By Paul Cochrane in Beirut
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has become another ‘global crisis.’ It took the hijacking of a US ship last month and the media hyped antics of the US Navy in ‘neutralizing’ the rogue elements – three shots, three dead pirates – to make it onto the crisis list.
Yet piracy has been a problem off Somalia for as long as this East African country has been in a state of crisis, since 1991. And it is not a clear-cut case of the good guys – merchant seamen - versus the baddies – Somali pirates.
The dire situation in Somalia is what triggered a surge in piracy that has, like the conflict itself, many regional and international players involved. As an essentially failed state there are no means for patrolling Somalia’s coastline. This has been a scourge for the Somalis as well as the 33,000 ships a year that sail either side of the Horn of Africa. With no regulation, the seas were a free-for-all and the area became a rich source for unscrupulous seafarers.
In the year following the overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts by US-backed Ethiopian troops in Dec. 2006, there were 31 attacks on ships. As the conflict in Somalia heated up, the number of attacks spiked to 122 in 2008, while in the four months of this year there have been 79 attacks. Pirates are currently holding 280 crewmen on 14 ships for ransom.
But while pirates demand millions of dollars to release hijacked ships, Somalis and the UN have claimed that foreign ships, primarily European, have been dumping toxic and nuclear waste off the coast to avoid high waste disposal costs elsewhere. When some of this toxic waste washed ashore, over 300 people died from radiation sickness.
Illegal fishing has also taken its toll, with an estimated $300 million worth of fish trawled every year. According to news reports, stocks are running so low Somalisare struggling to survive. Vigilante justice ensued when local fishermen took to the seas to levy ‘taxes’ and seize ships suspected of dumping and illegal fishing, calling themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia.
It was a measure that has popular backing in Somalia, as has actual piracy. According to an editorial in Somali news site WardheerNews, 70 percent of those polled “strongly viewed the piracy as a form of crude, primitive, if you will, national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”
It is a bit of a stretch however to say a ship hijacked up to 900 nautical miles off the coast is national defense, particularly with the ransoms paid out funding militias in Somalia. But such piracy could be viewed like the folkloric hero Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed (and arm) the poor. After all, whether someone is referred to as a pirate depends on how they are regarded, similar to the way ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’
Take Captain Morgan of Jamaican rum fame, who was a privateer in the service of the British navy in the Caribbean in the late 1600s, attacking Spanish flotillas laden with booty. Morgan and his ilk – what we might now refer to as maritime mercenaries – served a foreign policy objective by pillaging from the Spanish, but crucially set the course for Britain to become an empire through its domination of the seas. Piracy had its uses, and for his efforts Morgan was made the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. The founder of New Orleans was also a pirate and during the American Revolution,George Washington, lacking a navy, paid pirates to patrol the coast.
Piracy could also be considered a policy common to the financial world, whether it’s offshore banking havens that launder dirty money or of the more cutthroat capitalist variety. There was even a recent posting on the Wall Street Journal’s blog on “Piracy vs. Private Equity: A Comparison.” Similarities were the seizing of assets and adopting a “all for one, one for all” partnership model, but where piracy demands a ransom to divide among the pirates, PE has a dividend recap, then sale or initial public offering.
And just as tighter regulations of the free market are being sought,amid the global financial crisis,amid the global financial crisis, NATO is debating whether to provide armed convoys for ships plying Somalia’s waters. But despite the 15 to 20 warships under UN auspices currently off the coast, Somalis claim navy vessels are protecting illegal trawlers that were initially scared off by its volunteer coastguard.
While some temporary measures are needed to protect shipping routes, the real solution to the crisis lies on land. With stability, Somalia would have less need to resort to piracy – defensive or offensive - and its natural resources could be better protected. If one good thing can be said of the ‘piracy crisis’, it is bringing attention to the ramifications of a failed state.