Somalia: Hidden Catastrophe, Hidden
by Media Lens
www.dissidentvoice.org/, May 14th,
On May 1, the BBC website reported an
attack on Somalia with the words: "Air raid kills Somali
One might think the BBC's headline would
identify the agency responsible for the bombing, but the first
few sentences also shed no light:
"The leader of the military wing
of an Islamist insurgent organization in Somalia has been killed
in an overnight air strike.
"Aden Hashi Ayro, al-Shabab's military
commander, died when his home in the central town of Dusamareb
"Ten other people, including a senior
militant, are also reported dead."
Only in the fourth sentence, was responsibility
"A US military spokesman told the
BBC that it had attacked what he called a known al-Qaeda target
English teachers often illustrate use
of the passive form with the sentence: 'A man has been arrested.'
The passive is preferable, students are told, because the active
form, 'The police have arrested a man,' contains a redundancy
- the agent is already indicated by the action. There's no need
to actually mention 'the police.'
Likewise, the BBC takes for granted that
the US is the world's policeman; no need to mention it by name.
The action of bombing an impoverished Third World country already
indicates the agent. This also helps explain why no mention was
made of the illegality of this act of aggression.
On the rare occasions when the media mention
the conflict in Somalia at all, the focus tends to fall on US
attempts to hunt down al Qaeda, or on the West's alleged humanitarian
motives. Other priorities were indicated in 1992 when the US political
weekly The Nation referred to Somalia as "one of the most
strategically sensitive spots in the world today: astride the
Horn of Africa, where oil, Islamic fundamentalism and Israeli,
Iranian and Arab ambitions and arms are apt to crash and collide."
(December 21, 1992)
In December 2006, the US backed the invasion
of Somalia by its close Ethiopian ally to overthrow the Islamist
government, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Christian Ethiopia
is a historic enemy of Somalia, which is made up entirely of Sunni
On December 4 of that year, General John
Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East through
Afghanistan, travelled to Addis Ababa to meet the Ethiopian prime
minister, Meles Zenawi. Three weeks later, Ethiopian forces crossed
into Somalia and Washington launched a series of supportive air
strikes. The Guardian quoted a former intelligence officer familiar
with the region:
"The meeting was just the final handshake."
(Xan Rice and Suzanne Goldenberg, "The American connection:
How US forged an alliance with Ethiopia over invasion," The
Guardian, January 13, 2007)
Political analyst James Petras commented:
"Somalia . . . was invaded by mercenaries
by Ethiopia, trained, financed, armed and directed by US military
advisers." (Petras, 'The Imperial System: Hierarchy, Networks
and Clients: The Case of Somalia,' Dissident Voice, February 18,
USA Today reported in January 2007 that
the US had "quietly poured weapons and military advisers
into Ethiopia," which had received nearly $20 million in
US military aid since late 2002. The report added:
"The [Somalia] intervention is controversial
in Ethiopia, where the Meles government has become increasingly
repressive, said Chris Albin-Lackey, an African researcher at
Human Rights Watch.
"The Meles government has limited
the power of the opposition in parliament and arrested thousands.
A government inquiry concluded that security forces fatally shot,
beat or strangled 193 people who protested election fraud in 2005."
Petras noted that, having driven the last
of the warlords from Mogadishu and most of the countryside, the
ICU had established a government which was welcomed by the great
majority of Somalis and covered over 90% of the population:
"The ICU was a relatively honest
administration, which ended warlord corruption and extortion.
Personal safety and property were protected, ending arbitrary
seizures and kidnappings by warlords and their armed thugs. The
ICU is a broad multi-tendency movement that includes moderates
and radical Islamists, civilian politicians and armed fighters,
liberals and populists, electoralists and authoritarians. Most
important, the Courts succeeded in unifying the country and creating
some semblance of nationhood, overcoming clan fragmentation."
(Petras, op. cit)
Martin Fletcher wrote in the Times of
"I am no apologist for the courts.
Their leadership included extremists with dangerous intentions
and connections. But for six months they achieved the near-impossible
feat of restoring order to a country that appeared ungovernable
"The courts were less repressive
than our Saudi Arabian friends. They publicly executed two murderers
(a fraction of the 24 executions in Texas last year), and discouraged
Western dancing, music and films, but at least people could walk
the streets without being robbed or killed. That trumps most other
considerations. Ask any Iraqi.
"The Islamists have now been replaced
- with Washington's connivance - by a weak, fragile Government
that was created long before the courts won power, that includes
the very warlords they defeated and relies for survival on Somalia's
worst enemy." (Fletcher, 'The Islamists were the one hope
for Somalia,' The Times, January 8, 2007)
It was clear to many commentators that
the Ethiopian invasion would prove disastrous. Three months later,
the Daily Telegraph reported:
"A new humanitarian crisis is rapidly
taking shape in the Horn of Africa where eight days of heavy fighting
in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, has forced about 350,000
people to flee.
