Aziz’s — were highlighted through Saturday’s event.
“The youth voice has been fragmented. Youth in the mainland don’t have the same opportunity where they can see each other and organize,” he said. “But youth in the diaspora are accessible, educated and show great leadership.”
“They keep connected and educated even when they have never known peace in Somalia.”