Spirited voices of protest rang out in downtown Minneapolis Sunday as an Ethiopian government leader prepared to address thousands of local supporters about the economic transformation of his country’s Somali region.
Attendees making their way into Minneapolis Marriott City Center to listen to Abdi Mohamed Omar were greeted with boisterous shouts of “Shame on you” from about 150 people who stood across S. 7th Street toting signs alleging rape and genocide in their native country.
Police stood guard outside the hotel. Attendees were required to have tickets to enter.
Inside, Abdullahi Nur, 34, of Minneapolis, who helped organize the speech, said of the protesters’ claims of rape and murder: “It is not there.” But, he added, “the government will protect themselves against rebels.”
Several protesters waved the flag of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is fighting for independence in the Somali region of Ethiopia — known as the Ogaden.
The divide within the country is long-standing.
In a 2008 report, Peter Heinlein, then a journalist with Voice of America, wrote of visiting journalists finding “a traumatized population caught between rebels staging hit-and-run attacks and government troops conducting a brutal counterinsurgency campaign.”
Both sides accused each of other of serious human rights abuses, he wrote. Omar, at the time, was security chief of Ethiopia’s Somali region, according to the Voice of America account. He now serves as the region’s president.
Sunday’s protest was organized by the Ogaden American Community Association of USA, based in St. Anthony.
Hibaq Dualeh, 27, of Minneapolis, the group’s political organizer, estimated that half of the protesters were victimized by Omar and his policies. By speaking out against him in the United States, she added, they risked having family members in Ethiopia jailed.
“The people escaped genocide,” Dualeh said, and through Omar’s presence in Minnesota, “he is victimizing them all over again.”
Ahmed Mohamed, 53, of Minneapolis, a board member with the group, said: “He came here to terrorize people here. To intimidate. Harass.”
Across the street, standing outside the hotel, Ismail Buri, 35, of Minneapolis, an organizer of the event, described the allegations as “he say, she say” propaganda. He credits Omar for development in the region. Schools have been built, Buri said, and an airport, too.
The bottom line for Omar supporters, Buri said, “is we took peace. We don’t want to fight no more.”
As Buri spoke, the protest was in its fourth hour, and the voices from across S. 7th Street still were loud and angry.