Who am I?Where am I?

07 January 2009

The Rise of Somali Piracy

I am not even going to pretend that this was something I knew a lot about several months ago. I basically just thought that Somali Piracy was yet another example of the lawlessness that existed within the debacle of perhaps the world's most failed state. However, someone made a comment on an earlier post on this blog which caught my eye and forced me to do some research. The results are startling and really demonstrate the depths to which the world has abandoned Somalia.

On 19 January 2002, the weekend before I left for Peace Corps, several of my fraternity brothers and I went to a movie at Pentagon City in Arlington, Virginia. The movie that we watched was Blackhawk Down, which narrates the day that an American Blackhawk helicopter was shot down over the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Several American Marines were killed and had their bodies drug through the streets of Mogadishu. This is the enduring image most Westerners have of Somalia. The US, which had placed it's military in Somalia to provide food aid to starving Somalis and to try to force various warring factions to negotiate a peace deal, summarily withdrew its troops. The rest of the world figured that if the American military could not successfully intervene, there was no way for anyone else to, and thus have been reluctant to commit forces to Somalia. The country descended into chaos. To this day, there has been no fully functioning national government since the fall of Siad Barre's government in 1991.

The resultant 17-year interregnum since the fall of Siad Barre's government Somalia has fallen into an abyss of lawlessness, disorder, and chaos. The sea around Somalia's coasts has experienced the same, but not necessairly in the way the current news media reports. The original lawlessness came not from Somalis themselves but from countries within Europe and Asia that have large sailing fleets. These countries, sensing an opportunity, began engaging in commercial fishing operations in the waters off of Somalia's coast. Because Somalia has an extensive coastline yet no coast guard nor Navy, these fishing vessels could work with impunity.

To be fair, not all foreign fishing vessels were engaged in completely clandestine operations. Some were invited by Somali warlords who "governed" the majority of the country. These warlords "allowed" fishing ships into coastal areas in exchange for cash payments, which were then used to fund their own clans war effort. Even in the relatively stable enclave of Puntland, in Northern Somalia, the government has allowed the pillaging of its fisheries in exchange for payments, which have seemingly disappeared and not trickled down to people. Who was the loser in all of this? As usual, the hoi polloi, the common man. The Somali fishermen who engaged in small-scale fishing off of Somalia's coast lost their livelihood. These fishermen were not yeggs. There were documented cases of European fishing vessels chasing off local Somali fishermen with weapons. Somali fishermen were outgunned, outmaneuvered, and out of work. In an act of desperation, many turned to piracy.

In 2004, four ships were hijacked. In 2008, over 42 have been hijacked bringing the total number of hijacked ships in the region to approximately 90. According to Professor Derrick Reveron at the United States Navel War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Pirates have collected over $30million in ransom money to release ships. There have been a few highly documented cases, such as the hijacking involving an illegal Ukrainian arms shipment to the government of South Sudan, which was being shipped through Kenya and the hijacking of the Saudi Abrabian oil tanker Sirius Star, which have generated a lot of media attention and have resulted or will result in significantly higher ransoms. However, most hijackings are of small ships, yachts, and fishing vessels. What I find fascinating about Reveron's comments is the value of the fishery that has been depleted by this illegal fishing. According to Reveron, US$300million of fish have been illegally caught in Somali waters by Asian and European fishing vessels. ( http://www.wbbm780.com/pages/3363365.php? )

Presumably, not included in Reveron's figures is the cost of the dumping of millions of cubic tons of toxic waste off of Somalia's coast. So too does illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste. This waste poses a health problem for Somalia, but also other African and Middle Eastern countries ringing the Gulf of Aden and African coast of the Indian Ocean. Despite the passage of UN Resolution 1838 (2008) which states that “that the incidents of piracy and armed robbery against vessels in the territorial waters of Somalia and the high seas off the coast of Somalia exacerbate the situation in Somalia which continues to constitute a threat against international peace and security,” piracy continues unabated. This will not change until illegal fishing and dumping ceases. This is not mentioned in Resolution 1838 (2008) and needs to be according to Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar of the University of Minnesota's Geography and Global Studies Department.

I want to make one final point. Piracy ebbed significantly during the rule of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). This was the first group since Siad Barre's government that had begun to get a real grasp on power. Though the government was Islamic, it was not inherently radical. There were radical elements in the government, such as those estimated 3000 individuals who went underground and formed Al-Shabaab. However the ICU also contained more secular Islamic groups which were largely in control of the government. The ICU deemed piracy to be against the Qu'ran and worked hard to curb it.

