The world's biggest humanitarian disaster today is in Somalia. In an unprecedented move in November 2008, 52 international NGOs (including Oxfam and the Danish Refugee Council) called for immediate action to avert a colossal disaster. They reported that 3.25 million people, almost half of Somalia's population, were in need of emergency aid. This was a 77% increase since the beginning of 2008, having grown dramatically due to the destructive combination of extreme lack of security, drought and record-high food prices. Fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, had displaced approximately 37,000 civilians from their homes. Over the previous nine months, 870,000 had fled for their lives, while a total of 1.1 million Somali people were currently displaced within their own country.
One in six children under five (approximately 180,000) were thought to be acutely malnourished in Southern and Central Somalia; 26,000 were severely malnourished and needing immediate treatment. Over the previous 18 months, hyperinflation had led to price increases for food and basic non-food items by up to 1,000%. Among the coping mechanisms identified in reports to UNHCR in August was forced prostitution. Additionally, thousands were desperately fleeing the country on small boats across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Countless numbers never make it.
Yet all this has hardly been covered in the UK's corporately-owned media. In mid-November, Somalia suddenly became big in the news-but the focus was placed on the threat to major international oil companies' tankers from Somali-based pirates. The (London) Times of 18 November was typical: a double-page spread was devoted to the seizure by Somali pirates of a "supertanker" carrying $100 million worth of Saudi oil. A large, detailed graphic of the Sirius Star highlighted its tonnage, length, crew size and so on. None of the five stories in the feature package mentioned the famine that presumably stimulated the growth of piracy.
Similarly, in the Guardian of the same day, a double-page spread covered the "tanker seizure" story without mentioning the imminent humanitarian disaster. The Daily Telegraph covered the event and described Somalia as a war-torn country which Western intelligence services have long seen as a safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups. No mention of the famine. The Sun highlighted the capture of "two Brits" by the pirates; again, no mention of the humanitarian disaster.
To his credit, Simon Tisdall, in his column in the Guardian, on 18 November, highlighted the concern of leading nations about safeguarding sea lanes rather than the lives of the 3.25 million Somalis at risk. For media and politicians, he concluded, "chasing cut-throat pirates is sexier than helping starving Somalis." Indeed.
Also missing from the Somalia coverage (in the mainstream media in both the UK and U. S.) has been a proper focus on the political origins of the current crisis in Somalia-warlord takeover leading to the disastrous intervention by U. S. forces and small contingents from other countries in 1992. This culminated on 4 October 1993 when 18 Marines were killed in a battle (the subject of the Hollywood blockbuster, Black Hawk Down) with the militia of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid-and some were dragged through the streets under the eyes of the international media. By 1994 all U. S. troops had withdrawn, leaving the impoverished country to its fate. Then in December 2006, an invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops to oust the Islamist government was backed by the United States.
James Blitz and Robert Wright, in the Financial Times of 21 November, 2008 made no mention of the humanitarian crisis and only a token, passing reference to the U. S. support for Ethiopia's 2006 invasion. On Saturday, 22 November, Catherine Phelp in The Times concentrated on the pirates, but reported that the Western-backed government headed by Abdullah Yusuf was also deeply involved in piracy. Phelp did mention, en passant, that the Ethiopian troops were backed by the U. S. in 2006-but this drew no critical comment. Apparently, U. S. military intervention in countries across the globe is unproblematic and not worthy of any outrage in The Times' worldview. On 23 November, in the Sunday Times, the narrow economic angle persisted with the report concentrating on security firms anticipating "new jobs on the high seas."
The best coverage came in Peter Beaumont's feature in the Observer of 23 November. He rightly commented: "If what is happening is a disaster, it is a disaster hardly noticed by the world." He continued: "While the world has focused on the rampant piracy problem afflicting the Gulf of Aden, which saw yet another tanker held for ransom last week, the seizing of ships is only a symptom of a much more terrifying malaise. What it points to is the wholesale failure of a state and the international community's abandonment of the Somalia problem except where it affects its interests in terms of shipping trade and the 'war on terror' for the West and on a more local scale for the regional interests of Ethiopia and Eritrea."
There is also a reference by Beaumont to Somalia's appalling humanitarian crisis-though it comes buried in paragraph 12: "Forty-three per cent of the country is in dire need of humanitarian assistance, about 3.2 million people at the last count. There are 1.3 million internally displaced, 100,000 of them fleeing the fighting in Mogadishu alone since the beginning of September. Inflation is running at 1,600 per cent. One in six children in southern and central Somalia is acutely malnourished."
But in a separate timeline on Somalia's recent history, the representation of America's imperial aggression in the country, is strangely softened. The U. S. is said to have merely "encouraged" Ethiopia's invasion of 2006. It did, in fact, far more. For instance, the CIA had earlier backed-with weapons and intelligence-the grouping of warlords known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter Terrorism. This alliance was determined to oust the Islamic Courts Union which, most commentators accept, had managed to bring some desperately needed stability to the country. And then during the actual invasion and for months afterwards, U.S. jets and gunships pounded targets in support of the Ethiopian invaders. How many civilians died in these attacks we will never know.
Finally, in December 2008, Ethiopian troops began to withdraw from Somalia after their two-year occupation of the country-marking a massive defeat for U. S. President George Bush's attempts to counter the rise of Islam in Africa. This retreat went largely unnoticed in the UK (and U. S.) mainstream media.