September 2017: That Was The Month That Was

TWTMTW

l-r: weapons seized from gun-runners off the coast of Puntland; the unburied bodies of the casualties of the Barire incident; Prime Minister Khayre addresses UN GA; an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunts a civilian car in Mogadishu; and President Farmaajo heads to Saudi Arabia

SEPTEMBER started as it would end, focussed on the town of Barire in Lower Shabelle. A number of locals, armed and moving at night with an unidentifiable but presumably nefarious purpose, stumbled upon a Somali special forces unit who promptly engaged them, killing 8. The government agreed to compensate the dollar-hungry families of the unburied and decomposing casualties.

The business of government went on, with counter-terrorism legislation heading to parliament along with various other bills. The Media Law followed close behind, trailed by the ubiquitous chuntering. The PM headed to New York for the UN General Assembly where Somalia was deprived of its voting rights because of unpaid dues but the PM nonetheless managed to meet a selection of his influential counter-parts.

International relations interfaced dangerously with relations between the government and the Federal Member States. HirShabelle democratically removed its State President early in the month and quickly replaced him. But this was insignificant in comparison to the sudden alignment of Puntland, then Southwest, then Galmudug with Saudi Arabia & UAE against Qatar, in opposition to the government’s neutral stance. The President himself returned to Saudi Arabia for the third time since taking office, but the month ended with the situation apparently unresolved.

At a regional level, relations with Ethiopia caused problems. The extradition of an Ogaden National Liberation Front leader sparked an outburst of nationalistic fervour that mixers happily exploited: the President’s popularity plummeted. The fragility and disenfranchisement that came with a major clan/not-so major sub-clan President and Prime Minister appeared to spill over into violence, albeit concealed in a variety of Somali National Security Forces uniforms, when the Stabilisation Force attempted to disarm another unit (from a different clan block): 9 died.

There were some positives: football matches and civilian flights into Mogadishu Aden Abdulle Airport took place at night for the first time in nearly three decades. The Mogadishu Book Festival was a success, rivalling its elder cousin in Hargeisa.

Kenyan forces serving as part of AMISOM withdrew from Bardhere and Tarako: aS immediately occupied the towns. In Mogadishu, video of a road traffic accident, where an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunted a civilian car along one of the main arteries of the city, went viral on social media: AMISOM quickly apologised and offered compensation.

The security slugging match continued in the hinterland. aS continued to suffer from air, drone and special forces strikes, the Shadow Governor of Banadir being a notable victim. aS tried to use disinformation to counter the strikes, re-imagining them as civilian casualty incidents.

In reply, aS launched assaults on government positions across the country, from Af-Urur in Puntland to Bulo-Gaduud, Beled-Hawo, Kalabyr and El-Wak in south-central. In the city of Mogadishu aS kept up its campaign of assassinations of government officers, members of the security forces and NGO workers (although whether aS actually was responsible for every single killing remains unclear): the Deputy Commander of SNA Logistics was a notable victim. aS’s other urban trademark, the car-bomb, was less prevalent than in previous months, but some attacks succeeded in spite of the best efforts of the Stabilisation Force to secure the city.

The month ended where it began, in Barire. aS stormed the SNA garrison in the town, inflicting heavy casualties and seizing a number of vehicles including armed ‘technicals’. aS’s narrative predominated and steered attention away from its concurrent and grimly symbollic car-bombing of the Mogadishu Peace Garden.


 

Eating & Tweeting

If Facebook offered passports, most Somalis would now be living in Facebook


UK ambassador to Somalia, Harriet Mathews, during the Eat &Tweet event

 ‘If Facebook offered passports, most Somalis would now be living in Facebook,’ says Fatuma Abdulahi, the editor of the popular Somalia-focussed website, Wariye Post.

She is right: Somalis have taken to social media with even more enthusiasm than the rest of the (connected) planet, and not just to share selfies or pictures of cats.

‘Everyone has heard about the oral culture of the Somalis, that we didn’t have an agreed written form of the language until the 70s,’ she continues, ‘but what isn’t mentioned is that the oral culture left out women, young people and minority groups: social media now offers those groups a voice.’