"Artillery fire has devastated large
areas of the city, forcing about one third of its population to
leave. Yesterday Mogadishu's main hospital was shelled.
"The plains around Mogadishu are
filled with refugees enduring desperate conditions with little
food or shelter. The fighting began when Somalia's internationally
recognised government, supported by Ethiopian troops, launched
an offensive against insurgents." (Mike Pflanz, 'Fighting
brings fresh misery to Somalia,' Telegraph, April 26, 2007)
The Telegraph cited a British aid worker:
"They are bombing anything that moves."
Catherine Weibel, from the United Nations
High Commission for Refugees was also quoted:
"Everyone we are talking to says
this is the worst situation they have seen in 16 years since the
last government fell."
The War On Terror . . . And The Real Concern
The preferred media framework for making
sense of US actions closely parallels cold war mythology. We are
to believe the US is passionately, even blindly, battling ideological
enemies in an effort to protect itself and the West. Guardian
columnist Jonathan Freedland could be relied upon to paint this
picture of events:
"A fortnight ago the Ethiopians entered
Somalia to topple the Islamist forces who had just taken Mogadishu.
Americans dislike that Islamist movement, fearing it has the makings
of an African Taliban, so they backed the Ethiopians to take it
out. According to Patrick Smith, the editor of Africa Confidential,
the war on terror is fast becoming a cold war for the 21st century,
with the US finding proxy allies to fight proxy enemies in faraway
places." (Freedland, "Like a deluded compulsive gambler,
Bush is fuelling a new cold war," The Guardian, January 10,
If this sounds curiously simplistic, even
childish, it is. In fact, the cold war, like the "war on
terror", was far less ideological, far more prosaic, than
journalists like Freedland claim. Historian Howard Zinn has, for
example, commented on the Vietnam war, which the BBC would have
us believe "was America's attempt to stop Communists from
toppling one country after another in South East Asia":
"When I read the hundreds of pages
of the Pentagon Papers entrusted to me by [military analyst] Daniel
Ellsberg, what jumped out at me were the secret memos from the
National Security Council. Explaining the U.S. interest in Southeast
Asia, they spoke bluntly of the country's motives as a quest for
'tin, rubber, oil.'"
Ethiopia's invasion coincided with the
Pentagon's goal of creating a new 'Africa Command' to deal with
what the Christian Science Monitor described as: "Strife,
oil, and Al Qaeda." Richard Whittle wrote:
"The creation of the new command
will be more than an exercise in shuffling bureaucratic boxes,
experts say. The US government's motives include countering Al
Qaeda's known presence in Africa, safeguarding future oil supplies,
and competing with China, which has been courting African governments
in its own quest for petroleum, they suggest." (Richard Whittle,
'Pentagon to train a sharper eye on Africa,' January 5, 2007)
As Andy Rowell and James Marriott have
noted, the key fact is that "some 30 per cent of America's
oil will come from Africa in the next ten years". (Rowell
and Marriott, A Game as Old as Empire - The Secret World of Economic
Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption, edited by Steven Hiatt,
Berrett-Koehler, 2007, p.118)
The US has plans for nearly two-thirds
of Somalia's oil fields to be allocated to the US oil companies
Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips. The US hopes Somalia will
line up as an ally alongside Ethiopia and Djibouti, where the
US has a military base. This alliance would give America powerful
leverage close to the major energy-producing regions.
Chatham House, a British think tank of
the independent Royal Institute of International Affairs, commented
on US and Ethiopian intervention last year:
"In an uncomfortably familiar pattern,
genuine multilateral concern to support the reconstruction and
rehabilitation of Somalia has been hijacked by unilateral actions
of other international actors - especially Ethiopia and the United
States - following their own foreign policy agendas."
This 'hijacking' has had truly appalling
consequences. More than one million people have been made internal
refugees, and the UN food security unit warned last week that
3.5 million people, half of Somalia's population, are facing famine.
Fighting has turned Mogadishu into a ghost town. About 700,000
people have fled - out of a population of up to 1.5 million. The
International Committee of the Red Cross describes Somalia's crisis
Soaring food prices have driven thousands
of protestors onto the streets of the capital, Mogadishu. On May
5, Professor Abdi Samatar, a professor of geography and global
studies at the University of Minnesota, told the US radio program
"Well, what you see in Mogadishu
over the last year and a half or so, since the Ethiopian invasion,
which was sanctioned by the US government, has destroyed virtually
all the life-sustaining economic systems which the population
have built without the government for the last fifteen, sixteen
A kilo of rice, which previously sold
at around seventy US cents, now costs as much as $2.50. The average
day's income for anyone fortunate enough to have a job is less
than a dollar a day. The gap between incomes and the cost of food
primarily imported from overseas means that millions of people
cannot afford to eat.
