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Piracy – a great excuse to write about Somalia

It’s been a nice change of pace to hear stories about Somalia leading newscasts the last couple of days. The audacious hijack of a massive oil tanker has helped call attention to the phenomenon of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the conversion of fishing villages in Somalia and Puntland into pirate villages. Today’s headlines include an update that the Saudi owners of the tanker are now – as predicted – talking to the pirates and negotiating a ransom, and the more surprising news that the Indian navy sank a pirate “mother ship”.

From the ICC’s Live Piracy Map 2008 – attacks and encounters with pirates in the Gulf of Aden

I listened to stories on Somali piracy on NPR and the BBC World Service while driving into Boston yesterday, and I was surprised that coverage of the events on these excellent broadcasters was so superficial. The story appeared twice and hour, and included updates on the position of the ship, but didn’t ever drill into the circumstances in Somalia that have made southern Somalia such a basketcase. The BBC story referenced Siad Barre and the last two decades of chaos, but didn’t dip into the recent history – the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts, the alliance between the transitional federal government and Ethiopia (with US intelligence support), the increasing inability of the TFG to govern effectively, the rise of the al-Shabab.

The Associated Press commissioned an interesting report (which I’ve summarized here) on youth consumption of news media. One of their most interesting findings was the discovery that young people refresh news continually out of boredom, but feel like they never get depth or resolution to the stories they’re following. This story strikes me as a perfect example of an opportunity to add depth. Instead of updating the position of the tanker off the coast of Eyl, why not take five minutes and explain the failure of the transitional government to control Mogadishu and its complete lack of influence over Puntland? You’ve caught our attention with piracy – why not tell a slightly more complex story about one of the more important conflicts in Africa today?

Al Jazeera has been offering better coverage than many other news agencies, in part because they’ve got several Somali reporters. They offered an interesting perspective about a month ago, examining claims by the pirates who’d seized the transport ship carrying Ukranian tanks (Remember that story? How’d that one end?) that ransoms were being demanded to provide funds to clean up toxic waste off the Somali coast. It’s certainly true that large amounts of toxic waste are being dumped on the coast of Somalia, and likely that some European firms are involved with selling illegal “disposal” services for radioactive and medical waste on the Somali coast, though it’s probably a stretch to consider the pirates a coast guard trying to prevent illegal dumping.

I don’t know whether Martin Fletcher, writing in the Times of London, was motivated by the piracy stories to offer his thoughts on Somali governance and the Bush administration’s failures. He argues that the Bush administration’s support for the Transitional Federal Government and for a war fought with Ethiopian troops and American intelligence “helped to destroy that wretched country’s best chance of peace in a generation, left more than a million Somalis dead, homeless or starving, and achieved the precise opposite of its original goal.” Before the offensive, the UIC had managed to bring some semblance of stability to Somalia – markets were reopening in Mogadishu, the qat trade had quieted, and as Fletcher reports, “For the first time that most Somalis could remember, they were walking around their shattered capital in safety, even at night.”

The UIC, as my friend Abdurahman Warsame has explained, was an umbrella of groups, including moderate islamists largely interested in stability and extremists. US policy focused on the extremists, and backed their ouster by Ethiopian troops, installing a trasitional government that has very little local power or authority and has failed, utterly, at maintaining peace after Ethiopian troops pulled out. (Lots and lots more about the TFG, Ethiopia and the US role here, linking to a pile of earlier blog posts on the topic.) UIC splinter groups, including al-Shabab, have engaged in an insurgency that may have claimed 10,000 lives and forced more than a million people from their homes. Fletcher argues – persuasively, in my opinion – that UIC might have continued to centralize control and rule Somalia with a moderate hand, while there’s virtually no doubt that al-Shabab will enforce extremely strict sharia law, will likely seek to eliminate other UIC factions and will undoubtably provide sanctuary and shelter for Al Qaeda.

BBC’s stories yesterday morning didn’t focus on terrorism or fragile states, but on the way in which the pirate port of Eyl has become a boomtown. (This isn’t a knock on the author, Mary Harper, who’s written excellent pieces of analysis regarding Somalia, just surprise at this bit of focus.) My favorite detail in the piece – many of the crew members on hijacked ships don’t like Somali food, so “special restaurants have even been set up to prepare food for the crews of the hijacked ships.”

For a sense of how weird it must be for Eyl to be a boomtown, I recommend the video above. It’s a piece of travelogue from YouTube shot by “Sool“, who lives in Canada but hails from Hargeisa, Somaliland. In this video, posted in 2006, he describes Eyl: “this place is a lost town where only 2 cars a in 2 weeks come it’s so nice a cool place to chill”. Perhaps it’s a bit more lively these days.

My friends at Foreign Policy Passport highlighted the International Chamber of Commerce’s “live piracy map“, which is tracking this year’s rash of piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and around the world. They note that West Africa and Indonesia also have serious problems with piracy. I spent a while clicking around the map today and was interested to discover that many of the West African “pirate attacks” look more like breaking and entering than terror on the high seas. The attacks in the Ghanaian port of Tema appear to be men climbing onto the ships from the docks and attempting to open hatches on deck to steal stuff. Bad, yes, but hardly the high-seas drama we’re seeing across the continent.

It is interesting to note the small concentration of attacks – including a hijacking – near Port Harcourt, in the troubled Niger Delta. Given the instability and ongoing violence targetting oil facilities, I would have expected more reported attacks. I wonder if the detailed coverage of the east African attacks might lead to copycat techniques in other parts of the world that are already experiencing sustained conflict and fragile government.

6 thoughts on “Piracy – a great excuse to write about Somalia”

  1. Looking for a local angle, the Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia) reported on how a local mining company “…oil explorer Range Resources has paid the disputed government of the Puntland State of Somalia more than $US6 million ($A9.3 million) for resource rights to the region,” since 2005.

    Miner Tied to Somali Pirates, Mark Hawthorne, Age, 2008-11-20

    Thanks for a great blog.


  2. I don’t think it is a stretch to consider them a kind of coastguard. True they’re not actively stopping dumpers right now. But how can they possibly devote time to that? So, hijack important-looking vessels and hold them for ransom, and judging by the hysteria worldwide about Somalis with guns on boats, it will probably deter future dumpers. The dumpers probably didn’t think they’d get this much attention.

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Consensus on Somalia: it’s going to get worse

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