How are Somalia and Somalians portrayed in the media, with reference to 'Warlords Next Door'?
The media representation of non-western cultures and societies has arguably been one of the major casualties of modern media globalisation. Furthermore, this globalisation is often accused of attempting to divide the world into two easily understood opposing groups, centered around the twin concepts of westernisation and secularism. As English-language media organisations have sought to reach the widest possible audiences, many commentators have suggested that "traditional fictive narratives of good and bad, right and wrong etc. have become the dominant discourses in the supposedly non-fiction sphere of news reportage" (Pink, 2006, p. 21); in other words, the media has attempted to establish a series of binary opposites that are easily understandable by people in a variety of cultures. One major casualty of such an approach is the African continent, which has been "stereotyped as poor, uneducated and technologically backwards in comparison to modern Europe and America" (Talbot & Alia, 2007, p. 180), thereby ignoring what many other commentators argue is a rich and varied array of social and cultural indicators. In particular, countries such as Somalia have been depicted as war-torn lands with little or no government or legal system, and while there is certainly a case to be made for these nations having significant internal problems, many reports have highlighted the sensationalist and headline-grabbing elements of such societies. As the documentary 'Warlords Next Door' shows, the resultant cultural stereotypes and media misrepresentations can be difficult to shift.
Somalia is a country in a state of transition, and is routinely identified as being on the forefront of the cultural clashes between Islam and native African society. The country has traditionally struggled to strengthen its ties to its African neighbours, since its 1974 accession to the Arab League left many other East African states fearful that Somalia could become the launching pad for a gradual invasion of the continent by evangelical Islamists; this threat was highlighted in 'Warlords Next Door', which showed Somalia to be a country on the cusp of becoming a so-called 'rogue state'. To an extent, these concerns have been proved to be justified, as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) has sought to encourage the growth of Islam within the country, often in direct opposition to the official government (although as will be seen later, the ICU's position is extremely fluid). As a result, Somalia has spent much of the twenty-first century so far in a vicious civil war that has so far claimed over half a million lives (IOL, 2009). Many media organisations have attempted to characterise the Somalian civil war as "a battle for the soul of Eastern Africa... between native Africans and insurgent invading Islamists" (Walker, 2009), when in fact a careful examination of the cultural and social trends in the country indicate that deeper, more naturally occurring problems in the country have been to blame for trouble that stretches back over half a century, with the current wave of Islamism merely the most recent development. In particular, the position of Islamist forces in the continuing civil war has fluctuated massively, with their allegiances at various times being pro and anti government. The idea presented in the western media, that Islamic forces are attempting to undermine the country's new government, can therefore be seen to be incorrect.
The dominant depiction of Somalian society in the media, including 'Warlords Next Door', suggests that the country's conventional economy is moribund, and the only significant source of income for the majority of Somalians is piracy and warfare. In particular, the ransoms paid to pirates and the fees paid to weapons salesmen are popularly claimed to be the only effective revenue sources for the average Somalian individual. To an extent, this appears to be correct, and it's certainly the case that, for example, a Somalian pirate can earn much more than the national average of $2 per day (Lewis, 2008). However, the idea that Somalian society has re-ordered itself around competing pirate groups is somewhat off the mark. In fact, Somalian piracy is a factor only in a small number of coastal settlements, while the country's warlords are mostly to be found in the eastern Puntland are of the country. Around 75% of Somalians live on less than $2 per day, and only around 5% live on more than $10 per day (Lewis, 2008), thereby proving that the notion that warlords and pirates have come to dominate the country, as seemingly evidenced in 'Warlords Next Door', is somewhat exaggerated. The pirates and warlords are conservatively estimated to represent no more than 0.25-0.5% of the Somalian population (Lewis, 2008; Pink, 2006; and others), yet documentaries such as 'Warlords Next Door' arguably suggest that such figures are far more prominent. For the most part, Somalian communities are (by western standards) extremely poor, with no financial aid from the government, from international agencies, or from warlords and pirates. The common media idea that many Somalians are illicitly supported by warlords and pirates can therefore be seen to be wildly inaccurate.
