Ethiopian Involvement in Somalia’s Media War

Mogadishu is a constantly changing landscape. In the course of the battle for this ancient port city, battle lines are often drawn and erased, defence posts erected and demolished, allegiances formed and severed, and more soldiers trained to damage and destroy. But while the interminable gun battles continue to temporarily transform the territorial gains of the opposing forces on the ground, it is the battle on the airwaves that will eventually define the final outcome of the war.

The battle is now in the airwaves and words are sometimes deadlier than the bullets. Soldiers’ confessions, government rebuttals, fervent Islamist lectures, Jihadi Nasheeds, information leaks and an overdose of carefully packaged propaganda, however infelicitous it may seem at times, appears to be the order of the day. Where one particular frequency bolsters the government’s voice and demonizes the actions of the Islamists, the other plays Jihadi tunes and sermons by senior Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, glorifying Jihad and Martyrdom for the creation of an Islamic Caliphate. And as a result of the ongoing political pandemonium across the country, it has become rather difficult to find an impartial voice – detached from the political process.

Al-Shabab, the Islamists controlling majority of the country, have recently stepped up their media campaign. Al-Kataib Foundation for Media Production, the rather sophisticated Media wing of the Islamists, has recently launched a terrestrial TV channel in Mogadishu to complement their steady stream of video productions. The channel’s pilot began with the confessions of a former CIA spy recently executed by the Islamists and reaches as far as Ceelasha Biyaha and Afgooye.

The Somali government, on the other hand, having been ineffective on the ground, has recently stepped up its propaganda campaign too. News stories, on-air drama series and, well, rather implausible ‘facts’ – distinctively characterized by derision – are often reiterated on the airwaves in order to influence the opinions of the masses. But these radio broadcasts do not often appeal to all audiences in the same manner, so the race is on for the opposing sides to sway public opinion to their side. Ethiopia has now also joined the race too.

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Somalia: Legitimizing the Illegitimate

Al-Shabab Parade

 

As I type this, a fierce battle is underway in the northern districts of Mogadishu. The rapid sound of machine guns and other firearms combined with the loud reverberations of tanks firing and mortars exploding can be heard from miles away. Since the beginning of Ramadan, there has been no respite from such daily battles, but as the month of fasting comes to an end, the battles here have become increasingly intense, particularly in the last few days. And with the ever changing formations of the battle lines and territorial boundaries that define the authority of the warring sides, the battle for Mogadishu, and eventually Somalia, has entered another new neighbourhood.

After a series of co-ordinated attacks yesterday that targeted the Ugandan forces in the vital artery of Makka Al Mukarrama and Shangani district, the Burundi forces in Boondheere district as well as the Somali troops, the Islamists seem to be getting ever closer to achieving their goal. At around evening the loud sounds of heavy artillery fire echoed throughout the city and the sparks of fireworks glowing against the setting sun could be seen from every corer of the city. After several hours of the rapid exchange of bullets came the deadly silence. In this bullet-scarred city, where the gun wreaked havoc for nearly three decades, the sound of a gun has become a part and parcel of life. Silence, especially after a fierce battle, often signalled that something ominous was in the air. People immediately scampered to safety, and not before long, the mortars made their daily rounds, tearing apart the tin-roofed ramshackle buildings and huts. In response to the attack, Amisom began shelling the residents. Soon the news hit the airwaves that up to 23 people were killed and dozens more injured. And though up to 230 are reported dead this month alone and more than 400 injured, the numbers are far greater than that. Estimates here are at around 500 killed and more than a thousand injured.

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The Ramadan Remedy

Mogadishu Morning

As the sun rises in Mogadishu this morning, it does so with a new spirit and a new prospect. Its luminous rays glow with the promise of hope and suffuse the hearts of these suffering souls with renewed optimism; it is optimism intertwined with some pessimistic undertones. But with the spirit of Ramadan saturating the surroundings of this bullet-battered city with its unique sense of jovialty and peace, some of the long-lost passions of the people have also been revived. Just like in its glory days, when Mogadishu was pulsating with youthful vitality, an animated public move about the city in preparation for the month of Ramadan. Ebullient Mogadishan women fill their baskets with dates in preparation for the holy month and buoyant kids are already counting down towards the Eid festival. All around, the city is bustling with a fertile effervescence and yet has a distinctive aura of tranquillity about it. It is surrounded by a peculiarly soothing ambiance which has somehow managed to remain defiantly placid despite the ricocheting bullets and the menacing mortars.


