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The power of Narrative in the Somali Political Discourse

Thursday, July 16, 2020

By Ahmed Shiiraar and Ahmed Mohamed


Somalis are known as an oral society as many western linguists, anthropologists, and cultural historians had observed for years—as narrative making, poetry has been the most important tool used as a medium for storytelling in Somalia. It has been a major form of expression in Somali’s oral tradition. Through poetry, Somali elders preserved our art, culture, and the stories of our forefathers. 1972, a committee of cultural and linguistic experts that consists of nine members have created the first-ever official Somali writing script with standardization. Prior to that, Somalis used Arabic script for writing official documents and personal letters. This followed by spreading the newly scripted Somali language to the remote areas through a nationwide literacy campaign. Since then, the already-existing oral tradition has been coupled with a culture of writing and the storytelling medium shifted from oral narration to scripted form. 

On the other hand, the Digital Age appeared in the late 20th century which brought about new inventions. Unfortunately, Somalia plunged into civil war in a time where many countries around the world advanced technologically. The digital age was the game-changer in terms of storytelling by bringing many forms of communication services like; texting, emailing, and social media. Somalia, as a late adaptor, is trying to make up the years lost in the civil war. Social media usage has been growing recently. As the number of social media users increases, so as the risk of misused and manipulated narrative increases. The purpose of the piece is to highlight how false and misleading narratives affect us and why we’ve to be vigilant before accepting and acting upon misinformation. This piece focuses on the power of narrative in Somali political discourse with emphases of three main narratives that are falsely repeated ad nauseum in social media but have nothing to do with the reality. 

Current Government in Narrative Making

The current government constantly created a false narrative with the intent of influencing our opinions, beliefs and are present as facts. Nowadays, optimism is replaced by hopelessness while critical thinking is substituted by intellectual disorientation. Instead of the news becoming the product, our feeling turned into a product through; views, clicks, likes, shares, and retweets. Our government, both Villa Somalia and the Prime Minister’s office had employed young social media influencers with many followers, who established credibility in either twitter, Facebook, or both who can persuade others to act based on their recommendations. Many people believe that these social media influencers created a fake-patriotism, glittering generalities, misinformation, especially creating false accounts to alter the truth and to engender public support and cyberbully anyone who opposes their views. Somali government didn’t communicate factually in many issues that mattered for the people. 

The maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya, three leading figures in Somali legal team were axed ambiguously with no explanation. Those were; former Somali Attorney General, Ahmed Ali Dahir, Dr Mona Al-Sharmani, the only Somali lawyer in the legal team, and former Somali Ambassador to European Union Ali Said Faqi. These figures were the source of information through the public briefing. Since their dismissal, the maritime dispute hearing has been postponed a couple of times, and the latest is scheduled for March 2021. The government stated that the delay was caused by Covid-19 but didn’t provide details for the postponement. 

Opposition Leaders in Narratives

Unlike the government, the opposition leaders don’t have the resources to allocate a large-scale campaign to manipulate information to engender public support—but that didn’t limit their ability to spread false narratives for their own benefits. The opposition leaders constantly repeat that the current government has failed to improve the security situation. However, one can argue that the security situation didn’t get worse because of the current government.

February 21, 2014, Al Shabab attacked the presidential compound which claimed the lives of 12 people including then-Deputy Intelligence Chief of the Somali Army Gen. Mohamed Nur Shirbow and Mohamed Abdulle, a Somali-Canadian who was advisor for then-Somali Prime Minister, Abdiwali Sheikh Ahmed. In addition to Somali soldiers were killed. Remember, Al Shabab targeted the most heavily guarded compound in the country. Imagine, if this attack had happened under the Farmajo-Khaire administration, how bad the security narrative would’ve been? The reality is no government has succeeded in security post-civil war. The security failures lie behind many reasons: primarily, lack of reconciliation which is the bedrock of building Somali national army (SNA) based on public trust, mutual sharing of army logistics among Somali tribes, and creating a comprehensive security plan. The secondary reason is that SNA is trained by countries with conflicting interests with no coordinated command. Lastly, the current tribal federalism system didn’t help the establishment of functioning SNA. Each state wants to operate as a country with a separate army. This manifests the complexity of Somali security in both federal and state level, so the narrative that the previous governments managed security is not only false but also misleading.

