Killing People is Wrong

Al-Shabaab press officer, Hassan Hanafi, is executed by firing squad in Mogadishu

Execution is justice in a place where law is for sale

HASSAN Hanafi gulps in the hot, dusty air as he is tied to one of the four execution posts, near the beach in Mogadishu. Overweight and injured, it looks like he might cheat the firing squad by expiring from respiratory failure. (Hanafi had foolishly sought medical treatment in Kenya – as a former journalist turned press officer for Somalia’s al-Qai’da franchise, al-Shabaab, he was well known to the Kenyan authorities, even without his distinctive boss eye and dent-scarred forehead.)

It is an unusual execution – he is to be executed alone, whereas normally executions are conduct in small groups. His betrayal of both his profession and the five Somali journalists that he lured to their deaths on the promise of safe passage to exclusive interviews with al-Shabaab leaders earn him that distinction.

Normally those to be executed go to their deaths with stoicism. Perhaps that is what 25 years of chaos, of famine, disease and endemic clan violence engenders. Or maybe the Somalis are just naturally stoic in the face of death. (‘Allah has dug the grave, we just walk towards it,’ a Somali colleague said to me on the death of my grandfather, soon after I first went to Mogadishu – a different approach from the ‘sorry for your trouble’ and ‘he’s gone to a better place’ I got back home.)

Executions in Mogadishu are conducted against a backdrop of sand dunes, near the sprawling city burial ground and opposite the Police Academy (which is now producing policemen again – and policewomen). When there isn’t an imminent execution (they are infrequent) the posts become the goal for football playing teenagers hoping to follow Ismail Feruz to the Scottish and English Premierships. But you know an execution is coming when the quickly accumulated garbage is cleared away.

I occasionally get requests from millennial journalists who want to ‘experience’ an execution. ‘Bad juju,’ say my security staff, ‘and way too risky for a mzungu.’ (Swahili: white man – Somalis are linguistically eclectic.) You’re not the new Orwell, say I.

The executions aren’t pretty. The firing squad shoot on automatic, often from the hip – not that long ago the only rounds that hit the condemned man knee-capped him and he was garrotted by the ropes that held him to the post. Maybe Hanafi had heard about that.

But the executions aren’t characterised by jeering, blood-thirsty mobs either. The families of the victims often attend, but they too are stoic, not vengeful. In a world where justice can be bought, the people of Mogadishu overwhelmingly support executions because it is the only tangible form of justice on offer. Prison is something you can buy your way out of, but death is not. The statistics tell a story, too: a third of those executed are security forces gone rogue. 

It can be very easy, sitting on the balcony of a branch of the Bakehaus-style Artcaffe chain, somewhere on the affluent north side of sunny-but-at-altitude Nairobi, to say, ‘killing people is wrong.’ It’s not so easy, down at sea level, to go through 25 years of societal collapse, that thrusts people back to the basics, their family and clan – and the simple, tangible certainty of seeing killers get killed. 

First published on May 4th, 2017 in The Scotsman newspaper http://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/execution-is-justice-in-a-place-where-law-is-for-sale-1-4436169

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