But while the high spirit appreciably diffuses some of the tensions in Mogadishu, a strong sensation of hostility also seems to pervade every part of the city. Ramadan, as the people of Mogadishu have come to learn, is a month of intense battles. The UN is increasing its international and local personnel in Somalia, though they are still not venturing out into the deadly Mogadishu streets. The African Union troops are positioning their mortars and have promised to increase the war. The mystic Sufis have declared war on Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabab. And the Islamists, on their part, have also vowed more attacks during Ramadan and have promised to defeat the ‘Christian Crusaders’ and the ‘enemies of Allah’ in the path of their holy war.

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Somalia: The Blurred Perspectives of Peace

The menacing sound of rockets whistled past my window and exploded, a few seconds later, with a thunderous noise. It is a common occurrence here in Mogadishu. Every day dozens of rockets and mortars claim the lives of innocent civilians living in areas often far away from the battle fronts. Despite living in a hotel protected by large slabs of concrete, the power of the explosion threw me to the ground. Soon the pervasive smell of gunpowder filled the corridors of the hotel. It was a harrowing experience, and though I had expected my journey to be very dangerous, the moment of explosion completely dismantled my determination. For a while the whistling sound continued, as I lay flat on the ground, followed shortly by large explosions. Once the hailstorm had subsided and things appeared normal again, I went out in response to the neighbour’s loud bellows of rage.

Outside the shattered tin-roofed house, Amina Hussein, a nurse at the local clinic, screamed her lungs out. Rummaging through the debris and gesticulating wildly, Amina had to be restrained by a group of women standing nearby. And as the crowd consoled the grief-stricken nurse, I peered into the destroyed house. Through the ruins, and illuminated by the sun’s rays seeping through the small openings, I was confronted by a horrific scene. Digging through the rubble along with some helpers, we quickly uncovered the four bodies. The nurse’s husband and three children, lying peacefully next to each other, were all covered in blood. Dressed in what seemed like a colourfully embroidered frock, the state of the youngest daughter, no more than five years of age, was perhaps the most shocking. Shrapnel had completely punctured her delicate body while blood slowly trickled out of her beautiful face.

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Mogadishu Without Music

Almost all of Mogadishu’s radio stations have stopped playing music in compliance with the order of Hizbul Islam, who ten days ago banned all radio stations from broadcasting music.

At that time, the government’s Ministry of Information Spokesman, Sheikh Abdirizak Mohammed Qeylow, strongly condemned the instructions of the Islamists, stating that their instructions would have no effect on the media:

“The so called Hizbul-Islam is now like a drowning man who clinches to straw, they are having no other options other than oppressing the media, they are ordering the radio stations not to air any sort of song may it be the national anthem. I know very well what they want to fill the gap of the songs – they are bringing the songs of Al-Qaida, and why they are doing all this is just because they are envious of Al-Shabab”

Today, however, except for the few radios under the TFG-controleld territory, Mogadishu’s radio stations remain silent. No music and no commercial jingles to spice up the programs. I don’t know how the rest of the Mogadishians here are coping with the ban, but luckily I brought my 160GB iPod along with me.

The Sufi Disintegration Phase

When Al-Shabaab exhumed the graves of the Sufi scholars in their Polytheism Eradication Campaign, all the people here in Mogadishu expected, in addition to the usual public outcries, an all-out war between Al-Shabaab and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa’a (ASWJ). Radio stations were abuzz with debates, coffee shops were alive with the silent Somali murmurs, animated discussions filled the public gatherings and the vociferous Sufi supporters protested as much as they could. But when the campaign swept through Somalia, leaving no stone unturned in its quest, and the Sufis, except for their spokesman vehemently expressing his sorrow on the airwaves and some demonstrations outside Somalia, silently bewailed their loss, the public noticed something slightly disconcerting. Was this all ASWJ could do? Or was there something more to come? The answer was a painful let-down for SWJ supporters. Nothing happened; not the much expected boldness in words and deeds, not the gathering of forces and not even the slightest of movement towards reclaiming their lost honour and saving the reputation of their saints.

