In the wake of last Saturday’s horrific bombing in Mogadishu, social media commentators have been quick to point out the hypocrisy in the international response to the devastation. Much like the outcry following the Garissa University attacks in Kenya in 2015, Twitter users on and off the continent have deployed the hashtags #AfricanLivesMatter, #JeSuisMogadishu, and #StandwithSomalia to demand the same levels of compassion and mourning for Black African life that emerged for White European life following attacks in France and elsewhere. Meanwhile, others have observed with appreciation the steps taken by governments that acknowledged the humanity of the victims: on October 17, for example, the lights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris were switched off to honor the lives lost in Mogadishu a few days prior. “Some should not be more equal than others. Pain is pain. Human is human,” read one tweet.
By specifically invoking #AfricanLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter in relation to Somalia, some commentators have simultaneously sought to make connections between Africa and the movement in defense of Black life in the United States. Yet the US-based #BlackLivesMatter is grounded in the recognition of difference rather than commonality, relying on hard data and historical record to illustrate that black lives matter less than white lives in the American criminal justice system. To stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter is to recognize white supremacy and black oppression as systemic phenomenon requiring dismantling. It is to recognize that mere invocations of empathy, humanity, and equality are not enough.
What does it mean, then, to appeal to a common humanity in the context of Somalia? What does this appeal obscure? For one, there is considerably less sustained outcry on social media about African life in relation to ongoing forms of structural violence that may be more mundane but just as deadly, enabled by states and their corporate donor partners. Nor, for that matter, is there much talk about the expanding forms of militarism, surveillance, and police brutality that are legitimized under the guise of security. It is worth reflecting on the fact that it is precisely the appeal to a shared humanity that has permitted the emergence of policies that are equally designed to punish and control, with the Responsibility to Protect being the most notable. The now decade-long military occupation of Somalia by foreign forces continues to be rationalized in similar language, as national and international policymakers engage in a delicate dance between illustrating progress made towards stability, all the while insisting that more work remains to be done. As analyst Abukar Arman has observed, this dance leads to “a never-ending process of transitioning out of transition, bloodshed and perpetual dependency.” What, then, does it mean to #StandwithSomalia? Do Somali live matter when the US military drops bombs, when security forces sell arms on the black market to Al-Shabaab, or when young Somali men are held indefinitely in secret prisons and rehabilitation centers in Mogadishu?
While empathy in the aftermath of tragedy has its place, the uncritical embrace of the notion of a shared humanity may work to depoliticize and mask difference and political complexity rather than address it. What kinds of imaginings are possible when we open up the very idea of “solidarity” for scrutiny and create spaces for historically and politically informed conversations about injustice, anti-blackness and internationalism today?