Though it is unclear whether the efforts of the ICU would have borne fruit over the long-term, the current spike in piracy coincided with the arrival of Ethiopian troops, the installation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the current eruption of chaos, after what had been a stable time (by Somali standards) under the ICU. The obstensible reason for the intervention of Ethiopian forces, with the support of the west, was to ensure that the ICU was removed from power because it was deemed a "terrorist" organization. The ICU's removal has created more instability, a power vacuum, and allowed pirates to operate with virtual impunity along the Somali coast. Until the world can commit itself to helping Somalia emerge from the ashes of failed a failed state, piracy will continue. Furthermore, western governments need to stop viewing all Islamic governments as threats and terrorist organizations. There needs to be an objective understanding of local issues that are foremost amongst the popluation of that area and the west needs to realize that it is possible for Islamic governments have the support of the masses, work hard to improve the lives of the population they serve, and that these governments are more than willing to be part of the community of nations.

Richard the Nomad


Yve said...

Nom, you have indeed pre-empted the two major issues I would have talked about i.e. the international piracy going on in Somali waters and the dumping of toxic waste along the Somali coast. I will not attempt to highlight what you have already clearly outlined. People the world over seem to have a skewed view of Somalia as a country and Somalis as a people. I admit Somalia does have internal problems that need to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. However, I think some of the perceptions people hold of Somalia have largely been shaped by major world powers and the media. The media has to some extent failed to give an objective and incisive coverage to some of these issues. Instead the pirates have been painted as riff raffs who just appeared out of nowhere to terrorize the high seas. There has been little effort if any to juxtapose historical and current developments that necessitated what we now see. Scratching beneath the surface does indeed reveal a lot as you have seen from your own research Nom.

The international community has also come out to strongly condemn and declare war against the Somali pirates while discreetly protecting illegal fishing. You have mentioned that some of the culprits of illegal fishing include fleets from Europe and Asia. I would like to add that countries like Egypt, Yemen and Kenya have also been culpable.

It has also been documented that the “environmental terrorists” you have mentioned initially used to pour boiling water on the Somali fishermen in canoes, cut and destroyed their nets and crushed their boats and ended up killing some. Such acts are what led the fishermen to arm themselves. The tactics and arms have also modernized over time.

Apart from UN Resolution 1838, there has also been UN Resolution 1816 that’s says “…all necessary means will be taken to identify, deter, prevent, and repress acts of piracy and armed robbery, including but not limited to boarding, searching, and seizing vessels engaged in or suspected of engaging in acts of piracy or armed robbery, and to apprehend persons engaged in such acts with a view to such persons being prosecuted”. None of the two resolutions talk about illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping when invoked by the UN at any one time. It is a shame that the UN is fully aware of these illegal activities but has turned a blind eye on the facts. There is a UNEP report (2005) that documented in graphic detail the impact of the tsunami on the Somali coast. The report says and I quote “Somalia is one of the many Least Developed Countries that reportedly received countless shipments of illegal nuclear and toxic waste dumped along the coastline. Starting from the early 1980s and continuing into the civil war, the hazardous waste dumped along Somalia’s coast comprised uranium radioactive waste, lead, cadmium, mercury, industrial, hospital, chemical, leather treatment and other toxic waste. Most of the waste was simply dumped on the beaches in containers and disposable leaking barrels which ranged from small to big tanks without regard to the health of the local population and any environmentally devastating impacts.” IMAGINE! That partly explains why Somalia has qualms with the international community. It’s a shame. The report further states, “The impact of the tsunami stirred up hazardous waste deposits on the beaches around North Hobyo (South Mudug) and Warsheik (North of Benadir). Contamination from the waste deposits has thus caused health and environmental problems to the surrounding local fishing communities including contamination of groundwater. Many people in these towns have complained of unusual health problems as a result of the tsunami winds blowing towards inland villages. The health problems include acute respiratory infections, dry heavy coughing and mouth bleeding, abdominal haemorrhages, unusual skin chemical reactions, and sudden death after inhaling toxic materials… the contamination of the environment by radioactive waste can cause serious long-term effects on human health as well as severe impacts on groundwater, soil, agriculture and fisheries for many years. Therefore, the current situation along the Somali coastline poses a very serious environmental hazard, not only in Somalia but also in the eastern Africa sub-region.” Mhmh…these are indeed the secrets of the sea. There could be a number of European countries involved but the one country whose activities am sure of is Italy. An Italian journalist actually tried to expose some of these ills not just along the Somali coast but also dumping within Somalia. But what happened to her? She died mysteriously. Am also told a movie has been done on the same. That is for you to check out Nom. The sea has got many secrets indeed but who cares about those secrets? No one. It’s a shame.