Though it has been known fro quite some time here, as the well-versed politicians and coffee-shop pundits are quick to point out, that the Sufi elegance is slowly becoming out of fashion, it has now come to the realisation that soon they will no longer be able to survive. Made up of Sufis who claim mystical communication with their saints, unsuitable alliance of clan militia groups and political opportunists, ASWJ has now entered a phase of gradual disintegration. And there are many reasons for this. Some of which are:

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AMISOM Mortars Claim More Lives

While the rest of the world welcomed April with a feeling of unrestrained joviality, it was a sombre mood here in Mogadishu. For many of the weary Mogadishans living in these dismal blocks of concrete and tin-roofed houses, their mornings began with – well, the usual – death. No convivial atmosphere greeted them and no cheerful jokes made the rounds in the streets, for as March ended and the residents recoiled from the round of mortars that had crippled them, another greeted them.

Mogadishu knows no April fools day. Everything is real here.

Yesterday evening at around 5 PM, just as the workers returned home from a hard day’s work and reached their houses to spend some time with their families, the menacing sound of mortars began. AMISOM forces dished out their daily allotment of mortars to the unsuspecting civilians.

When a battle, between Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam on one side and the TFG forces on the other, raged on for a few hours in the once upper-class district of Hodan, some 500 metres away from the Ugandan base and now one of the many fronts in Mogadishu, AMISOM’s reply was unmistakably loud and clear.

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When Qat Rules…The Soldier Obeys


Qat

The putrid stench of blood waylays the senses as you walk past the covered bodies on the pavement. Blood, like depressing murals, paints a permanent sketch of red on the walls. Huddled around the corner, some few metres away, are the government troops, a rag-tag militia trained to serve as troops, dressed in a mismatch of colours and slinging their guns on their shoulders.

But despite the disparity in their uniform, they all share one thing in common: they are obsessed with Qat, a mild stimulant thought to produce a feeling of euphoria. And that is where the problem lies.

The corpses that lay lifeless on the pavement were all shot down by the government troops during their scuffle for Qat. At least 5 were reported to have been killed and several others injured. Incidents like these have become increasingly common among the TFG forces and tensions between the soldiers usually arise during their Qat sessions, as these are moments of absentmindedness and unrestrained feelings of elation. A drugged soldier with a gun.

But when the entity that was supposedly meant to govern the public and ensure their safety eats itself on the inside, because of a bundle of dry leaves, what remains of the governed?

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A Mogadishu Morning: Guns and Grenades

Militiaman Fires a Heavy Machine Gun

I woke up to the sounds of heavy gunfire this morning, and so did the residents of Mogadishu. Though at times peaceful, unexpected battles take place at Mogadishu’s front lines. This morning the forces of Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen launched a surprise attack on the defences of the government troops. After a heavy exchange of gunfire in a battle that lasted an hour or so, the local radio stations reported that Al-Shabaab have taken over Shibis district headquaters – one of the main strongholds of the TFG.

By conceding defeat in this district also to the Shabaab, the government now retains only 3 districts under its control; namely, Xamar Weyne, Xamar Jajab, Wadajir – that is three districts out of the total of 18! They are also present in the district of Shangani but do not control the whole district.

Since the government’s announcement of a major offensive, Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, the two Islamist groups confronting the feeble TFG, have been gradually advancing towards the Presidential Palace – which is now merely a few hundred metres from where the battle took place this morning – and the government troops seem to be extremely unsuccessful in keeping their grounds, let alone regaining lost territory. Now they are all cornered into a few blocks and the sea is behind them. A few weeks ago they launched an offensive, accompanied by Ugandan tanks, but failed miserably in their attempt and retreated with a wounded pride and morale as Al-Shabaab took over Global Hotel, a very strategic location in Cabdicaziiz district.

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