Somalia: Media Narratives of Progress and Peril

The media narrative of progress in Somalia has really taken hold. Some parts of it are absurd (a dry cleaner?), and some parts can cut both ways, but much of the narrative deserves to be taken seriously. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allies – the African Union, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have retaken several key towns from the rebel movement al Shabab. Al Shabab fighters are reportedly defecting to the TFG in significant numbers. In terms of formal politics, the true tests will come later this summer when Somalia adopts a new constitution and holds presidential elections. But having a roadmap toward those goals represents some progress in and of itself.

Yet that narrative of progress coexists with another narrative, one that says Somalia is at a crossroads. I find this second narrative more accurate. This narrative asks, “If the TFG and its allies have wrested control of some areas away from al Shabab, what will the government’s rule look like?” On the answer to that question hangs the government’s legitimacy.

Gabriel Gatehouse of the BBC points to three problems: corruption, law and order, and internal TFG politics.

Despite the military advances, the battle for “hearts and minds” is not yet won.

At Mogadishu seaport, we watch two dozen men unloading bundles and boxes from cargo ships and piling them onto their trucks.

All the drivers said they thought life was better under al-Shabab – less corrupt and more secure, so long as you stayed out of politics.

“In al-Shabab areas, we don’t see guns everywhere,” said Mahmood Abdullahi.

“If the government disarmed the militias and got rid of the checkpoints that steal money from us, then we would support the government.”

Yet it is politics that could make or break Somalia’s current momentum towards stability.

Gatehouse goes on to describe the political roadmap Somalia is to follow this summer, which he calls “hugely complicated.”

“The process,” he concludes, “is fraught with potential pitfalls, not least a number of former warlords who have financial and political interests in maintaining instability.”

Ahmed Egal, writing at African Arguments, has an even more negative take on the roadmap. Egal believes this moment could be different from other times when Somalia tried to establish a new government: he notes “sustained military success,” “widespread fatigue” with al Shabab among ordinary people, and a revitalization of civil society. But he does not believe the roadmap offers a way out:

This positive public mood and hope for the future needs to be harnessed in the service of a genuine Somali-driven process of nation-building and state reconstruction.  Yet, this is precisely what the so-called Roadmap ignores and precludes in favour of establishing yet another bogus ‘parliament’ composed of members that have either bought their seats or which have already been bought and paid for. This ‘parliament’ will, in turn, ratify a constitution that has not been put to the people it purports to govern and ‘elect’ a ‘President’ that has succeeded in buying the largest number votes with cash payments, appeals to tribal solidarity and promises of patronage and disbursements of aid monies in the future.

He foresees a “farce” where “erstwhile warlords, Siyad Barre* henchmen, self-appointed civil society leaders, newly minted clan elders and Diaspora carpet-baggers will take their usual places in the drama,” with the presidency, and seats in parliament, going to “the highest bidders.”

If the new government proves to be illegitimate in the eyes of the people, unable to provide law and order, and riven with internal divisions, that does not necessarily mean al Shabab will come roaring back. But neither would it mean genuine stability for Somalia. As Gatehouse and Egal both point out, there are various powerful parties with an interest in prolonged instability, and parties who prefer instability to having someone else consolidate power.

Which narrative – progress or peril – do you find more convincing?

*Siad Barre was president of Somalia from 1969-1991.


5 thoughts on “Somalia: Media Narratives of Progress and Peril

  1. The overall flow of military information out of Somalia has been encouraging – finally developing a national strategy paid big dividends for the AU, IGAD and Western capitals. Whether daily life improves under Ethiopian or TFG authority remains ambiguous, but a campaign was necessary to drive the UN’s roadmap towards any sort of conclusion – even an inconclusive outcome. At the same time, holding territory that cannot be governed is a general violation of COIN. Given the many reports of interference surrounding the UN’s roadmap, how long are AU powers (Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya) prepared to hold Somalia’s urban centers until a real government presence can move in? And what if a new government stumbles over clan/international politics or corruption?

    al-Shabaab’s leadership has yet to resist the occupation of any town under its control and accepts the need to outwait foreign powers. Its strategy is to hope that the UN roadmap fails, so at least part of that equation is in place. I’m cautiously optimistic, but the multi-front pressure on al-Shabaab is matched by the pressure for Somalis and the AU/UN to deliver.

  2. It helps to know that A. Igal happens to be the son of the late Somaliland president and step mother of former Somaliland foreign minister ( see below video). Somaliland has vested interest in the demise of the roadmap and continuation of southern chaos. . The more the southern chaos continues, the better their chance of attaining their impossible dream of seceding from Somalia. The solution is neither secession, warlordism, extremism nor sham elections producing centralized governance. The solution lies in devolving power to the regions and sharing resources in fair manner.

    • These are good points about Egal, I did not know his background. Still, I think he makes some valid points. And I think he would agree when you write, “The solution is neither secession, warlordism, extremism nor sham elections producing centralized governance.”

      • When it comes to Swimming through the minefield of Somali politics, it is prudent to know the actors. It is not only enough to know how good they analyze ( they know how to dot the i’s and cross the t’s) but what is their hidden agenda.  The bloody Barre dictatorship punished the Puntland people more than Somalilanders and the former also tremendously suffered when they were unfairly uprooted from the south in 1991. Regardless, they and the rest of Somalis consider the unity of Somalia sacrosanct and non-negotiateable. Mr Igal indeed rights well but is fighting hopeless war when it comes to rendering our unity asunder.  Unity is the one thing uniting the warring somali groups. 

  3. Pingback: Mehr Sicherheit in Somalia | AfrikaEcho

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