Monday, 23 September 2013

A fish supper: How to make a Somali pirate

"For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them." 
Remembering this quote the other day, it vividly brought to mind what I had been reading about Somali piracy - an intractable problem which costs the global economy $18 billion annually according the World Bank. In 2011, a piracy attack occurred every 31 hours and currently 120 sailors are being held hostage. A reduction in piracy attacks has occurred recently, falling by two-thirds, due in part to the increased weaponisation and defence surrounding ships. However, this is merely the stemming of an interminable symptom as opposed to addressing the root cause. In the words of John Clancey, chairman of Maersk shipping; "Arming merchant sailors may result in the acquiring of even more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, a race the merchant sailors cannot win". And they are not only the only losers in this battle. It’s hurting Somalia and its neighbours too.  Pirates often attack ships bringing goods to the region and the cost of these strikes is being passed on to African consumers in the form of increased prices for staple items like rice and flour. What to do? Perhaps the recipe for Somali pirates also holds the solution.
  •    Somali government breakdown
  •    Illegal international activity on the Somali coast 
    •         Illegal dumping of toxic waste
    •         Illegal trawling 
  •    Willingness of shipping lines to pay ransom 

Our first and most fundamental ingredient in this recipe will be the breakdown of the Somali government. This ingredient has been maturing for a while, at least since the fall of General Muhammad Siad Barre in 1991. Since his departure Somali has had but a semblance of a central authority and various states in the North have taken this opportunity to attempt to breakaway, most notably Puntland in the North East where the majority of pirates have made their base.

However even before the fall of Barre, Somalia was a difficult nation to govern owing to its strong clan system. When Barre left, Somali became effectively controlled by the twelve strongest clans in the region, all battling for supremacy or independence. Twenty-two years later, the clan system still dominates Somali political culture, making top down government and authority very difficult to impose. Yet, the greatest opposition to the formation of the government has not come from one particular clan but from the extreme Islamist group Al Shabaab. This group was so powerful that by 2012, they controlled much of the South of Somalia. However, since then they have been driven back by a concerted military push from Somali and African Union forces. 

The government in Mogadishu now controls 80% of Somalia but the central government is still very weak and has little mandate in much of the country. With historical fragility and without an effective central authority to impose the rule of law, Somalia's stability has crumbled. This weakness has allowed piracy to flourish along Somalia's coast. The lack of any effective police force or coast guard has meant that they have an almost free reign over Somalia's 2,000 miles of coastline. With no coast guard to check their behaviour they have become de facto rulers of the waves. Indeed there is evidence that authorities, far from checking piracy are actually profiting. The breakdown of Somalia's institutions has meant that corruption is rampant (Somalia comes at the very bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, in174th place) and there is plenty of evidence of pirates paying off public officials. We can see an almost direct correlation between the strength of the state and piracy; levels of piracy fell significantly in the South after Al Shabbab lost power there.

Yet weak government does not only provide the opportunity for piracy to occur. It also provides incentives. Without a central authority and functioning institutions, the private sector has not been able to flourish in Somalia. As a result many Somali’s work in agriculture, often operating on a subsistence basis. With the absence of business or a strong public sector there are few other employment opportunities in Somalia. This has kept the majority in Somalia underemployed and living on less than $2 a day. With few jobs available and no state safety net, it is unsurprising that many young men have turned to piracy. The annual income in Somalia is $650 a year whereas a single act of piracy can yield $10,000 for an individual. This gives pirate captains a ready crew of desperate young men. Poverty and unemployment, the result of Somalia’s fragility, is one of the driving forces behind piracy. In fact, piracy really began to flourish, in 2005, when attempts to more firmly establish the government in Somalia collapsed, leading to a rise in extreme poverty.

Yet the lack of employment does not stem solely from government breakdown, it requires two further ingredients. Many on Somalia’s coasts, where the majority of pirate crews hail from, could earn a basic living as fishermen. Yet this is no longer the case. What needs to be added to explain this phenomenon is an equal pinch of both the illegal dumping of toxic material and illegal trawling for fish. One of the knock on effects of the collapse in the rule of law in Somalia has been the country's inability to protect its coastline from international predators. Since the 1991 down fall, Somalia’s waters have fallen prey to the illegal dumping of toxic waste and illegal fishing, in a situation the UN described in 2006 as a "free for all". The result has been the destruction of livelihoods and a ready incentive to turn to piracy. 

