The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Mogadishu fishing harbor, 2012. Image credit Stuart Price for UN Photo via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

It’s possible that some of us cannot help losing ourselves in the sorrows of other people’s stories.

– Nuruddin Farah

In a piece for n+1 magazine, Russian American author and journalist Masha Gessen defends a decision to compare the Gaza Strip to the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe with recourse to the importance of comparison in how we understand the world. “A color is a color only among other colors. A shape is a shape only as it is distinct from other shapes. A feeling is a feeling only if you have experienced other feelings.”

These comparisons, Gessen explains, aim to make the unfamiliar familiar, to address that tendency in all of us to wonder: “If there is something, then what’s it like?” The article drew heavy criticism from people who thought the comparison was relativizing the experiences of European Jews under the Nazis, and even worse, accusing the descendants of those victims of perpetrating similar crimes. Gessen’s response to those charges was concise and bold: “Things can be substantively, essentially similar and differ in the specifics.” Though, for Gessen, comparison isn’t a dispassionate tool to help us make sense of complicated faraway conflicts but should be part of a “political project” to “prevent what we know can happen from happening.” 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed writers employ another comparison with increased frequency in order to make sense of developments in Haiti and Gaza: Mogadishu in the 1990s. Somalia, being the “archetypal failed state,” to quote New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson, seems to provide an excellent image and allegory. 

In February, US news website Axios reported that American officials expressed increasing concern that Gaza was “turning into Mogadishu,” as lawlessness and hunger spread because Israel blocked aid convoys into the besieged strip and targeted police responsible for their safe passage. Days later, after Israel fired at aid seekers killing more than 100 people, Axios political reporter Barak Ravid posted on X, formerly Twitter: “The Biden administration has been warning Israel for weeks that Gaza is turning into Mogadishu. The incident today shows it has happened.” The analogy raised a few eyebrows.

Bruno Maçães, a former Portuguese minister and prominent political commentator called out the incorrect comparison: “Mogadishu is a place where an invading army kills hundreds of civilians searching for food using tank shells? Very odd.” Al Jazeera journalist Laila Al-Arian was just as confused: “Someone explain the Mogadishu reference,” she posted. 

A bullet point helping readers unfamiliar with the city’s sordid past provided the following context to help people understand why early ’90s Mogadishu was being summoned here: “Mogadishu—the capital of Somalia, in the Horn of Africa—was once considered the most lawless and dangerous city in the world.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman similarly warned that the trajectory of the war threatened to create one of two scenarios in Gaza: “flimsy Hamas governance” or a “Somali-like gangland on the Mediterranean.” Despite previously describing Hamas as “theocratic fascists,” he wrote: “If I were Israel, I’d take a weakened Hamas over Somalia.”

In April, The Guardian produced a harrowing report on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. The piece quoted unnamed humanitarian workers who said the Strip was turning into a “Mogadishu on the Mediterranean,” before adding the caveat that Gaza wasn’t quite that bad yet. The officials said that “it would be premature to compare the territory at present to Somalia or similar failed states.”

This piece provoked a greater response than Ravid’s remarks, because of the snappy headline but also likely because more Somalis read The Guardian than Axios. The British Somali author Nadifa Mohamed said the story had a “crazy headline,” while an anonymous account posted: “Mogadishans must defend their city against this defamation. The Guardian, like other mainstream Western liberal media outlets, relentlessly paints Africa as a place of death, destruction, and misery. Why don’t [they] use Mariupol or Aleppo instead of Mogadishu?”

Also reacting to the piece, American writer Neal Romanek attempted to cut through to the core of the issue with more lacerating language: “‘Mogadishu’ is code for ‘violent non-white people who need to be occupied (by white people) for their own good.’” In a separate post beneath it, he wrote: “Remember when military contractors were calling New Orleans ‘Mogadishu’ after Hurricane Katrina?”

The comparison was intended to provoke shock and outrage, and it achieved its goals. The piece was widely shared, and its core message, that hunger was spreading in Gaza and that law and order were quickly breaking down, producing a toxic and volatile concoction, reached a wide audience. As someone extremely concerned about the situation there, it is stories like these that keep me mobilized and tuned in to developments. 

In a piece titled “Israel’s Mogadishu-fication of Gaza” on Vashti Media, a British Jewish left-wing website, Matthew Beck Gordon, an expert on the Horn of Africa, explores the way “Mogadishu” as an abstract concept denoting death and starvation—not any longer an actual city or real case study for comparison—became a compound adjective to describe the destruction of the Palestinian enclave. “You know a geopolitical situation has gotten really out of hand when people start invoking Somalia,” he writes. Exploring why Mogadishu is relevant here, Gordon writes that the humanitarian situation has reached alarming levels in Gaza, and observers are “building on well-worn depictions of Somalia as a permanently ‘failed state’” to get the message across. 

