Propaganda War Becomes Somalia’s Political Powder Keg

Image: AP

Somalia’s election impasse has been heightened by the skillful use of communication machinery, amongst them, an intense disinformation campaign.

The impact of the misinformation and the disinformation campaign in Somalia’s national body politics has been so severe that the entire Federal Government has become its own captive.

While the Federal Government has been fighting for its right to exist after the end of its tenure way back in February, its survival has been dependent on advancing the right political narrative to resonate with a population impatient for public service.

The information campaign, in the middle of a pandemic, the war against terrorism and an inter-clan political rivalry, has moved to the social media and other digital platforms, where users are increasingly becoming more sophisticated.

“The political elite and their supporters use misinformation and disinformation to get the population on their side,” said Dahir Mire Jibreel, the former Chief of Staff to President Abdullahi Yusuf.

 “They do not care whether the information they are sharing is dangerous and divisive, they care about power and they will do whatever it takes to get to that goal,” Jibreel said.

President Yusuf died in exile in 2012 in the United Arab Emirates after leaving power in 2008 in a huff over an internal power struggle with his Prime Minister.

The subsequent effort to manage the political transition to the next administration proved divisive due to growing clan rivalries.

During his tenure, the government effectively galvanized clan militias and midwifed agreements between the various clan militias and government forces, which expanded the areas under state control.

The growth of social media and other digital technologies has brought with it the crisis of disinformation and misinformation, which has become a particular threat to Somalia’s fragile peace.

The Horn of Africa nation is facing yet another troubled regime transition in the middle of a pandemic and in the absence of a nationally recognized constitution.

In an attempt to avoid widespread political conflict, the incumbent President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo whose term expired in February, took an unprecedented step on May 1 of handing over some Executive authority to Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.

The President handed over the process of preparing the elections and national security affairs, including electoral security arrangements to PM Roble.

The enhanced task was an apparent reaction to social media talk of an impending impeachment of Premier Roble.

The talk of an impeachment followed days of an intensive social media campaign of attempts to fire the Premier over his public opposition of President Farmaajo’s unilateral term extension.

The social media campaigns could not be ruled out given the Somali Federal parliament’s history of unpredictable and unilateral action in its business.

The immediate former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire was unilaterally sent packing and a unilateral vote to extend the tenure of President Farmaajo was swiftly pushed through the house on April 12.

Days earlier, the office of the speaker of the Somali parliament was forced to deny plans to impeach Prime Minister Roble.

Parliament said it was disturbed by the disinformation and the misinformation spreading on the social media platforms.

The social media campaigns have been considered a potential threat to stability in the middle of an electoral period.

There has been sporadic fighting over delayed parliamentary and presidential elections in parts of Mogadishu.

The need to control and rule the social media spaces has been fierce between the Somali government and opposition groups after the electoral process stalled.

Somalia, a country recovering from decades of civil war and terrorism, has faced its fair share of misinformation and disinformation as politicians jostle for power and resources.

“The Somali politicians have learned and perfected the use of information and know what information has an impact and what does not. Whether true or false, any little information has a political value to these politicians and gets instant feedback from governments and international organizations,” said Jibreel.

Since President Farmaajo’s government clinched power in February 2017 and used the slogan Nabad iyo Nolol (Peace and Life), pro-government supporters have been using the hashtag #NabadiyoNolol to celebrate government successes.

On the other hand, the President’s critics have been using #NabariyoNaxdin (Wound and Shock) to dismiss the government’s claims.

In June 2020, a Somali music band Wayahacusub produced a song titled ‘Nabar iyo Naxdin,’ a song critical to the government. On Youtube, the song received 32,000 likes and 93,0000 dislikes.

The pro-government and anti-government groups call each other names like ‘Cayayanka Baraha Bulshada’ CBB (social media insects- pro government) and ‘Moryanta Baraha Bulshada’ MBB (social media gangs anti-government).

The two groups have been at the forefront to the misinformation and the disinformation campaigns.

The CBB and MBB also use social media to discredit, attack and delegitimize each other’s content.

Lee Mwiti, the Chief Editor of Africa Check, said in an interview with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies the abuse of information platforms across the African continent and the world over had become so widespread.

“We worry that we are not tracking the worst of what is being disseminated. Attempts to misuse information are amplified by the online environment where everything happens in real time,” Mwiti said.

The Africa Check, a fact-checking organization established in 2012, fact checks 100,000 inquiries from media users each year.

Analysts say some Somali social media users do innovatively fabricate information to distort and manipulate readers and viewers.

For their narrative to get credibility, they turn to politically motivated pseudo-experts to give their views in the local and international media organizations.

Jibreel said there are many competing interests and getting credible information to make a good decision has been problematic.

Mwiti warned inaccurate information could cause harm to society.

“Those who profit from spreading rumors and inciting the public present their misleading information as fact. They usually occupy influential positions in society, giving them the power to shape opinion. Good fact-checking entails focusing on claims which, if left unchecked, have the potential to cause serious harm,” Mwiti said.