Body Bags without Effects

Body Bags
By Sascha Nlabu

In October 2011 al-Shabab fighters killed more than 70 African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers in one of the worst attacks that occurred in Somalia since the rising of the Islamist insurgency. However, the exact number of casualties is not known as AMISOM itself has confirmed only ten. Some of the bodies, reportedly Burundian Soldiers, have been put on displayin the al-Shabab-controlled El-Maan area, 18km from Mogadishu.

It is not the first time that bodies of foreign troops were publicly displayed in Somalia. In 1993, during the “Operation Restore Hope”, 18 US Army Rangers died. The images of the dead soldiers being dragged through the streets made their way around media across the world. Under the pressure of public opinion, the US forces were immediately withdrawn. The so called and much debated “body bag effect” became a hot topic of discussion. The “body bag effect” describes a situation where the public is confronted with images of their dead soldiers and consequently asks the government to withdraw its forces from abroad.

If the body bag effect indeed exists, then the killing of more than 70 Burundian soldiers in Somalia would certainly constitute a point in case to kick it off. But there has been no public outcry from the people toward their government. Why?

First of all, availability of and access to information are still very limited in Burundi and in most African countries more generally. Journals and newspapers are still considered luxury goods and access to television or internet is limited in Africa more than anywhere else in the world. As a result, the radio presents itself as the most important channel of information. However, information transmitted through the radio does not have the same potential “shocking” effect on people due to the simple fact that it is not accompanied by pictures or graphic imagery. Pictures speak louder than words and elicit emotional reactions from viewers. It would seem the limited availability of and access to information makes the situation in Burundi less poignant. Most people were just not aware about the incident or those who were aware did not have enough outrage to push for troop withdrawal.

Second, another important factor in explaining the absence of the body bag effect in most African countries is what most commentators call the unaccountability of African governments towards its people. Ideally citizens should have the right to hold governments to account and be able to get justification behind government decisions. However, in many African countries this ideal situation does not reflect reality. Hence, even in countries with more accessible media such as Ghana or Nigeria, it is rather doubtful that such imagery would trigger the body bag effect. In fact platforms for the expression of public opinion are vastly absent in many African countries and most governments do not consider themselves accountable to the citizens. Some intentionally limit the availability and transparency of media in efforts to maintain power, unhindered.

Even worse, challenging government decisions in certain countries like Burundi can jeopardize someone’s personal safety. Protests are usually met with forceful government-sanctioned violence against the public. As a result, in most African countries someone can regularly observe the absence of a culture of accountability in government-citizen relations which further hampers the possible unleashing of the body bag effect, even would the public opinion support disengagement from foreign military operations.

Third, the unleashing of the body bag effect can in certain places further be hampered because of financial interests. In fact, government receive financial compensations for every sent peacekeeper. In places where the level of corruption is high, as Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index highlights, someone might also consider the possibility that these compensations could as well result in personal gains. It is possible then, that certain political elites might not be interested in withdrawing forces, even if heavy human losses were suffered or if public opinion would demand for it.

A last point which might to a certain degree explain the missing body bag effect in places such as Burundi, amongst many other African countries, is the notion that life is valued differently. This is certainly a difficult argument to make, because the grief experienced by those who have lost loved ones seems a universally shared experience. However, it is also true that societies which have a high child-mortality rate, a rather low life expectancy or which have experienced violent, protracted and long-term conflict have a different relationship to death than others. Those people are somehow more confronted with death and therefore deal differently with it. For instance, in Burundi people who received the news about the death of their peacekeepers abroad were not inherently shocked by it and it was taken with much less uproar than could be expected in other countries, such as the US. Constant exposure to such loss and grief forces a society to build emotional defences to such tragedy, hence it is possible that a certain denial or immunity to death has been created which would also negate the body bag effect.

Unlike in many Western countries, where an increase in casualties usually reduces foreign operations, in many African countries like Burundi, information about their soldiers  dying ends up either going unseen or doing little to galvanize reaction, hence: "body bags without effect". However, the situation will certainly evolve, particularly as media channels become more transparent and available to the general public. There are recent movements to this end as the international community often speaks of access to information in terms of a human right and many organisations such as the Carter Center and the World Bank have programmes to promote this. It would be the hope that we might witness the first case of the body bag effect in Africa sooner rather than later. 


Sascha Nlabu is a Swiss national and is currently based in Burundi working for the United Nations Development Programme. He holds a Master’s in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His research interests include conflict prevention, peace building and good governance.


20 January 2012