Somalia- Piracy:The Price of Poverty and Lawlessness

Piracy in SomaliaBy Marian A. Hassan – Piracy was not born on the sea. It is based and begins on land. Tales of Somali pirates have horrified the international community. From the perspective of a Somali native, the deaths are equally horrifying, but I can see what is not obvious from outside of my country – these incidents have not come out of the blue. They are instead a symptom of problems that originated with the fall of our government in late 1990s. Piracy is a symptom of a legacy of tragedy, not an isolated act of evil.

Just this past April, Somali pirates were holding the Asphalt Venture, a Panamanian-flagged merchant vessel. On Friday 15th April 2011, they released the ship and eight hostages after receiving a ransom that was estimated to be $3.5 Million. The eight hostages released were not, however, the only prisoners: seven Indian citizens are still been retained. The pirates are now threatening to withhold this crew until other pirates, currently imprisoned in India, are released.

On 22nd Feb 2011, the world was shocked by the execution of four American citizens by Somali pirates. These citizens had been captured just four days earlier, on 18th Feb 2011. The pirates, it is believed, suspected the American Army’s plan to rescue their captives.

On April 12th 2009, the American army rescued Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that had been boarded five days earlier by Somali pirates. In the process of rescuing Captain Philips, the American army shot three of the pirates and captured a fourth, Abdiwali Muse, alive. Muse was a seventeen year old high school student who got involved in piracy in 2009. It was reported that gang pirates had persuaded him to join, since they earned a lot of money each time they hijacked a ship. Muse is currently in New York, where he has been sentenced to thirty three years and nine months prison.

This Richard Philips incident was likely a lesson for the pirates’ act on February 2011. Somali pirates, it seems, now equate the rescue of a prisoner with either death or lifetime in prison.

While it’s impossible to know where this will all end, it’s important to take a look at how and why it began. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a growing concern within and outside of Somalia since 2005. It started after the collapse of the Somali central government in 1990. In the absence of any structure to prevent such action, foreign vessels began to unlawfully fish near the Somali coast, often depositing toxic materials. Angry Somali fishermen, infuriated by the destruction of their boats, hijacked some vessels and demanded ransom. The owners of the hijacked ships paid ransom for safe release of their employees, sometimes paying millions of dollars for each captured ship. In turn, this encouraged many more unemployed young men into piracy. To date, countries like Germanys, Britain and others have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fight pirates. Still pirates have continued to hijack ships far away from the Somali coast.

Incidents of piracy have soared from 276 in 2005 to 445 in 2010. According to the International Maritime Bureau, there were 142 attacks between January and March 2011 – 97 off the coast of Somalia – up from 35 in the same period the previous year and an all-time high. The gulfs of Aden and Oman are among the world’s major shipping lanes: About 21,000 ships, and 11 percent of global crude oil traffic, cross the Gulf of Aden every year.

It is important for the west to realize that Somali pirates threaten not only passing ships but Somali society as well. Lack of job opportunities drives youth to join the multimillion dollar business of piracy. The few pirates might benefit enormously, but the rest of the country suffers. The large amount of money pirates receive causes inflation increasing prices of goods. For instance, the packet of sugar that used to be twenty dollars is now about fifty dollars. The pirates consume alcohol and drive rashly, leading to tragic accidents. They also snatch girls, carry them in their vehicles and rape them.

One such tragic incident involved a homemaker in Galkayo, Somalia. On 29th September 2010, two gunmen knocked on her door. They took her to a secluded place at gun point, raped her and left her there.  She has survived, but due to social stigma, she refuses to speak of the experience. These gunmen were accused to be pirates. She was their neighbor and she had warned them not to enter piracy. Rape incidents have increased tremendously since the increase in piracy. For instance, in Galkayo city, the second largest town in Puntland state, reported incidents of rape increase each year: 69 in 2008 and 104 in 2009.

The best way to solve a problem is to fight its root cause and not its effects. If the international community spends one-third of the money it invests in fighting piracy to establish vocational training schools for youth, things would change for the better. If youth had a way to acquire sustainable jobs kills, they would not dream of putting themselves at risk. I am a professional and a university graduate. I believe that youth in Somalia need vocational skills to sustain their lives. Once they acquire those skills and get financial support, they can create jobs for themselves by starting small business enterprises. They can work and sustain themselves even if they do not get employed by non-governmental organizations or intergovernmental organizations. Most agencies prefer to hire candidates who studied outside the country and everyone can not afford to go abroad to study university.

Equipping youth with job skills is the only win-win approach to eliminate piracy and everyone will benefit from this. Youth who acquire vocational skills can sustain their lives. Other members of the community will also live happily without the fear of pirates and the international community would be relieved from the threat and tension associated with this terror at sea.