Life Inside Somalia’s Bunker Government
An interview with Information Minister Dahir Gelle, as told to FP's Elizabeth Dickinson.
Just after I was sworn in as a minister in Somalia’s government last August, I took a tour of my new office, located at the heart of the turbulent capital, Mogadishu. I had been there before — though only for a glimpse. This time, as I walked through the halls and ventured into the rooms, I saw what I was really in for: There were no telephones, no fax equipment, no Internet access, and the radios weren’t working. And I was the new minister of information.
In Somalia, to be minister of information is to lead a war — a war of ideas — against the Islamist militias tearing the country apart. On one side, you have al-Shabab and its affiliates, linked with al Qaeda. On the other side, you have the Somali Information Ministry and the government, trying to communicate with Somali people. That was our job, but we lacked even the most basic equipment to do it.
My first days of work as a cabinet minister were spent buying tools — a transmitter for the radio and other equipment for my office. I had to find generators for electricity. We had to start everything from ground zero on everything, lacking in financial resources as well.
Then I had to find journalists from Mogadishu’s shrinking media to add to our staff. We started with only 30, but today we have about 100, and we have managed to be online almost 18 hours a day. Our radio station, Radio Mogadishu, has a website. It is broadcast in Somalia daily by satellite. By now, my daily work has moved on from finding transmitters and phones, but I still spend much of my time watching over the security of the ministry’s staff.
Our most important job these days is to cure the Somali people of the idea that Shabab and al Qaeda are a future for Somalia. We have to help people understand that Shabab’s agenda is not in their interest. We have a variety of programs: cultural, sport, or programs led by religious scholars who explain how Shabab has nothing to do with Islam. Traditional leaders have spoken on the air. We support the forces fighting against Shabab in central regions by helping them to communicate with the country.
A good example of our work was aired at the end of December: a program called the "Destiny of Shabab." Radio Mogadishu outlined the differences between different groups within Shabab — those who are led by foreign elements and those who are led by more nationalistic and local leaders. We can tell that our listeners listened in great numbers to that program because after it aired, Shabab outlawed Radio Mogadishu and prohibited listening to it in the territories that they control. The result of that banning, however, was not what Shabab expected: We have seen an increase in listeners since the program. Our answer to their ban was to broadcast Radio Mogadishu via satellite.
Now, for the first time, we feel that we have the upper hand against Shabab when it comes to the communication war. We have exposed their nature; we have exposed their wrong ideas and twisted ideology. Shabab has a radical agenda: They are against the Somali flag and don’t recognize the borders of Somalia. They say they are planning to send support, in the form of fighters, to nearby Yemen. We have explained this to the Somali people, and Shabab is feeling the heat. Of course, they are still stronger when it comes to the military, but when it comes to the core ideas, we are starting to make inroads. It is very important that this government win the hearts and minds of the Somali people.
This does put us at risk, but our lives — the lives of the journalists working at Radio Mogadishu — are similar to the lives of the Somali people: constantly under threat. We do believe we are perhaps more endangered; there are elements within Shabab and another Islamist militia, Hizbul al-Islam, that want to silence us and the voice of Radio Mogadishu. Our reporters and producers have received calls from Shabab, saying "We will kill you — you are No. 1 on our list." We record those calls when they come into our studios so that we have a record of the threats as evidence.
Security is why everyone from Radio Mogadishu must live in a compound inside the ministry, where they are a bit safer. Life takes place at the ministry — family life, work, everything. The women and men have different compounds where they live.
Life for other journalists is also incredibly difficult. They too face many death threats. As a former owner of a Quranic radio station, I have witnessed this firsthand and I continue to have good relations with the independent media. Today, there are about 13 radio and TV outlets in Mogadishu.
When I recently met with some of these media organizations, I asked them why their reporting often seemed biased against the government. They replied, "Of course, we know that we are not reporting on some issues very neutrally. But our lives are being threatened by al-Shabab. When we start our work in the morning, someone from al-Shabab is always waiting at the entrance to the office. If we try to tell the truth, or say something that runs against al-Shabab, then we know we will be killed. Some of our friends have lost their lives because of that. This is why we can’t always tell the truth and why we have some biased reporting."
Journalists today in Somalia have lost all freedom of expression. That’s why we, as an information ministry, have redoubled our effort and established Radio Mogadishu. We have vowed to report on everything — even if there is a wrongdoing on the government side.
For the entire Somali cabinet, life is a daily struggle. Our basic approach is to do what we can. We start from the question of what we can accomplish with our very, very small resources.
I know everyone as a human being would like to live longer and live in a peaceful area. But sometimes in life, you have no choice. You have to make sacrifices — because of religion or because of the nation’s interest. In our situation, we are there every day because of the nation’s interest, because of the challenges that we are facing.
I remember when three of our ministers died in a Dec. 3, 2009, suicide attack. It killed students and doctors attending a graduation ceremony as well. I remember having a cabinet meeting right after and making a common promise to ask each other that we have to be strong and we have to be committed for the long haul — re-establishing peace in Somalia. All of us ministers made that commitment. We have no choice but to stay and fight, even if we have to die for it.