It can cost up to $1000 a tonne to dump toxic waste in Europe, where it is suspected much of the material comes from, but costs only $2.50 a tonne to dispose of toxic materials in Somali waters. There is therefore an incentive for less reputable firms to look for cheaper ways to get rid of toxic materials and the defenceless Somali coastline has suffered as a result. These materials have devastating environmental consequences particularly on fish stocks which has in turn harmed the local fishing industry. To add physical injury to this assault on livelihoods, the UN reported in 2005 that the illegal dumping of radioactive uranium and other hazardous material was causing respiratory diseases, haemorrhages and skin ailments in Somali villages on the coast, diseases consistent with radiation sickness.

However, it isn't only illegal dumping which is harming Somali fishermen. Illegal fishing trawlers, primarily from Spain, South Korea and Japan, have preyed on Somalia's fragile coast line, often under the flags of friendly governments such as Belize or Bahrain, snapping up tuna, red snapper and barracuda. The low-tech Somali fishing boats are no match for the high tech trawlers. The trawlers use banned fishing equipment such as nets with very small mesh sizes and sophisticated underwater lighting systems. As a result Somali fishermen have lost $300 million a year in sea food. In a country where most live on less than $650 a year, this is a loss to many families. On top of this, Somali fisherman report shots being fired at them from illegal trawlers or being sprayed with boiling water from on-board water cannons. 

All of this has rendered fish stocks too low for Somali fisherman to remain commercially viable. Deprived of financial security but with their boats remaining, it is easy to imagine why many would turn to piracy, especially when their original prey was those depriving them of their living. Yet the shift into piracy may have been an even more direct response to illegal trawling. In the words of Peter Lehr, lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St. Andrews "the first pirate gangs emerged in the '90s to protect against foreign trawlers". International disregard for Somalia's maritime sovereignty caused the creation of vigilante groups formed to drive off trawlers and many of these gangs became the pirates which plague international waters today. The names of existing pirate fleets, the National Coast Guard of Somalia or Somali Marines, indicate these groups initial motivations. In fact, illegal trawling and dumping gave pirate fleets a nationalist rhetoric which they claimed with some success, justified their activities. The trawlers, who were anxious to avoid attracting attention to their activities, almost always, paid the pirates ransom. 

This neatly brings me to the final ingredient needed to fully explain Somali piracy; to the current recipe one must add in a hefty dose of willingness by ship owners to pay the ransoms demanded. On the ship owners part this is an entirely logical calculation. Quite apart from illegal trawlers, merchant ships and their cargo are often worth upward of $20 million. Paying even a tenth of that sum to a pirate crew makes good business sense. And yet, what is rational for one individual is not rational for the group, an example of what economists call the tragedy of the commons. By continually agreeing to pay ransoms at the individual level, shipping firms are incentivising pirates to continue to take their ships hostage and are also giving them the capital to do so, inadvertently financing better pirate vessels and weaponry.

So there you have a very simple recipe. Just combine a broken state, illegal fishing and dumping and a willingness to pay huge ransoms and you've got your very own Somali pirate. I hope you will, as I did, get a very different image of the Somali pirates from this recipe. An image quite different to their portrayal on the news and in the media. They become less the perpetrators of heinous crimes and more the victim of desperate circumstances. When the international community allows Somali's to live in a broken state, damages coastal livelihoods by illegally fishing and throwing toxic waste into their water and then incentivising crime through almost guaranteed ransom payment "what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them." ?

I'm not saying that Somali’s are entirely blameless. Many ordinary Somali’s eke out a living on coastal towns, not committing crime, and are horrified by the activities of their compatriots. Yet with the different perspective this recipe grants us, we can perhaps see a more human and indeed rational side to their actions. Indeed Somali pirates are not famed for their cruelty. They tend to treat hostages well and behave in a business-like manner, at least according to a Colin Freeman, a journalist at the Telegraph who was taken hostage by pirates in 2008.
The fact is that until the international community steps up to the plate, piracy will continue. In the word of Roger Middleton, from Chatham House ; "There are ways that navies from around the world can patch over the problems of Somalia but as long as a state with grinding poverty, hunger, no law enforcement and no effective government sits beside a rich trading route, piracy will continue". The international community is therefore compelled to act, not just for moral or humanitarian reasons, but also in simple self-interest. Guilt and hand wringing over the situation we’ve helped create will get us nowhere.
The international community are already taking some steps.  It was widely reported in May that David Cameron attended a major conference on the rebuilding of Somalia, speaking of the importance of supporting Somalia’s new but fragile government. At the same conference, £50m ($77m) was committed in aid to the new government from countries including China, the US and South Africa. But more must be done. The international community must focus on state-building in Somalia. Without a strong central state, any other solutions will be merely “patches”. And patches belong on the clothes of children dressing up as pirates at Halloween this year, not international policy.


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