Somali pirates have become somewhat of a fixation for Western media, whilst other pressing issues in the country have been largely ignored. As Georg-Sebastian Holzer puts it, “this world attention has a bitter aftertaste, for it comes after a long period of neglect by this selfsame media of persistent internecine warfare and humanitarian crisis in the country.”(2) Peter Pham points out that the issue of maritime piracy off the Somali coast has garnered the most attention “of all manifestations of the disorder resulting from the collapse of the Somali state.”(3)
This CAI paper focuses on the complex issue of Somali maritime piracy, which originated in the early 1990’s and has continued and intensified into the present. It is argued that the world’s attention been disproportionately focused on the issue of pirates, particularly on the most recent form that Somali piracy has taken – ransom piracy - and that the complexity of the issue, in terms of form, function and root causes, has been underplayed. The international response has been to seek short-term solutions to an extremely complex situation where a pervasive and incredibly severe humanitarian crisis has led up to the situation which, today, manifests itself in maritime piracy. This paper in no way seeks to condone piracy in the region (where innocent victims are often captured and held to ransom), but attempts to offer a more nuanced analysis of the situation and a more balanced account of maritime piracy off Somali shores.
The origins of Somali piracy: An issue with the Somali State
Piracy in Somalia has been strongly linked to the disintegration of the Somali state in 1991 – when then dictator, Muhammed Siad Barre, was overthrown.(4) To this day, Somalia remains a ‘failed state’, without a functioning central government, police force or coastguard.(5) In fact, the very first cases of piracy in Somali territory can be traced back to the period leading up to the fall of the Muhammad Siyad Barre regime.(6)
The first attacks by pirates along the Somali coastline occurred in 1988, and continued through 1989 and 1990. These attacks were politically motivated – with the aim of toppling the Somali dictatorship. The strategy used by these “political pirates” was to “weaken the regime by blocking seaborne supplies from reaching areas controlled by the government.”(7) These pirates were members of the opposition (to the regime) and were known as the Somali National Movement (SNM).(8) This form of piracy existed for the sole purpose of toppling the regime, and disappeared after the disintegration of the Siad Barre regime.(9)
State failure and lawlessness
The disintegration of the state of Somalia had serious implications for governance of the territorial waters along the Somali coastline – with Somalia’s consequential inability to, “police its own waters and fishing grounds.”(10) As a result, foreign illegal fishingfleets have entered the waters around Somalia, taking advantage of the fertile fishing grounds – depleting fishing stocks, ignoring international fishing regulations and operating without licences. According to the High Seas Task Force (HSTF), “illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is detrimental to the wider marine ecosystem because it flouts rules designed to protect the marine environment which includes restrictions to harvest juveniles, closed spawning grounds and gear modification designed to minimise by-catch and non target species... In so doing, they steal an invaluable protein source from some of the world’s poorest people and ruin the livelihoods of some legitimate fishermen.”(11) Fishermen in the region have complained that these illegal trawlers are, “trying to stop us from fishing” through destructive means such as “ramming boats” and “cutting nets.”(12)
Certainly, illegal fishing in Somali waters has proved an extremely lucrative business. At a time when worldwide fishing stocks have become seriously depleted due to overfishing, Somali waters are still stocked with fertile sources of fish such as, tuna, sardines, mackerel, lobster and shark.”(13) It is estimated that these trawlers bring in around US$ 450 million annually.(14) In contrast, this depletion has posed a serious threat to the Somali fishermen – whose livelihoods are centred on fishing. With political instability and drought having driven Somali’s living inland onto the coast, large populations now depend entirely on fishing for survival.(15)
The dumping of toxic waste (both off-shore and in-shore) is another problem that has emerged from the lack of policing and law-enforcement along Somalia's unguarded coastline.(16) This problem became acute when, after the 2005 Tsunami, barrels of toxic waste began washing up on Somali shores and many Somali’s began to suffer from the consequent effects, such as radiation sickness (leading to more than 300 deaths) (17) and a spate of respiratory ailments and skin diseases.(18) Again, in contrast, the ‘business’ of illegal dumping of toxic waste has proven to be a highly lucrative business, allowing a waste shipping company to dump waste for approximately US$ 2.50 per tonne (as opposed to US$ 1,000 to dispose of the waste cleanly in Europe), earning them around US$ 2-3 million in profit.(19)