International Community Narrative

It is worth noting that the Intellectual heavy-weights of Noam Chomsky and George Orwell took toe to nail in addressing the danger of Politico-Media Complexity. It is often referred to as dangerous on the collusion between governments, individual politicians, donors and the media industries in their attempt to manipulate public perception rather than inform and guide the general public. Historically the international community’s collective engagement in Somalia began after a severe famine struck the country in 1992 in which heart-wrenching famine images from Somalia appeared in western media questioning the decency and morality of the world leaders. As a result, swiftly international community effort started that saved many lives. However, the Operations Restore Hope of Somalia had failed miserably with huge humiliation after a failed attempt to capture General Mohamed Aided, the leader of Somali National Alliance (SNA). Since then, Somalia has been abandoned and labeled a corrupt-ridden, terrorist safe-haven, piracy, and failed state. This label is formed by none other than the western media, which is true, but Somali people were expecting a new paradigm to keep the country moving as challenges harden.

Somalia isn’t different from Afghanistan in terms of institutional collapse, where the US-led western allies spent trillions of dollars and claimed thousands of lives as it is progressing with peace talks and institution building. The US couldn’t figure out what went wrong in Somalia and kept a similar strategy again and again. Today, Somalia is a battleground competed by several western countries and of gulf countries such as; Saudi, Turkey, Qatar, and Emirates. The international community’s various organizations within the UN and outside of it have portrayed an image of incredible assistance missions in Somalia. The story of a state-building project in Somalia is sold out to the global audiences and portrayed as a successful project, but utterly turned into a political blunder. There are failures in the geo-political and strategic perspectives of the confronted forces within the region, gulf and the west. The American and western allies’ approach in Somalia is different from that employed by the Turkish government with an emphasis on developmental assistance, national defence plan and improving the education sector through higher education scholarships in Turkey’s top universities.

In contrast, American engagement in Somalia prioritizes counterterrorism, while maintaining its dual-track policy by treating each state as a separate country. Lack of a clear agenda and vision of the US in Africa is why America is replaced by Chinese, Turkish and India in many parts of Africa including Somalia. In the sense of security narrative, AMISOM forces often portrayed as saviours but failed in delivering their mandate of peacebuilding and preparing an exit strategy. The Al Shabab insurgence is growing with extortion capacity and a never-ending desire to massacre the innocent people of Mogadishu. The western narrative that Al-Shabaab has been rooted out of many regions and districts is not only a fabricated story but also manipulated narrative. Al Shabab is expanding their radicalization effort more than ever, collecting taxes in the government-controlled territory and having authority to mediate disputes among Somali people.

In the case of humanitarian assistance, development projects and poverty reduction, several western organizations aren’t sound and inclusive enough to reach out to the remote areas of the country. The recurrent floods in Hiiraan region is a good example that the donors failed to counter. That shows the essence of humanitarian efforts in the country is not planned from grass root and both the taxpayers in the west and poor people without proper livelihood are manipulated and lied often for the pleasure of meagre white-collar criminals with suits.

The UK initiated Somalia-Somaliland talks is another western sponsored narrative whose aim is vague as the real stakeholders weren’t in the negotiation table. The last month’s talks and subsequent diplomatic relations between Somaliland and Taiwan show that the talks weren’t sincerely organized.

Finally, it is the blessing of the Intellect which turned Rwanda and Botswana into a model for the rest of Africa and produced the four tigers in Asia so the Somalis must withdraw the trajectory from history and make a call to the blessing of the intellect & intelligence with many considerations. We must be vigilant to the course of protecting the public from intellectual abuse, exploitation and personal interest. The major responsibility lies to the Somalis in building a new Somalia while seeking assistance through public discourse, free-thinking without the interest of a person, clan and other external entities. 

Ahmed Mohamed, MBA, researcher, opinion contributor and civil servant, can be reached at [email protected]

Ahmed Shiiraar, MA Urban Planning & Dip, Local Gov't Management. He can be reached at [email protected]


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