Last week, Amnesty International reported
that it had obtained scores of accounts of killings by Ethiopian
troops that Somalis have described as "slaughtering [Somalis]
like goats." In one case, "a young child's throat was
slit by Ethiopian soldiers in front of the child's mother."
Amnesty reported that during sweeps through
neighborhoods, Ethiopian forces placed snipers on roofs, and civilians
were unable to move about for fear of being shot:
"While some sniper fire appeared
to be directed at suspected members of anti-TFG [Transitional
Federal Government] armed groups, reports indicate that civilians
were also frequently caught in indiscriminate fire. In many cases
families were forced to carry their wounded to medical care in
wheelbarrows and on donkeys because ambulance drivers would not
operate their vehicles due to general insecurity, including sniper
fire. As a result, it has become very difficult for civilians
to access medical care."
The British government has consistently
downplayed both the gravity of the crisis and the murderous behavior
of Ethiopian forces. In the Foreign Office's latest annual human
rights assessment of Somalia there was no mention of Ethiopia,
let alone the conduct of its troops. No surprise - Ethiopia is
one of the largest recipients of UK aid in Africa and, as discussed,
is an important regional ally.
The Media Follow, The Government Lead
Predictably, the government's strategic
silence is reflected in press reporting. In the last year, the
words 'Somalia' and 'famine' have appeared in a grand total of
seven British broadsheet newspaper articles discussing the topic.
Of the few references to the latest US attack in the British press
over the last week, only the Independent and the Sunday Times
made briefs references to Somalia's humanitarian crisis. The Independent
noted that life for Somalia's nine million residents has become
"unbearable". The Guardian merely quoted Reuters:
"Western security services have long
seen Somalia as a haven for militants. Warlords overthrew dictator
Siad Barre in 1991, casting the country into chaos." (Reuters,
"US airstrike kills head of al-Qaida in Somalia," Guardian
International, May 2, 2008)
The Amnesty report was mentioned in three
broadsheet newspapers. Of these, The Guardian failed to mention
the US role at all. Ian Black commented:
"Ethiopia sent in troops in December
2006 and ejected them. Since then, Mogadishu has been caught up
in a guerrilla war between the government and its Ethiopian allies
and the Islamist insurgents. Up to 1 million Somalians are internally
displaced." (Ian Black, 'Somali refugees speak of horrific
war crimes,' The Guardian, May 7, 2008)
By contrast, a short Independent piece
led with the US role:
"Amnesty International has called
for the role of the United States in Somalia to be investigated,
following publication of a report accusing its allies of committing
Amnesty's Dave Copeman was cited:
"There are major countries that have
significant influence. The US, EU and European countries need
to exert that influence to stop these attacks."
This is the sole reference to Copeman's
comments in the entire national UK press.
Professor Samatar commented on the latest
"[I]t's quite befuddling to Somalis
and many other peace-loving people around the world as to why
the United States has chosen to bomb people who are desperate
for assistance and food, and who have been dislocated and traumatised
by an Ethiopian invasion, a country that has its own people under
tyranny in itself."
The Truth of "Our Leaders"
With our shared responsibility for the
catastrophe in Somalia buried out of sight, the Telegraph reported
"Gordon Brown urged the Burmese authorities
to give 'unfettered access' to humanitarian agencies. 'We now
estimate that two million people face famine or disease as a result
of the lack of co-operation of the Burmese authorities. This is
completely unacceptable,' he said." (Alan Brown, 'Burmese
officials "are seizing emergency aid and selling it for profit",'
Daily Telegraph, May 13, 2008)
The great lie is that we are represented
by people like Gordon Brown, described as "our leaders."
Because they represent us and we are not monsters, we are to believe
that "our leaders" are seeking to resolve problems afflicting
humanity in general, while working more specifically to protect
us from terrorism and other threats. In other words, we are to
believe that 'our leaders', like us, are rational, compassionate
The truth is very different. In fact we
are free to chose from parties and leaders who all represent the
same interests of concentrated state-corporate power - the tiny
fraction of the population that owns much of the country and runs
Crucially, "our leaders" front
a political system that has an overwhelming advantage in high-tech
military power. They are all too willing to use this power to
convulse countries with bloodshed when doing so supports their
lucrative version of economic "order". Iraq is the obvious
example - Somalia is another.
"Our leaders" rule in the name
of democracy, but they act in the interests of a narrow, extremely
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog
group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The first Media
Lens book is Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media
(Pluto Books, London, 2006). Read other articles by Media, or
visit Media's website.