I don’t think we can deal with the issue of piracy along the Somali coast without addressing and dealing with its root causes. Is that so hard for the international community to understand? But as usual it’s the interest of the great powers that gets protected. The Somali fishermen feel they are protecting their waters. The issue of protection has of course mutated into piracy that has in turn become booming business. Cases of piracy have also been sustained by the payment of hefty ransoms. Countries pay these ransoms but they will not openly admit it. After all there is no functional government. (I was actually amazed that the world believes there is a government in Somalia but the Somalis themselves are not aware there is a government. And those who are aware do not recognize it. I won’t take this further.). The TFG that was crafted in Kenya does not represent nor reflect the will of the Somali people and therefore lacks legitimacy on the ground. As Condy would put it (but she will not say it when it comes to Som), it does not inspire confidence. Its no wonder that beleaguered president Yusuf finally stepped down. What Somalia needs are not NATO War ships, American destroyers, training of police officers (not recognized by Soms) by the Kenyan government etc. What Somalia needs is a credible government that reflects the will of the people. That is a whole new pandora’s box altogether (banged together with clanism and the involvement of the international community). How many peace deals have been signed to date? They are countless? Ahaaa…and they are still being signed under the watchful eye of the international community. If democracy cannot work can we try theocracy? As usual I will say we cannot tell until we try. You have also done a good job on touching on the ICU. The Somalis are such a homogenous society yet they still fight. But what brings them together? Religion.

While am at this I would like to congratulate Ghana on the recent elections. I have observed that that election has not generated the hunger and passion the international media normally has on issues such as the failures in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa. It may also be that developments in Gaza have over shadowed yet another milestone (I actually feel Gaza is more urgent) but I wouldn’t expect them to give Ghana much airtime on a normal day. It may also be that there was extensive coverage, which I failed to catch. Mhmh…so what makes news? Actually yesterday when I checked, this week’s feature on “Inside Africa” on CNN is the Niger Delta and gun totting militants and when I checked Al Jazeera (which I still highly respect) they have a special feature on “Saving Soweto” (in South Africa) that is rife with rape and crime. Take a break please. VOA’s “In Focus” made an attempt made an attempt to invite a Ghanaian to discuss the recent election. I laud you Ghana.


Anonymous said...

Richard, I think you have tackled of many subjects that most governments... especially in the developed world skip..especially in the reporting news.

It saddens me to the core that many a people mostly in the under developed world suffer all in the hands of the developed world. Most cases when it does come to who is doing what... the developed world points a finger and simply ignores the cause of why????...I mean what caused the action. It doesn't really seem to amaze me or surprise me any more with what I hear in the news.

After all, if you are African and Muslim... you really don't have much of a brain. If you retaliate after being done wrong.... then you are a terrorist or illegal even when defending yourself...Like the Somali fishermen turned into Pirates... presumably after long long suffering and frustration of no assistance.

Now according to an Article Source: BBC News........."Somali Pirates'Lavish Lifestyle: Ransoms provide easy path to sex, drugs and money

But who are these modern-day pirates? According to residents in the Somali region of Puntland where most of the pirates come from, they live a lavish life."

Maybe they are.. but what can they do when they probably seem to be hitting a brick wall when asking for help..

When will this world ever change for an one-sided debate to a equal for all?????..... Ahhhhh never...


Anonymous said...

I knew just a little, i now know more from the blog and other sources. There is so much chaos going on in that country that only a few people knw the exact source and still keep what they know to themselves because they benefit in one way or another. People don't wake up one morning to become pirates, there has to be something bigger and bitter behind it. But the only kind of news fed to the world is that the Somali coast is covered with pirates. What caused the piracy and all that comes a long with it, no body can explain. maybe with the piracy thing the world will get curious and action to be taken concerning the crimes and bad livelihoods of the Somali people.