Gordon acknowledges that while the comparison might be “evocative and potentially useful in galvanizing a political response,” it perpetuates “orientalist tropes that present certain peoples and countries as inherent ‘basket cases.’” Putting concerns about possible offense aside, however, Gordon argues that in many ways Gaza is worse than Mogadishu, and the comparison obscures more than it illuminates. Somalia, for one, descended into a civil war driven by competing Somali warlords following state collapse, whereas Gaza is facing an external assault that the International Court of Justice is concerned might constitute genocide

He relies on Alex de Waal to shed further light on other differences. Here is a full quote at length, which I think makes for important reading to understand not just why the cases are different but also the scale of that difference: 

In fact, as expert on humanitarianism, conflict and peace Alex de Waal has explained, “Gaza is already the most intense starvation catastrophe of recent decades,” and, failing drastic changes in the way Israel is governing the territory, will cause famine-related deaths and afflictions that dwarf even the catastrophic events of 2011 in Somalia, “the worst famine on the [Famine Review Committee’s] record books.” And while intermittent episodes of intense conflict have seen Mogadishu’s once iconic urban landscape suffer severe ruination over the decades, Gaza has seen 63% of homes and 84% of health facilities across its much larger territory damaged or destroyed in a mere matter of months. The speed and intensity of such deprivation and annihilation is why de Waal classifies Israel’s actions as a “campaign of destroying everything necessary to sustain life.”

In many ways, comparing Mogadishu to Gaza is an attempt to exonerate Israel for its own role in creating this humanitarian disaster as a belligerent occupying power executing a deadly campaign. There is a qualitative difference between one country obliterating its neighbor and factions within a country fighting to ensure their constituency gets power. Gordon makes his point with striking clarity: “What we see happening now in Gaza… while similarly borne of unresolved political maladies, is not self-engendered implosion from internal contradictions, but a destructive energy forced upon it from outside, by design.”

A piece written for Vox makes a more constructive comparison to Somalia, examining the risk of famine in Gaza. Famine doesn’t simply mean widespread hunger among a specific population; it is a technical designation made by a UN-backed body called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. According to its site, a famine is declared when “an area has at least 20% of households facing an extreme lack of food, at least 30% of children suffering from acute malnutrition, and two people for every 10,000 dying each day due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.” Only two famines have been declared since the body began operating in 2004: in Somalia (2011) and in South Sudan (2017). 

The 2011 famine in Somalia is deployed here to help provide insight on the situation in Gaza, as the authors consider the differences in what is driving the food insecurity. Ellen Ioanes and Nicole Narea write: “It’s a crisis that has unfolded at a speed utterly unprecedented this century.” They continue: “Unlike in Somalia, however, the looming famine in Gaza has no natural causes.” In that regard, the looming famine in Gaza is “entirely preventable.” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has accused Israel of using starvation “as a weapon of war.” 

With Haiti, a similar tendency has emerged. Jorge Heine, a former Chilean ambassador and minister, was attempting to raise the alarm on Haiti in an opinion piece he wrote for Project Syndicate, where he paints an alarming picture of the situation on the Caribbean island. He ends his piece with a warning: “Do we really want a Somalia in the Caribbean?” In a post on X sharing his piece, he wrote: “Will #Haiti become the Somalia of the #Caribbean? Why is nobody in the #Americas willing to do anything to stop the land of the Black Jacobins to fall into de abyss?” Mogadishu, we can assume, had already fallen into that abyss, and for him, is apparently still languishing there. CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria also shared the piece on Haiti with that same cautionary question. He probably wasn’t aware that the specter of repeating Mogadishu was exactly the reason the US didn’t deliver an aid shipment to Haiti in 1993. 

Howard French, a professor at Columbia University who was in Haiti in 1993 recalled the event in a column for Foreign Policy: “The secret to their success in turning the ship back was the chant ‘Somalia, Somalia.’ Their invocation of the Battle of Mogadishu, more famously known to Americans as the Black Hawk Down Incident, a week earlier, in which 18 Americans were killed, had more power than any magician’s spell.”

The comparisons to Haiti, which work better in some ways considering how central authority in the capital has broken down, giving way to loosely organized groups of armed men at war with the state, eventually spurned a Reddit subforum titled “The Constant Comparison of Somalia to Failed States—Why Does It Persist?,” where Somalis shared thoughts on this development. The thread reflects the range of views that I’ve encountered in the Somali community, and reveals how Somalis feel about their country being one of the benchmarks to measure state failure. 

Clannism, a bête noire of many Somalis, was an early culprit for the enduring lack of central governance across Somalia, with one poster writing: “They’re comparing our country to Haiti; a country with no military or police… I blame qabilist [clannists] for this.” Another Redditor disputed that sentiment, arguing that clans were the reason Somalia hadn’t seen Port-au-Prince levels of chaos, as they create a system of accountability for people who breach xeer, Somalia’s informal customary laws.

