Soundslide: The (Western) story of Somalia

I recently discovered Charlie Chaplin’s speech in the movie “The Great Dictator” from 1940. Here, Chaplin talks about the terrors of Hitler’s nazi regime. Although, I do not mean to compare the situation in Somalia with the atrocities of the Second World War, I find the central message – giving power back to the people – inspiring in the light of what is happening in Somalia. The original speech is protected by copyright, so you will have to do with my vocals.

New media and new technology in East Africa

Access to mobile phones is booming in East Africa. This has seen a growth in social networking fueled by the transition from the PC to the mobile. Online communication is becoming the new trend, but does everyone benefit from this?  

Photo Credit: Pernille Bærendtsen, Nairobi-Klubben

The mobile phone revolution

The developing world’s share of mobile phone subscriptions increased 20% in 2010. In comparison, subscriptions increased by 1.6% in the developed world. According to the Tanzanian daily, The Citizen, 75% of the 42 million population will have access to a mobile phone within the next four years.

The development of access to the internet in Tanzania as well as other East African countries has gone and is going fast, partly due to the access via mobile. Growth in social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook has been fueled by the transition from the PC to the mobile.

For example, access to Facebook via mobile phone in Kenya is relatively cheap (8 Kenyan shilling for 10 MB – ‘which is a little for lot’). Statistics show that mobile users in Kenya spend on average 3.1 hours per week on social networking sites compared to just 2.2 hours on email.

What about the minority, who don’t have mobile phones?

The impact of the access of the mobile phone has little effect, if we are talking:

  • rural areas
  • women
  • people with little or no education.

The articles: ‘Is the ‘mobile phone revolution’ in Africa really for everybody?’ and ‘Mobile phones and the new ‘digital divide’’ couple the positive development with concerns.

In a paper published by Audience Scapes, Gayatri Murthi acknowledges the unprecedented rapid increase of mobile phones in the developing world – but she goes on to show that gender and income disparities mean that by no means everybody is able to reap the benefits.

Men are much more likely to have access to mobile phones than women. In East Africa, a woman is 23% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. Unequal educational opportunities present another divide.

For example, 93% of Kenyans with formal education had access to a mobile phone, as opposed to 50% of those without. Since a higher proportion of men than women have access to formal education, this reinforces the gender imbalance.

Will new media and new technology liberate the people?

The fact is that people in rural areas, women and the uneducated are less likely to receive information via mobile phone, relying more in interpersonal communication. This challenges assumptions that new technologies are in and of themselves, going to democratize the information environment.

The advantages of new media lie in the ability to not only access information, where ever you might be, but also the ability to contribute with content. But the challenge remains though, that control over technique and access does not necessarily make good content.

On the other hand, online communication facilitates the establishment of online communities. Political activism and civil journalism can be used to voice opinions that might otherwise be silenced if expressed off-line. The strongest case of this might be the role of Facebook to organize demonstrations in the Middle East.

Debate: Somali struggle to flee violence

Somali people have been fleeing violence and famine for over 20 years. This has caused a humanitarian crisis that is often met with oppression and exploitation. Most countries along the refugee routes deny forced migrants basic human rights.

From violence to safety

Somali people were fleeing the violence and famine in their homeland even before the civil war broke out in 1991. My father along with many other Somalis sought asylum in Denmark as early as 1989.

However, with the growth in violence occasioned by the Ethiopian invasion of 2006, the exodus has severely increased. The majority of Somalis flee to neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen.

Somalis, who flee their homeland may be defined as forced or economic migrants by some nation states and refugees by others, who are willing to recognize often ill-defined violence as persecution.

Migrants are denied basic human rights

Forced migrants and refugees often flee the same violence, but the former have few rights and are sometimes given some form of subsidiary protection, so that the hosting nation will not be accused of sending the migrant back into a zone in which his/her life is at risk.

On the other hand, refugees have the right to travel, work, and educate their children in a fashion equivalent to that of ordinary citizens. According to the Geneva Convention, the definition of a refugee is:

”a person, who because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable or owing to such fear unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” (UN General Assembly 2007, 16)

If say a Somali is forced to migrate because of bandits that have cleared his/hers village, so they can take advantage of the food and livestock left behind, then how does one determine whether or not the migrant is, in fact, a refugee.

The perpetrators could have been made free to commit such atrocities by the chaos created by a larger pattern of persecutions. Nevertheless, the indeterminate nature of violence can make it relatively easy for nation states to deny refugee status to people who are directly or indirectly victims of war and persecution.

Somali diaspora provides financial support

Most countries do not welcome mass migration, so they create legal barriers for Somali migrants. In turn, Somalis create and participate in a transnational community (diaspora) that operates to overcome these barriers.

A worldwide network of money-wiring offices run by Somalis allows them to send money to friends and relatives even in the refugee camps. Meanwhile, organizations smuggle Somali migrants across borders and seas.

