Until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. The truth of this statement is today being demonstrated in the aftermath of the devastating attack by the Al Shabaab terror group on the AMISOM base at El Adde in southern Somalia.
With over Kenyan 100 troops feared dead, this is turning out to be not just a tactical victory, but a propaganda coup as well for the Al Qaeda linked militants. Panicked Generals in both AMISOM and the KDF have effectively shut down their public communications, effectively handing the airwaves to the enemy. And Al Shabaab has not been slow to exploit this opportunity. For nearly a week its tale of the hunt has been propagated around the world pretty much unchallenged.
The modern media operation is a 24-hour beast that needs to be fed round the clock. National and international mass media is the most important disseminator of news for the vast majority of people and what it carries shapes opinions and influences decisions. It is for this reason that terrorists make every effort to maximize coverage of their attacks.
And perceptions do matter. Especially in war, which the great Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz described as “the continuation of politics by other means.” Politics, as is readily apparent, is a game of perceptions and opinions. To a great extent, wars are too. They end when the losing side acknowledges it cannot win (except on the rare occasion when it is entirely eliminated).
So war itself can be seen a great communications effort, albeit one where the message is transmitted via bombs and bullets. Sun Tzu’s advice that “victorious warriors win first and then go to war” can be paraphrased thus: “Win first, then go tell your opponent about it.”
In today’s world, the fight against the terrorists is not only waged on the ground, but on newspaper pages, TV and radio broadcasts and on internet as well. This is especially true of the struggle against Al Shabaab.
Most Kenyans tend to mistakenly think of the group as a rag-tag militia with little in the way of effective organisation. In reality, Al Shabaab is well organized and resourced, and what it lacks in tanks and armour it makes up in communications capabilities. It has established a media department which is adept at producing slick propaganda videos and churning out pictures and footage to feed the media beast with its version of events.
Now, it is true that wars are not won by press releases. But it would be a great mistake to conclude that effective communications don’t matter. In its first three years, AMISOM struggled to find its voice. Its tale was told by others, including by its enemies and detractors. As a result, it struggled to convince Somalians of its intentions, to get countries to deploy troops and to articulate its need for more and better equipment. By 2010, there was talk of “constructive disengagement” and winding up the “failing mission”.
It was in recognition of this, and at the request of the AU, that in 2009 the UN provided AMISOM with a team of civilian communications consultants as part of a wider logistical support package. I was a part of this team, which is based in Mogadishu, for nearly four years and witnessed fist-hand how well-executed communications strategies made AMISOM more effective on the ground.
From countering Al Shabaab propaganda to explaining its mandate and operations to a sceptical international audience to communicating successes on the ground, AMISOM became more adept at influencing local and international perceptions and managed to turn its reputation around. By the end of 2012 this effort- combined with the success its troops delivered on the ground- had countries competing to contribute troops and the UN Security Council voting to beef up its support for the Mission.
One of the many important lessons I learnt is that to compete effectively in the media arena, one has to be fast, first and provide accurate facts. Even, and perhaps especially, when it was bad news, you would rather the public heard it from you and not from the other side. It is a race to get your side of the story out first and to control the narrative. Another lesson was the critical need always to preserve your credibility by never putting out information that one knows to false.
On both these counts, the Kenyan Government has performed poorly. AMISOM has a long standing policy of letting its troop contributing countries speak on casualties and so its silence is somewhat understandable. The Kenyan state and its defence forces, on the other hand, has worked to prevent any details on the operation leaking out, including by prosecuting people who forwarded purported pictures of the dead Kenyan soldiers issued by Al Shabaab. It has also now provided a provisional version of events via the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Samson Mwathethe, elements of which not only contradict its earlier statements, but also fly in the face of the few facts that have already been established.
This sadly fits into pattern that the Government has followed whenever confronted with failure. It has done little to shore up its credibility in speaking on matters security since the Westgate disaster. It has tried to impose its “Official Truth” and refused to address any holes in yarn that it has spun. More than two years later, there has been no credible official account of what happened inside that mall for four days. It is a curious position for a government famous for its formidable public relations machine to be in.
Regardless, it is clear that we can ill afford to cede the media space to Al Shabaab without a fight. Our lion must learn to speak.