Xenophobia, Civil Society and Piracy

7th December 2009 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

Piracy off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean is now universally accepted as being linked to the "lawlessness, insecurity, state collapse, the crisis of refugees and the internally displaced and the economic and ecological crisis " in Somalia. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon famously said that piracy is not a water-borne disease, it being one other symptom of the anarchy and insecurity on the ground in Somalia. Indeed, it is this link to Somalia that forms part of the rationale for the decision in UN Security Council resolution 1851 to authorise counter piracy operations on the territory of Somalia, having earlier extended the operations to Somalia's territorial waters in UNSCR 1816.

Commentary on the impact of piracy on the east Africa/horn of Africa region have largely focused on economics; the increased cost of commodities as rising shipping costs are passed on, delays, inhibition to foreign investments, reduced revenues at ports and even reduced tourism, particularly that associated with cruise ships. Security practitioners have concerned themselves with issues of whether piracy is linked to insurgency and terrorism; whether it is linked to global organised crime and the processing of proceeds of piracy in money laundering and corruption and the consequent effect on state stability.

Kenya, neighbouring Somalia, with an Indian Ocean coastline and hosting the largest number of Somalia refugees - both in camps and as illegal migrant workers - has experienced an impact of piracy possibly more severe than any other country in the region. Two rarely mentioned experiences of Kenya with regard to piracy warrant highlighting: the rising xenophobia attributed partially to piracy and what the experiences of Seafarers International, a local maritime Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), illustrate in terms of the role of civil society in security issues in the region.


In May 2009, a Kenyan daily carried a feature in which a "retired" pirate, with over 130,000 US dollars to invest, pondered over his investment opportunities in Kenya. The pirate was living in a Kenyan suburb which is occupied overwhelmingly by persons of Somali origin - both Kenyan and non-Kenyan. Naturally he was looking to invest in Kenya. This feature, appearing at a time large sections of the Nairobi economy - especially the real estate, clothing and restaurant sectors - have seen a growing presence of persons of Somali origin; appeared to "confirm" what many had thought for a long time: that proceeds of piracy were being used by Somalis to "take over" the Kenyan economy. The situation has been made worse by studies showing that piracy operations were funded by Somali "investors" in the Diaspora, including in Kenya. Newspaper commentaries have variously attributed the strong presence of Somalis in real estate, money transfer and other business sectors to proceeds of piracy and the tax free trade in Somalia. The press has also continuously harped on the link between pirates and al-shabaab, Somalia's al-Qaeda linked extremist organisation. Al-Shabaab is more known in Kenya for its continuous threats against Kenya and for the reports that it hosts and protects persons associated with past terrorist attacks in Kenya.

The net effect of these reports is a slow but sure growth in xenophobia against Somalis. A Somali commentator, Ali Osman, sensing this growth, has drawn parallels between "beheadings of Somali businessmen in South Africa" and "character assassinations" of Somali businessmen in Kenya, both as a result of their perceived successes in business. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear complaints from Somali businessmen that real estate prices have been doubled, even tripled for them on account of their having "billions of shillings from piracy". In extreme cases, neighbourhoods conspire not to sell property to Somali businessmen.

Kenya has traditionally had a relatively accommodating and friendly attitude towards foreign nationals. At inception as a State, Kenya found itself multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious. Tolerance and acceptance in the business field; not notable in politics; have seen investments by nationals of all countries neighbouring Kenya serve the Kenyan economy well. The emerging indicators of xenophobia against Somalis need to be checked rapidly and effectively. The way to do this is the enactment and enforcement of money laundering laws so that the suspicion that piracy is promoting certain businesses and certain communities in Kenya is dealt with. The consequences of ignoring the problem in the name of ethnic sensitivity may lead to bloodshed, something that Kenya cannot afford after the violence of January 2008.

Civil Society

The role of civil society in security issues is an ever present issue in the horn of Africa region. Andrew Mwangura is the Secretary General of the Seafarers International (SI), an NGO formed to defend and protect the rights of seafarers, including by offering assistance to seafarers who may have fallen victim to the perils of sea. In a presentation he made to an ISS seminar on regional strategies to combat piracy in June 2006, he noted that as part of its mandate, SI had engaged in negotiation and in facilitating negotiations with pirates in order to ensure the safety of the shipping and maritime workers at sea. As a consequence of this SI and its officials had been subjected to arbitrary arrests, trumped up charges and intimidation by the Kenyan Police, largely on suspicion of "lending material support" to the pirates. The authorities did not appreciate the involvement of perceived "busy bodies" in state security measures.

The experiences of SI and Andrew Mwangura show that East African countries do not yet appreciate the role of civil society in security issues. Just as happened with terrorism, piracy is one security issue where civil society will have to take its place cautiously, progressively and in partnership with the state. The experience with terrorism has shown that this incremental approach bears fruit.

As a last thought one can also ask the question: is there a nexus between the success of the kidnap-for-ransom operations of pirates off the coast of Somalia and the emergence of kidnap-for-ransom as a serious crime in Nairobi and some of Kenya's other urban centres in 2009? This possibility, which looks highly likely, may yet turn out to be the most direct negative impact of piracy in the region.

Written by: Richard Barno, Senior Researcher, IGAD Capacity Building Program Against Terrorism, ISS Addis Ababa