The current approach to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia hinders organizations charged with the care of refugees and forced migrants from carrying out their missions successfully. Instead of being a temporary solution, Dadaab has become the largest refugee camp in the world and has been operated as a human warehouse for nearly twenty years.

The current approach removes Somalis from the category of human through a discourse that selectively distributes human rights – rights that were supposed to be universal.


Rutledge, Doug and Roble Abdi, 2010, “The Infrastructure of Migration and the Migration Regime: Human Rights, Race, and the Somali Struggle to Flee Violence” in Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Perspectives 3 (2), pp. 153-178

Profiles: International coverage of Somalia

Kenya and Canada can boast of some of the best coverage of Somalia told by young and courageous journalists bent on investigative and independent reporting from one of the most dangerous places on earth. 

Fatuma Noor, 24, Kenyan-Somali journalist

Noor won the “2011 CNN African Journalist of the Year” award for her investigative three-part series on the Al-Shabaab in Star newspaper. The articles tell the story of the young men who give up their freedom abroad to return and fight for the Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Noor is a renowned journalist, who has won many awards in a young age. She currently works for The Observer as part of a David Astor Journalism Programme, which works to promote independent journalism in Africa.

As a Somali woman writing investigative stories, Noor faces regular threats and her own family oppose her profession. According to Noor, in Somali culture, it is wrong to speak and raise an opinion in front of men. Even travelling for work unaccompanied by a relative is not permitted.

Jay Bahadur, 27, author of “The Pirates of Somalia”

The Toronto-based freelance journalist recently published the book “The Pirates of Somalia”, which is based on three months of research in Puntland – an autonomous region of Somalia and the heart of the pirates’ tribal homeland.

For a foreigner, his access to the region was truly unique. Bahadur brilliantly juggles background stories, gossip, family ties, backroom political dealings and daily impressions of life in Somalia.

Recently, Bahadur landed the job as the Managing Editor at SomaliaReport – a Nairobi-based website with an extensive network of local journalists, which aims to be Somalia’s premiere source for non-partisan and clan-neutral news coverage.

Bashir Yusuf Osman, Somali Hotel owner

Situated in the heart of Mogadishu, the Peace Hotel serves as the accommodation of choice for most foreign journalists visiting the capital. BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. They all come here. The hotel is like a white flag in city torn by battles between different militias.

The owner, Bashir Yusuf Osman arranges professional security teams for every journalist. The importance of having a good security team cannot be overstated in this lawless city. Several journalists have been targeted or killed in or around other Mogadishu hotels in the past.

Osman is also able to fix meetings with anyone and everyone, from the militant Shabaab fighters to local businessmen to the parliament members of the transitional government. Ironically perhaps, it is the civil war that may be the key to the success of Bashir’s business.

Debate: Humanitarian relief

One common image of Somalia is poverty. Add to that disease and famine. The somali people are often portrayed as in need of humanitarian relief. Images of malnourished children with big bellies accompanied by relief shows begs donations to aid agencies. But does anyone benefit from the aid?

Emergency aid and relief shows

On 27 August 2011, the Danish viewers of a national relief show named “Afrika Nu!” donated 110 million Danish kroner to people affected by famine in the Horn of Africa. The money was given to 16 Danish humanitarian organizations (NGO’s) that operate in the region.

Three months later, the Islamic militant group, Al-Shabaab issued a statement banning these organizations from working in areas under the group’s control, accusing them of “illicit activities and misconduct.”

Before that, reports told of aid relief piling up in warehouses in Mogadishu, while people were dying of hunger. Other reports showed how sacks of grain meant for starving Somalis were being stolen and sold in markets.

Aid saves thousands, UN says

Meanwhile, Valerie Amos, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, states that humanitarian relief efforts have saved thousands of lives since famine was declared in July. In Somalia, 4 million people are still in crisis and 250.000 face famine at this moment.

Humanitarian organizations working in Somalia remain strictly neutral, with their only task being to save lives, according to the UN. Amos urges all parties to the conflict in Somalia to respect international humanitarian law.

In addition, environmental scientists suspect that the severe drought in the Horn of Africa is a direct consequence of climate change and the rising global temperatures.   Droughts have so far occurred every 5 – 7 years in the region, but almost never with the extreme conditions of today.

Empowering the people, not the government

Some argue that aid alleviates suffering, while others point out that aid is not effective in the long run. The basic criticism is that aid neither goes where it was intended nor helps those intended.

According to Paul Collier, Professor of Economics, there are four known traps that contribute this problem:

  1. Conflict trap, where aid end up being used to finance military endeavors.
  2. Natural resource trap, where aid is given to resource-rich countries that already have capital flowing into their economies. However, it is not being used to its potential.
  3. Landlock trap is when it is difficult for landlocked countries to engage in global trade.
  4. Bad governance.

Collier’s conclusion is, that aid needs to somehow provide incentives for giving the people power. Power needs to be transferred from the governments to the people. Therefore, aid should be restructured in order to allow for skills building in the countries.