On May 1, the BBC website reported an attack on Somalia with the words:
“Air raid kills Somali militants.”
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 organisation 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 was bombed.
“Ten other people, including a senior militant, are also reported dead.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7376760.stm)
Only in the fourth sentence, was responsibility ascribed:
“A US military spokesman told the BBC that it had attacked what he called a known al-Qaeda target in Somalia.”
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 Muslims.
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, 2007; http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Feb07/Petras18.htm)
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.” (http://www.usatoday.com/news/ world/2007-01-07-ethiopia_x.htm)
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 the ICU:
“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, 2007)
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” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/ documentaries/2008/04/080327_mylai_partone.shtml):
“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.’” (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/17049)
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; http://www.csmonitor.com /2007/0105/p02s01-usmi.html)
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.” (http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/15545)
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 as “catastrophic.” (http://www.democracynow.org/2008/5 /5/thousands_of_somalis_protest_deadly_us)
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 website Democracy Now:
“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 years.” (http://www.democracynow.org/2008/5/ 5/thousands_of_somalis_protest_deadly_us)
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.” (http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR52/006/2008/en/1162a792-186e-11dd-92b4-6b0c2ef9d02f/afr520062008eng.pdf)
Amnesty reported that during sweeps through neighbourhoods, 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 behaviour 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 war crimes.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news /world/politics/call-for-inquiry-into-us -role-in-somalia-822166.html)
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 US attack:
“[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 this week:
“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 and well-intentioned.
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 its business.
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 violent kleptocracy.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Ask the following journalists why they are not doing more to expose Western responsibility for the catastrophe in Somalia.
Write to Ian Black
Email: [email protected]
Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent
Email: [email protected]
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]