Somalia has in many ways become a stateless society in which various unconventional governmental theories have been tried out. Most controversially, Alex Tabarrok argues that Somalia currently provides "a perfect opportunity to witness the workings of a state run according to the concept of anarchy" (Tabarrok, 2004), although other commentators note that anarchy requires certain prerequisites that are missing in Somalia, thereby rendering the nation subject to chaos rather than anarchy. The distinction is small but important, and reinforces the idea that the western media has taken Somalia to be a good example of what happens to a nation when conventional rule breaks down. This fits in with what Ioan Lewis calls "the modern expectation of a good exemplar when it comes to the interference of militant Islam in the affairs of sovereign nations" (Lewis, 2008, p. 75). In other words, the modern 'war on terror' was based on the idea that militant Islam should not be allowed to gain power, and in order for that idea to gain traction, it was necessary for there to be an example somewhere in the world of the chaos that would ensue if such an eventuality were allowed to develop. Somalia fits this expectation, and the media has been used to ensure that any contradictions are minimised. In this way, the media portrayal of Somalia can be seen to have been part of an overall political program designed to position Somalia as an example of the consequences of unchecked militant Islamic growth. Arguably, in seeking to position Somalia within the global narrative of the 'war on terror', media representations of the country, including 'Warlords Next Door', have unfairly suggested that the country's conflict is polarised around pro and anti Islamic factions.
One aspect of the conflict in Somalia that has rarely been mentioned in the western media - including 'Warlords Next Door' is the claim by many in the region that western (including Swiss, British and Canadian) firms have illegally dumped significant quantities of toxic chemical and nuclear waste in the unregulated waters off the Somalian cost. Although no firm evidence has yet emerged to prove these accusations, there is significant testimony concerning illicit contracts, un-registered vessels in Somalian waters, and radiation sickness among communities in coastal areas. A number of Somalian pirates have claimed that their principal aim is to intercept and counter the vessels that are engaged in this illegal activity, and although it would be wrong to argue that the pirates' motives have been entirely misrepresented by the western media, it nevertheless seems that the actions of European, Asian and American companies in the Somalian area have tended to be played down in favour of a simpler, more acceptable narrative in which Somalian pirates are simply seeking to extort ransoms from western firms. In fact, Ken Menkhaus has suggested that the combined value of such dumping contracts and illegal fishing activities is up to three times that of the combined value of the Somalian pirate activities. In other words, despite the huge ransom sums regularly being paid to Somalian pirates, the economic scales are still tilted firmly in favour of the west.
It's clear that, as well as causing immense internal conflict, the breakdown of law and government in Somalia has led to misery from many Somalians. Western media outlets have perpetuated the idea that this is not only a country where the threat of militant Islam is strong, but also a country where the only source of income is war and piracy. It's clear that such depictions of Somalia ignore the fact that the majority of the population are in no way involved in the activities of warlords and pirates. As the 'Warlords Next Door' documentary indicates, the warlord / piracy angle is a convenient way for western media outlets to sum up the situation in Somalia and to make it relevant to the ongoing worldwide narrative of the 'war on terror'. In practice, the internal conflict in Somalia can be traced back over a century, and some commentators argue that it's concerned, at its core, with "the almost random way that European cartographers and explorers divided Africa into nation states that ignored regional affiliations" (Lacey, 1998, p. 214). The prominence of warlords in Somalia is therefore a symptom, rather than a cause, of the current unrest; the latter reflects a problem that can be found all across the African continent, where arbitrary national boundaries separate cultures with affinities and force them to accept nation statehood with their natural enemies. It's clear, therefore, that the western media representation of Somalia does not reflect the longevity of the country's struggles.
- Foster, Jim (2008). 'Dispatches: Warlords Next Door' [film] (UK, 2008)
- Gettleman, Jeffrey (2007). 'In Somalia, Those Who Feed Off Anarchy Fuel It', in 'The New York Times', 27th April 2007
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- Tabarrok, Alex (2004). 'Somalia and the Theory of Anarchy', in 'Marginal Revolution', vol. 18, no. 4
- Talbot, Mary & Valerie Alia (2007). 'Media Discourse: Representation and Interaction'. London & New York: Routledge
- Walker, Penny (2009). 'Somalia Drifts Further Into Civil War and Tragedy', in 'The Guardian' 12th September 2009