Another commenter, 2armored, took the association between Somalia and chaos on the chin, accepting Somali responsibility for the issues the country faces and writing that it has been a “model disaster state for several decades.” Taking a much broader view and considering “what went wrong” in Somalia, SomaliAvenger2 posted: “The cause of our failed state is that we tried to take back territory we lost to colonization,” referencing Somalia’s abortive attempt to annex Ethiopia’s Somali-inhabited Ogaden region in 1977. 

KingRider25 challenged other people in the forum, arguing that “Haiti is more dangerous [than Somalia] but infrastructure wise with banking, sewage, electricity Haiti is technically more developed even with the earthquake.” Shoddy_Vanilla643 invoked Thomas Hobbes in his response, citing the lack of a decisive victor in Somalia’s 30-year civil war, as the contest between clans and religious ideologies continues: “Whoever wins knows that he has to establish and maintain a power structure. That isn’t what happening in Haiti.” And the most concise but impactful post came from MiddleGoose7330 who simply wrote: “Truth hurts.”

In December 2022, Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, likely also rankled by the enduring link between Somalia state failure, weighed in with his own view in The Guardian, arguing that “Somalia is not a single narrative of violence and state failure.” “Our situation today is one of hope,” the president protests, “of finally overcoming the darkness of the past, which victimized and held down our entire society.” He isn’t trying to gloss over the realities, as he points out himself, but these narratives, he says, are “neither helpful to our national development nor a prudent basis from which to allocate and utilize much-needed donor financing.” 

Bringing us back to the moral and political function of comparing tragedies to enhance understanding, Mohamud writes that every “society is complex and unique,” explaining that a single-minded focus on the problems in Somalia is a recipe for despair. Though Gessen is definitely right about how useful comparison can be as a pedagogical tool and as a call to action to ensure “never again” is more than an attractive slogan, Mohamud pushes back against the abuse of these parallels, arguing that they can be harmful to the countries that are used as a standard to measure tragedy and gloom. Gessen, of course, employed a historical example, but comparisons between Mogadishu today and places where human tragedies are unfolding as we speak can lead people to believe Mogadishu is still the “post-apocalyptic world of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max movies,” as American journalist Mark Bowden described it, “a world ruled by roving gangs of armed thugs.” 

The consequence for Mogadishu’s residents is that other, more inspiring stories are marginalized, and as a result, the city is rarely thought about as a place where things can change and have changed. It can also lead us to accept inappropriate solutions, like air-dropping food alongside the bombs or calling on Israel to allow in more aid, instead of stopping what UN special rapporteur Francesca Albanese has described as an “escalatory stage of a longstanding settler colonial process of erasure.” It reflects a dated view held by segments of the elite on the situation in Gaza, one impervious to Palestinian, Israeli, and other global voices attempting to use a different language to describe what they see. 

The bigger and more serious challenge is for us to be bolder and more thoughtful when reaching for examples, if they’re going to be used. Gessen chose to compare Gaza to a ghetto, which by now is a pedestrian observation. Palestinians in the Strip are crowded into a “hyperdensely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population [have] the right to leave for even a short amount of time.” David Cameron himself once called Gaza an “open-air prison.” 

Gessen didn’t immediately jump to the Nazi ghetto comparison, but traced that journey. Gaza is not like a “Jewish ghetto in Venice or an inner-city ghetto in America but like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany.” This example is important because it provides us with a different vocabulary and framework to help us describe and understand what is happening in Gaza now. “The ghetto is being liquidated,” Gessen writes tersely. More than 40,000 people have been killed according to a leading independent human rights group, of which 15,000 are children. That is almost 2,000 children a month since October. At least 77,000 are injured and almost the whole population of Gaza is displaced. A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine projected in late February that even if a ceasefire was agreed then an additional 6,550 to 11,580 people could die by August 6. 

The implications of the way the Israeli military has carried out its Gaza campaign—recalling that defense minister Yoav Gallant said he lifted “all restrictions” on the IDF—has even prompted genocide scholar Elyse Semerdjian to opine that we have entered a new phase of global warfare “without civilians.” All of this is happening with the enthusiastic support of the world’s leading superpower, the United States. 

Does Mogadishu still come to mind now when you think of Gaza? It probably doesn’t, and that’s why using it to explain the plight of Palestinians today unnecessarily stigmatizes Somalis and also does a great disservice to Palestinians.

Further Reading

We are here

As the slaughter continues unabated in Gaza, it is abundantly clear that both the present and history are often written by the victors.

Drones in Somalia

The US, which has misread the political situation in Somalia before, is again pursuing short-term military gains there at the risk of long-term blowback.