Many authors have drawn similarities between the practices of foreign fishing trawlers and waste-dumpers, labelling their dangerous practices as another form of piracy (labelled by Samatar et al. as “Resource Piracy”).(20) They have criticised international bodies, Western powers and academics for slamming Somali pirates while ignoring the (often more widespread and dangerous) actions of the foreign fishing trawlers. This view has been shared by locals and is closely linked to another form of piracy - Defensive Piracy.(21)
Piracy as defence
The factors cited above can be linked directly to the rise of “Defensive Pirates” – those pirates who have attempted to defend their own waters and livelihoods against “Resource Piracy.” It is imperative to understand that, the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Somalia has forced large numbers of Somali’s onto the coast.(22) As Cronje points out, many Somalis now rely directly on the “rich maritime resources found off the Puntland coast and in the region north of Mogadishu.”(23) Defensive pirates are former coast guards and fisherman who have mandated themselves to protect their coastlines in a climate where their resources are being exploited.(24)
The names of some pirate fleets (the National Volunteer Coastguard and the Somali Marines, for example) lay testament to this assumption of pirates (initially) motivated by the need for defence.(25) In his article entitled 'You are being Lied to about Pirates,' Johann Hari quotes a pirate leader: “Our motive is to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters…We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.”(26)
Piracy for ransom
Whatever the intentions of these “Defensive Pirates” may be, it is important for the issue to be examined critically, and for their claims to be interrogated. Pham warns against an uncritical, romanticised narrative on Somali pirates. As Menkhaus succinctly puts it, “The Robin Hood narrative of Somali piracy as a grassroots form of coastal patrol against rapacious foreign fishing vessels is thus only partly true, and, at any rate has long since been overtaken by less noble motives. For scholars exploring war economies, Somali piracy is a textbook case of a shift in the motives of an armed group from grievance to greed.”(27)
Initially, "Ransom Pirates" operated under the guise of defence, but their subsequent demands for ransom reveals far more selfish motives.(28) As it currently stands, piracy in Somalia is a booming ‘industry.’ According to the BBC, piracy in the country brings in approximately “50% more than livestock exports which are officially the country’s biggest earner of foreign exchange.”(29) Most pirates, at present, are not impoverished and have little concern for the plight of poor Somalians, and they are not concerned about the plunder of fish stocks by illegal foreign trawlers. Rather, they are made up of sophisticated well-armed and well-resourced networks of criminals and warlords who have tapped into the huge economic potential of the business of ‘piracy for ransom.’(30)
Tackling piracy in Somalia
Unsurprisingly, there is widespread support for the pirates within Somalia. According to Johann Hari, the independent Somali news site, WardherNews, has found that 70 % of Somalians, “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the countries territorial waters.”(31) The support for piracy in the country is partly due to the fact that, economically, enough of the rewards from piracy ‘trickle-down’ – resulting in a “widespread social buy-in.”(32) A significant cross-section of Somali society benefits from piracy in the country – from businessmen, to politicians, to locals in coastal towns - thus motivating their support.(33) Given the dire situation in Somalia, piracy seems to offer an invaluable means for income generation in a situation where there is little opportunity for alternatives. Despite the fact that Somali piracy is no longer motivated by defense, the narrative of piracy as a noble measure of defense holds true in the hearts and minds of Somalis living on the coastline.
However, the current UN strategy for tackling piracy in the region is through military means. Resolutions passed by the UN have aimed to combat (Somali) piracy due to the fact that they “pose a serious threat to the freedom of international navigation and regional security,”(34) but little has been done to tackle both the serious issue of foreign illegal fishing trawlers in the region as well as the dumping of toxic waste off Somali shores. Pirates have been demonised without a critical analysis involving the recognition of the part played by other stakeholders that have contributed to the perpetuation of piracy in the region. These ‘double – standards’ fail to tackle the root cause of the problem while simultaneously ‘fuelling the fire’ of support for Somali pirates from within Somalia.
