Somalia: Is shrinking civil society space needed to end Al-Shabaab?

By Mohamed Sheikh Nor

Posted on Monday, 30 January 2023 15:50
Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud attends a rally against the al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group al-Shabaab in Mogadishu on January 12, 2023. (Photo by Hodan Mohamed / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP)

At the end of 2022, the Somali government circulated an informal verbal communication to media houses, urging local news outlets to submit content for approval prior to broadcasting. This was at the height of a sustained military campaign against Al-Shabaab and observers saw it as a move to curtail the publication of any content associated with the insurgents. But the government says it’s an effort to match the Islamist’s propaganda machine.

Throughout its existence, Al-Shabaab has managed to produce captivating propaganda material targeting local populations, the wider East Africa, and international audiences.

The group is adept at psychological operations (PSYOPS) messaging and takes advantage of government inefficiencies in communications – mostly in regard to casualty figures and the chronology of attacks – to provide its own narrative about the situation on the ground.

Through its communications, the group aims to weaken domestic public support for intervening regional and international forces, as well demoralising the rank-and-file of the Somali National Army.

With the ongoing war against Al-Shabaab, the suppression of free speech is at an all-time high in Somalia, with civil society and human rights defenders worried about how far this may go.

Demise of Somali civil society movement

There are three reasons for concern coming from the sphere of civil society:

  • Many who used to speak out against human rights violations have since joined the government;
  • Due to a lack of funding because donor support is primarily going to government institutions, many no longer have the means to make their voices heard;
  • Many former activists have emigrated from Somalia, leaving behind few operational civil society organisations or human rights advocates.

According to Ahmed Dini, the head of Peace-Line, an NGO based in Mogadishu that works in finding a lasting peace solution for Somalia, the absence of a dedicated civil society has created a vacuum in an area that once had many members lobbying for free speech.

This has led to greater suppression of civil liberties with the current situation at its lowest level in recent times.

Prior to becoming head of state, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was an active member of the once vibrant Somali civil rights movement before joining politics, like many other leaders who are now Members of Parliament or in cabinet positions.

Ahmed Abdisalam, a pioneering voice in Somalia’s free speech movement and director of Horncenter – a research and strategic planning organisation – believes that the sphere for freedom of expression has eroded over the years.

That sphere has been whittled down on account of both the government not supporting such liberties and extremist groups which hijack that freedom to promote their cause, says Abdisalam.

“Unless such factors change, things will continue to deteriorate and become far worse than they are now. It’s vital that the government make freedom of speech a priority, in part because only then is democratisation possible, and also to [move ahead with electoral reform] […] to set up a one-vote for one-man system across the country for every citizen,” Abdisalam tells The Africa Report.

The threats to freedom of expression in the country worsened at the end of 2022 after communication officers within the government issued an order instructing news outlets to submit content to the state for approval before broadcasting.

The decision was made at the height of a sustained military campaign against Al-Shabaab. But soon after, the government denied such a move, however, media outlets had already reacted to the orders.

Abdalla Mumin, the secretary general of the Somali Journalist Syndicate (SJS), criticised the government’s decision, alleging that Mogadishu intended to harm journalists as part of its campaign against Al-Shabaab.

While the federal government denied issuing the directive, the dissenting secretary general of the SJS was arrested for security-related issues, though he was subsequently released on bail. Despite several hearings in the Banadir regional law courts, Mumin has not yet been acquitted of the charges and remains prohibited from travelling abroad.

The SJS secretary general, personally accused Abdirahman Al-Adala, the FGS deputy information minister of authorising his arrest. In response to the allegations, deputy information minister Abdirahman Al-Adala denied any involvement in the journalist’s arrest and court appearance.

Speaking to The Africa Report, Adala says the government constitutionally protects freedom of speech as a fundamental right of every individual, and will not suppress that right now or in the future.

On the other hand, Adala agrees that freedom of expression has been curtailed in the past few years, but says the government is not solely to blame, as Al-Shabaab extremists are the main culprits suppressing free speech.

“About 10 or more years ago, extremists suppressed freedom of expression and even started killing those who advocated for it, and this is the cause of the gap,” says Adala.

Place of civil society in Somali culture

Somalis are traditionally an oral society, with poetry being the preferred medium to express sentiments and influence mindsets. The nature of Somali society respects the right to free speech, even though after independence in 1960, successive administrations always suppressed freedom of expression.

Following the collapse of the central government in 1991, the clan militias who overthrew the government carved the country into fiefdoms, and gross violations of human rights went unchecked.

It was during the period of anarchy, preceding 1991, that a strong civil society movement emerged to stand up against violations of human rights. The movement was led by dozens of activists and civil society groups who became a powerful voice for defending free speech in Somalia.

During the 30 years of conflict in Somalia, activists and civil society organisations established themselves as an important element of governance. They were never afraid to criticise warlords and their militias and would release press statements that were broadcast across radio stations, such as Xurmo radio.

As a result of their influence and ability to resist intimidation from warlords and clan militia, in times of conflict, civil society groups and activists in Mogadishu remained the breeding ground that anchored the spread of free speech through civil society organisations. Many of these activists and even warlords, such as Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, went on to become presidents.

Government must take responsibility for human rights violations

The state of human rights in Somalia is on a downward trend, more so for journalists, says Mohamed Ibrahim, the chairperson of the Somali Journalist Syndicates. He adds that the current administration must take responsibility.

“The government is pursuing freedom of speech activists and wants to curtail the press’s freedom, intimidate journalists and send a chilling message to the media as a whole,” Ibrahim tells The Africa Report.

“Activists fighting for freedom of expression, including journalists, have long been [the] targets of arbitrary arrests by security forces without trial. This has become the norm”.

When asked to comment on the frequent arrests of journalists, police spokesman Sadiq Ali Aden says: “The police are upholding the law, unlike other security forces, and do not arrest individuals based on their right to freedom of expression.”

The breakaway autonomous region of Somaliland, which prides itself as a beacon of democracy in the larger Somali region, has also been accused of limiting freedom of speech and violating human rights. Liibaan Shaadiro is a member of the Somaliland Union of Journalists but now lives in Mogadishu after fleeing the state capital Hargeysa. Shaadiro was arrested by Somaliland security forces for publishing articles highlighting the administration’s violation of human rights.

In 2022, five demonstrators were killed in Hargeysa for participating in a protest organised by opposition political parties who were against the extension of a term limit by current president Muse Bihi Abdi.

The situation has not improved and restrictions still remain targeting free speech, movement, and the right to hold public gatherings.

Fighting to control Somali media

Al-Shabaab is on record for warning the media to stay neutral while performing their duties. At the onset of the government’s alleged ban on publishing content about Al-Shabaab, the federal government reported that 40 social media accounts had been suspended for infringing on social stability and integrity, this was according to the Deputy Minister of Information.

The terrorist group is facing a major onslaught and its capacity for guerrilla warfare has greatly been diminished. From past experiences, when the militants begin to feel the pinch, they often turn to propaganda to discredit adversaries in an effort to win public support.

But in trying to reduce the space for Al Shabaab’s communication, the government’s tactic to control the space of freedom of expression has instead silenced the voices of civil society.

In winning the war against Al-Shabaab, the Somali government will need to find a way to rebuild a state where free speech is once again an active member of Somali society.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options