 
And there are plenty of those voices around the table at the British Embassy in Mogadishu for an ‘Eat & Tweet’ hosted by the new ambassador, Harriet Mathews. ‘Only one ‘t’ in Mathews, otherwise you won’t find me on Twitter and someone else will be getting bombarded with hashtags,’ she notes.

 
There are journalists (Radio Goobjoog, Mogadishu News, Radio Dalsan, CCTV Africa), a rep from the National Union of Somali Journalists and media activists like Idilay Bilan. All are young: this seems to be a young man’s – and woman’s – game. Others couldn’t make it today but will hopefully be included in future Eat & Tweets: the phenomenally popular Canadian-Somali Instagramer, Ugaaso Abukar Boocow; the photographer behind ‘@MogadishuImages’ who is sharing the raw beauty of Mogadishu every day; and many, many more. The event even has its own hashtag: #Media4Somalia and the participants are encouraged to Tweet as they eat, like the name says.

 
It’s not long before comments are coming in: ‘what’s on the menu? Hilib geel [camel meat] or curry?’ asks Dahir Kulane, a popular Twitterer who could not make the event. (It’s chicken curry. It is the British Embassy, after all.)

 
But Somalis don’t generally spend their time on social media sharing photos of their lunch: they have more important issues to discuss. So the camera does NOT, on this occasion, eat first.

 
‘The incident in Marka, that’s the biggest story right now,’ notes the Radio Goobjoog correspondent, referring to the killing of members of a wedding party by African Union soldiers, apparently in reprisal for a roadside bomb attack on their convoy. ‘The people took to social media to vent their anger. There isn’t anywhere else for them to go with their anger.’

 
‘Except al-Shabaab,’ says another participant.

 
‘But al-Shabaab banned 3G. We know what al-Shabaab is all about these days. They’re good at social media in that they’re fast, and much better than the government, but everyone knows what their agenda is these days.’

 
‘The government is getting better, though.’ There is some agreement. ‘The Ministry of Security, NISA [the National Intelligence & Security Agency], they are getting much faster in telling the people what is happening during attacks.’ (Although they get hell from some quarters for their trouble, and compared to the scandal-seeking local channel, Shabelle.)

  

The discussion widens onto the challenges facing governments in the information age: the need to tell the truth (if there is such a thing anymore), keeping up with the pace of digital media, the need to be interactive and the sheer risk that is implicit in every Tweet, every photo posted, every blog.

 
‘We’re in a period of time where fear dominates all our editorial judgements,’ notes the ambassador. She recounts the challenges the UK experiences: despite being the third largest donor in Somalia after the US and the EU, the natural British reserve and humility (and, of course, concerns about security) has led the UK to be cautious in publicising its direct support to the Federal Government and across Somalia as a whole. The obvious comparison with the more overt self-publicity of Turkey in Somalia prompts more discussion.

 
But the consensus is that governments and institutions can do it, it will just take time to change institutionalised mindsets. (At this point, Faduma and Idilay recount their experiences training government personnel in social media, with the caveat, ‘don’t Tweet this!’ – it’s the only one of the day. There is still some way to go, apparently, but they are making progress.)

 
Flipping the discussion, the ambassador asks (on Twitter first, then to the group), what can governments and institutions do to help the Fourth and Fifth Estates? Resist the temptation to try to bring them into the institutional fold is a view that comes across strongly. Leave independent voices just as they are: independent.

Create more space seems to be another strong message. What does that mean, saturate the city with free wifi, give out cheap Smart phones? No, apparently. It means creating real, physical spaces for expression, like sports grounds, arts venues.

 
But, yes, free wifi would be nice as well. (Although even this brings with it an implicit risk: the participants account for the significant numbers of Somali and others trying to migrate elsewhere as being linked to the world they have been introduced to through social media.)

 
The other constraint that faces governments and institutions intervenes: time. But Eat & Tweet becomes Walk & Talk and the subject of access comes up: the Eat & Tweet started late because the airport complex, where the British Embassy is located, ‘might as well be in another country’ (because of the security restrictions – particularly for Somalis).

 
‘Next time we should meet in the city,’ suggests one participant, causing the security officer to blanch. But the ambassador doesn’t seem disinclined to the idea.