The pirates of Somalia are reviled by international security agencies, shipping companies and several national governments. These fierce gangs, estimated to comprise between 1,000 and 2,000 pirates in total, terrorize one of the arterial shipping routes in the world. Despite their small numbers, limited firepower and—with some astonishing exceptions—primitive organization, these pirate gangs pose a serious threat to professional security organizations and national navies.
They are sometimes portrayed in the media as modern-day buccaneers. But while the opinion of modern Somali piracy is polarized, the history, origins and driving forces behind this phenomenon are less so.
What drove so many people in coastal Somalia to piracy? Today Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2010, the country had an estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of around $5.73 billion (around Rs26,000 crore), approximately equal to that of Goa. This translates to a per capita income of around $600. Somalia is often cited as the perfect example of a failed state: The country has not had anything remotely close to a national government since 1991, when it was plunged into a civil war along clan lines.
But things were not always so bleak. When Somalia was granted independence in 1960, it embraced democracy enthusiastically. For almost a decade, seething clan and regional rivalries were held at bay by a sense of pan-Somalism. But slowly democracy lost that initial head of steam and in 1969, socialist military dictator Mohammed Siad Barre came to power. Barre’s ideology of choice was a heavily Chinese-influenced “scientific socialism”.
Setting sail: Somali pirates in Hobyo, north-eastern Somalia. Mohamed Dahir/AFP
Barre’s regime oversaw a period of intense nationalization, collective farming and forced suppression of ethnic and clan differences. Eventually the Somali government began accepting aid from foreign governments, including help to develop a floundering fisheries sector. In many ways the seeds of modern Somali piracy were sown in this period.
A December 1982 issue of the Marine Fisheries Review journal lists aid from Japan, Germany, Denmark, the UK and Sweden that was being used to build and renovate cold stores, fish markets, marine engines and other infrastructure. The report states that despite the modest beginning and low domestic demand—at the time Somalis overwhelmingly preferred meat to fish in their diet—the industry “has considerable potential, for Somali-claimed waters reportedly contain important stocks of sardines that are currently underutilized”.
But then just when the fishing industry was beginning to develop, the country was plunged into a civil war in 1991. Barre’s government was overthrown and the country subsequently fragmented into several pieces. With no functioning government, navy or coast guard, the waters inside Somalia’s nautical boundaries were left open to exploitation.
According to experts, what followed was foreign players using Somali weakness to commit two enduring crimes: illegal fishing, and dumping of harmful toxic waste in the country’s waters. A January 2005 report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put the number of unlicensed foreign vehicles fishing in Somali waters at 700.
In the space of just a few years, under-equipped Somali fishermen, who were making around $15 million a year, saw their catches being decimated by European and Asian trawlers stealing as much as $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp and lobster each year (estimates for the amount of stolen fish annually vary from $50 million to $300 million).
Then there is the poison in their waters. The sheer scale of illegal waste dumping in Somali waters only emerged after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when toxic barrels washed up on Somali shores. A Times of London report after the tsunami quotes Somali sources who said the chemicals that washed ashore “included radioactive uranium, lead, cadmium, mercury and industrial, hospital, chemical and various other toxic wastes”.
Several companies, many European, were quick to spot an opportunity in the unguarded Somali waters. While disposing of toxic wastes in Europe can cost around $1,000 a tonne, illegally dumping it in Somalia costs merely $2.50-8 a tonne, according to a 2005 United Nations Environment Programme report.
There is a popular point of view that piracy began in Somali waters with locals trying to ward off illegal trawlers and dumping ships. When this failed, the Somalis began to demand some form of compensation to let these foreign intruders ply their trade in unprotected Somali waters.
Eventually this resistance, still seen by many Somalis as a patriotic struggle to protect their sovereign rights, transformed into today’s quasi-organized pirate enterprise. In April, intelligence consultancy Geopolicity released a report that estimates the size of the “piracy economy” at $5-9 billion. Which means that piracy easily doubles the size of Somalia’s economy. The report also said several pirates drew annual incomes of around $79,000 a year, 130 times the annual Somali’s per capita income.
The most startling indicator of how widespread piracy has become a part of coastal culture, society and economy is the pirate stock exchange in Haradheere, 400km from the capital Mogadishu. In December 2009, Reuters reported that the stock exchange allowed individuals to buy stakes in future hijack attempts in exchange for cash, equipment or even time.
The impact of all this is several bizarre pockets of prosperity on the Somali coast. Successful pirates live in large homes, drive big cars and feed thriving local economies. There is no doubt that most of them no longer fight for the sovereignty of Somali waters. But the scourge of Somali pirates is not something that popped out of an evil imagination. It is the outcome of a sad sequence of events, including a dictatorship, civil war, international apathy and planned assaults on Somali livelihood and environment.
And, once again, our only solution right now is to bomb it out of the water.
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