Colleagues and classmates who know I’m Somali have been posing this question to me lately (although since last week it has been more than usual). They seem to be baffled at why would anyone want to hijack ships and endanger innocent people’s lives. Then, usually, I have to give a history lesson of sorts. How piracy on the Somali coast didn’t exist not long ago and why over the past few years that has changed. As someone who is not from the coastal area or even been to Somalia for more than a decade, I’m careful not to come off as a know-it-all person. One of the things, however, I bring up in these conversations is the evolution of piracy in Somalia because not many people are aware of it since the press (most of them at least) have not bothered to do so.
The evolution from a community-based coastal protection to an outright piracy phenomenon within the span of a decade says a lot about the conditions on shore. After the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991, the Somali coastline became a toxic waste dumping and illegal fishing ground by multinational corporations and trawlers from Europe and Asia. So fishermen in these coastal communities got together and created a ragtag navy to prevent waste dumping and illegal fishing – after all, what will they eat if illegal trawlers continue to steal their livelihoods? For the most part, this effectively stopped waste dumping and illegal fishing in the Somali coast but warlords, who previously ‘signed leases’ with European firms to dump toxic waste on the Somali coast for millions of dollars, saw an even bigger opportunity in hijacking and ransoming ships. What started out as legitimate coastal protection thus became a piracy business in Somalia.
Personally I have a conflicted feelings about these pirates. On one hand, they have helped to stop toxic waste dumping and illegal fishing in our shores, but on the other hand, they’re just bunch of gangsters willing to do whatever it takes to get that next ransom money. Unfortunately this piracy problem is completely out of hand now and no matter how many super destroyers are sent in to the Gulf of Aden, pirates will continue to hijack and endanger more innocent lives. It is like the ‘the war on drug’ – there is too much money at stake for these pirates and their backers.
When the fishermen started to protect the coast, it was a community-driven initiative, but now it is highly organized and financed by various groups, including warlords, unscrupulous businessmen, and corrupt local leaders. If global powers want to stop piracy, they may want to get off their super destroyers and navy ships and find the solution on the ground. Ironically, In their brief six month rule of Somalia, the Union of Islamic Courts nearly eradicated piracy before the U.S. sent in Ethiopia to remove them from power because apparently men with big beards and long robes and have “Islam” in their organization’s name are automatically terrorists. Anyway, now Al Shabab (the UIC’s reincarnation, only more extreme now) is in charge most of the eastern and southern Somali coast. They haven’t bothered to stop the piracy so far, unlike the Union of Islamic Courts. If Al Shabab wants to stop piracy, it can do it very quickly and effectively, but the question is: will global powers be smart enough to engage with Al Shabab in order to stop piracy? Very unlikely. The suggestion that pirates and Al Qaeda are working together bandied about in the press is not only wrong, but stupid. This suggestion, however, is more likely to grab the attention of global powers rather than the actual chaos and humanitarian mess that is the root cause of the piracy problem in the Horn.
The ‘Transitional Federal Government’ in southern Somalia is just that; a name. It can’t do anything about piracy just as it can’t do anything about its own security. So the cat and mouse game between pirates, commercial ships, and navies continue. So what I worry about is who will deter foreign vessels that dump toxic nuclear waste and fish illegally on our coastlines if global powers manage to defeat Somali pirates? Solving the piracy problem needs to be reconciled with the environmental protection of Somalia somehow.