The British motives behind the BBC Somali Service
I have worked for the BBC Somali Service from 1967 to 2000. During that period, I have served with various heads of the Service and with almost all the well-known announcers of the Service. For most of that period, we had the late Mr. C.J. Martin as head of the Service until he retired in the late 1970s. Before he came to the BBC Somali Service, he used to run Radio Hargeisa and brought out the first newssheet in British Somaliland- the War Somali Sidihii. We also had Mr. Hugh Walker as head during a brief time when Mr. Martin was appointed as acting Assistant Head of the Africa Service. Hugh walker was a Somali-speaking Englishman who served in the NFD in Kenya. Both Martin and Walker were men who held Somalia and the Somalis dearly deep in their hearts. Mr. Abdirahman Abbe Farah, God bless his soul, become a subsequent head of the Service. He was a good Somali father figure, a great diplomat with endearing sense of humour who used to know how to lead the BBC Somali team under his supervision even if there were at times some unruly ones among the flock. All in all, those were the golden happy days of the BBC Somali Service and it seems they are gone for good. How painful therefore to see the once popular Somali Section now the subject of disenchantment and derision among listeners as they all blame its new head. Mr. Martin must be turning in his grave as he sadly watches the demise of his once enviable Somali Service. If the Service could speak for itself, it would have said "Meel aar kagacey atoor fadhiisay"
The subject of my article is not to join the current outcry against the editor of the BBC Somali Section, but to go beyond that and remind our readers that the BBC Somali Service was never meant to be a charitable, benevolent body merely created for the welfare of its Somali listeners, That might be true only to a smaller degree. The overall purpose of the Somali Service, like the BBC Arabic Service and the many other services of the BBC World Service, is to serve Britain's foreign interest. In other words, the Service is to serve the BBC propaganda, which is sometimes subtle and other times not so subtle. All of us who served in the BBC have willy-nilly participated in that propaganda. If we have tolerated performing this propaganda as a price for keeping our jobs (you might say we were mercenaries), at least we had always resisted any physical harm being done to our country
To see the original purpose of the BBC Somali Service, one has to go back to 1957 when the British first established the Service. It was mainly meant for the Somalis who were under the British colonial rule in former British Somaliland with a population of less than a million at the time. It is pertinent to ask oneself why undertake such a project when the British had done absolutely no socio-economic development to speak of in the whole of British Somaliland during the 80 years of their rule? There were hardly any industries, infrastructure, and social services worth speaking of. Indeed, when the British Somaliland gained independence in 1960, the school enrolment ratio in the territory was one of the lowest in Africa let alone the rest of the World.
The reason for the establishment of the BBC Somali Service was to counter the president of Egypt, Jamal Abdu Nasir, who was spearheading the freedom of Africa and the Arab Word from colonial rule or foreign tutelage and whose popularity was spreading like bush fire in British Somaliland. Radio Cairo's Arab Voice and its Somali programmes were avidly listened to and Radio Hargeisa was no match for it, least of all when it was derided as a colonial dummy. The BBC Somali Service was never meant to last long but somehow it acquired a life of its own like most other services of the BBC. But one should not forget that the Service has been twice threatened with closure only to be saved at the last minute by friends of Somalia in the British media and the House of Commons.
The BBC Somali Service, in promoting Britain's overall foreign interest, has no doubt benefited its listeners to the extent that it provided news even if these were at times biased. That would have been a small price to pay if the BBC Somali Service had not gone beyond its normal propaganda mission and directly threaten Somalia's national interest and unity. There were times, in the past and present, when Somalia become the target of brazen BBC hostility. One such time was in the late 1970s and 1980s when Mr. Patrick Gilkes, first working for Focus on Africa and later on made the new head of the Somali Service after Abdirahman Abby Farah retied was a sworn enemy of Somalia.
Mr. Gilkes was an Englishman whose father served in Ethiopia during the Second World War and buried there. In addition to that attachment, Mr. Gilkes is married to an Ethiopian wife. He was well-known at the BBC in Bush House as someone more catholic than the pope to the extent of his devotion for Ethiopia more than even ordinary Ethiopians do. In this regard, he spared no effort and time to get Ethiopia's side of the story accepted in its dispute with Somalia over the occupied Somali territory. And as new anti-Siyad Barre resistance groups sprung up in the North and South of Somalia, Mr. Gilkes covertly and overtly provided support to these rebel movements. His downfall however came when he went too far as the Somali government managed to present incontestable evidence to the BBC that Mr. Gilkes was an active supporter of these rebels, and not an honest BBC journalist dispassionately presenting both sides of the story. It is therefore clear that the BBC does watch its steps where it is dealing with watchful foreign governments.
Where there is no government, like present-day Somalia, they have less to restrain them. Somalia has been seen since the 1980's by successive British governments and the BBC as a country that was destabilising its neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia which the British and the West in general prise more than they do poor little Somalia. Many in the BBC top management and the British government are quite happy to see Somalia without a government or even to encourage its eventual break-up. There is more sympathy for Somaliland than Somalia, and some powerful members of parliament and government are pushing for its recognition. That is why the BBC management condones the way the Editor of the service runs the Somali Service. With no functioning Somali government to worry about, the Editor and the BBC can do what they want and afford to ignore listeners' complaints. Their fear is the emergence of a Somali government that would stand to them. The warlords and the BBC Somali Service are doing a good job to stop that.