To view Somali pirates as simple thugs and bandits – out for a ‘quick buck’ and “goaded by the hunt for booty and ransom,”(35) lacks a deeper understanding of the situation as well as a disregard for the history of piracy occurring in Somali territorial waters. It is in offering a more nuanced analysis, acknowledging and accounting for historical and social circumstances, that the proliferation of the problem can be best understood and tackled. Despite an increased international (armed) military response, maritime piracy off Somali shores continues undeterred. Edoardo Collevicchi has covered in detail some viable measures that could help to fight the problem of piracy of Somali shores. Regardless of what piracy in the region has become, the eradication of foreign fishing trawling and waste dumping must be taken seriously by the same international community dedicated to eradicating piracy in the region. Hopefully, as Collevicchio suggests, the global security threat that the issue of maritime piracy invokes could “catalyse international cooperation” that addresses both the long and short term causes and symptoms of maritime piracy off Somali shores.(36)
(2) Georg-Sebastian Holzer, ‘Somalia: piracy and politics’, openDemocracy, 24 November 2008, www.opendemocracy.net.
(3) Pham, P., 2010. Putting Somali piracy in context. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28(3), pp. 325-341.
(5) Konrad Czernichowski, ‘The Roots of Piracy in Somalia’, http://icys.vse.cz.
(6) Pham, P., 2010. Putting Somali piracy in context. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28(3), pp. 325-341.
(7) Abdi Ismail Samatar, A., Lindberg, M., & Mahayni, B., 2011. The dialectics of piracy in Somalia: the rich versus the poor. Third World Quarterly, 31(8), pp. 1377-1394.
(10) Mohamed Abshir Waldo, ‘The Two Piracies in Somalia: why the world ignores the other?’, Sandi Consulting & Associates, www.imcsnet.org.
(13) Ishaan Tharoor, ‘How Somalia’s fishermen became pirates’, The Times, 18 April 2009, www.time.com.
(14) Mohamed Abshir Waldo, ‘The Two Piracies in Somalia: why the world ignores the other?’, Sandi Consulting & Associates, www.imcsnet.org.
(15) Pham, P., 2010. Putting Somali piracy in context. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28(3), pp. 325-341.
(17) Johann Hari, ‘You are being lied to about pirates’, Huffington Post, 4 January 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com.
(18) Ishaan Tharoor, ‘How Somalia’s fishermen became pirates’, The Times, 18 April 2009, www.time.com.
(19) Najad Abdullahi, ‘Toxic waste’ behind Somali piracy’’, Aljazeera English, 11 October 2008, http://english.aljazeera.net.
(20) Abdi Ismail Samatar, A., Lindberg, M., & Mahayni, B., 2011. The dialectics of piracy in Somalia: the rich versus the poor. Third World Quarterly, 31(8), pp. 1377-1394.
(22) Cronje, D. 2010. The Pirates of Somalia: Maritime bandits or warlords of the High Seas? Masters thesis: University of Stellenbosch.
(26) Johann Hari, ‘You are being lied to about pirates’, Huffington Post, 4 January 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com.
(27) Menkhaus in Pham, P., 2010. Putting Somali piracy in context. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28(3), pp. 325-341.
(28) Abdi Ismail Samatar, A., Lindberg, M., & Mahayni, B., 2011. The dialectics of piracy in Somalia: the rich versus the poor. Third World Quarterly, 31(8), pp. 1377-1394.
(29) Pham, P., 2010. Putting Somali piracy in context. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28(3), pp. 325-341.
(30) Ishaan Tharoor, ‘How Somalia’s fishermen became pirates’, The Times, 18 April 2009, www.time.com.
(31) Johann Hari, ‘You are being lied to about pirates’, Huffington Post, 4 January 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com.
(32) Pham, P., 2010. Putting Somali piracy in context. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28(3), pp. 325-341.
(34) Mohamed Abshir Waldo, ‘The Two Piracies in Somalia: why the world ignores the other?’, Sandi Consulting & Associates, www.imcsnet.org.
(35) Abdi Ismail Samatar, A., Lindberg, M., & Mahayni, B., 2011. The dialectics of piracy in Somalia: the rich versus the poor. Third World Quarterly, 31(8), pp. 1377-1394.
(36) Collevecchio, E., ‘Piracy off the Horn of Africa: Shifting incentives to induce behavioural change, Part 2’, 2 May 2011, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, http://www.consultancyafrica.com.
Written by Carrie Byrne (1)