WASHINGTON - Controversy is surrounding Friday’s meeting between U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Stephen Schwartz, who was appointed by former president Barack Obama, and new Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo.
The controversy is not so much about the meeting but what happened during the photo opportunity when Schwartz gave Farmajo a hat bearing a slogan that appears to be derived from President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
After the meeting, the Twitter account of the U.S. Mission tweeted about the meeting posting a message that read, “US2SOM Amb Schwartz had a fruitful mtng w Pres Farmaajo 2day + presented the Pres with a cap “MAKE SOM GREAT AGAIN.” The photo attached with the message shows the two men shaking hands and holding the hat.
US2SOM Amb Schwartz had a fruitful mtng w Pres Farmaajo 2day + presented the Pres with a cap "MAKE SOM GREAT AGAIN" https://t.co/rXHgpWFp pic.twitter.com/EWFdrRipv3— U.S. Mission-Somalia (@US2SOMALIA) February 17, 2017
Most Twitter users thought the gift was a diplomatic misstep; others were harsher and said the action was out of order.
Safia Ahmed tweeted to Schwartz that Somalia does not need to import slogans.
Twitter user Hassan Abdi expressed his displeasure in a more blunt form, saying the ambassador had a “disgusting sense of humor.”
Others thought the timing for such a message was inappropriate because of Trump’s recent immigration travel ban that affected seven Muslim-majority nations, including Somalia.
Joshua Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, tweeted the exchange was “embarrassing.”
Embarrassing that a diplomat would present this hat to a leader of a country whose citizens were part of the dubious immigration EO. https://t.co/SZcTKrBap5— Josh Busby (@busbyj2) February 18, 2017
Laura Hammond, a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, tweeted that she had mixed feelings about the exchange, saying the sentiment behind the gift was OK, but the association with Trump’s platform was unfortunate.
The sentiment is ok, but the association with Trump%27s platform is really unfortunate. https://t.co/0pj5q0wgtr— Laura Hammond (@lhammondsoas) February 17, 2017
Others were somewhat kinder.
Mohamed Ali tweeted that he hoped the intentions were different that many others had thought and pleaded with others on Twitter that the ambassador’s tweet should not be taken out of context.
I hope this is not taken out of context!! https://t.co/IuVYUc6cAq— Mohamed Ali (@dhagahtur) February 17, 2017
The Somali newsroom, a blog about the Horn of Africa, noted that the two officials could have sent a different message after the meeting. The blog noted the two could have sent a message of unity, highlighting the fact Ambassador Schwartz was born in Buffalo, New York, while President Farmajo had lived there for years, until he recently became president.
AMB Schwartz is from Buffalo.Farmaajo is from Buffalo.Could be this easy. pic.twitter.com/BhaMG5MXsR— Somablog (@SomaliaNewsroom) February 18, 2017
The hat was presented in the colors of the Somali flag: blue and white represent the colors of the Somali flag.
Some on Twitter thought the ambassador’s intention may have been to make the point that Somalia used to be a great country and deserves to be great again.
Somalia had some positive historical moments before the collapse of the state in 1991.
In June 1967, Somalia became the first African country where a peaceful transfer of power took place when incumbent Aden Abdulle Osman handed over power to Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke who defeated him in a democratic election.
In 1975, Somalia won the UNESCO literacy medal after a three-year campaign in which the Somali language script was written, and reading and writing skills were improved throughout the country.
One Twitter user, Mohamed Jama, said the message on the hat doesn’t matter as much as what Farmajo does now that he has overwhelming public support following his election.
wut happened to danta dalka iyo dadka. pic.twitter.com/gZKdtraPIm— Somablog (@SomaliaNewsroom) February 17, 2017
Farmajo is expected to present his vision for governing Somalia on Wednesday, when he is inaugurated.