Piracy Redux

Over a year after the scourge of piracy escalated in the Gulf of Aden, the world is still mired in misguided and misdirected militarist policies. Meanwhile, millions of Somalis are caught in desperate circumstances. One-third of the country is on the run. Thousands choose to make the horrendous trek to Kenya where they face relatively safe, yet empty lives in refugee camps. At the African Union summit last month, diplomats lamented that even though Somalia was a major security threat, it didn’t get anywhere near the attention that Afghanistan received.

The world’s response has been to mobilize an awesome armada in the Gulf of Aden. This strategy has been pathetically ineffective. During the one-year anniversary of the formation of the 50-nation Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia in New York on January 14, 2010, the taskforce had little to report. There were extensive discussions about the size of the coalition and its firepower, but nothing about actual successes in suppressing piracy. Instead, members of the naval taskforce agreed that piracy attacks have increased since last year.

According to the International Maritime Organization, piracy incidents increased sharply in 2009 and 2010. In January 2009, the ransom for the Saudi tanker Sirius Star was $3 million. The next month, the ransom for the Ukrainian-flagged MV Fania rose to $3.2 million. By December 2009, the ransom for the Kota Wajar was up to $4 million. And in January 2010, the ransom for the Greek-flagged oil tanker Maran Centaurus hit $7 million. Every time there is a report of a large settlement, the next ransom goes up.

Gaining Ground

The pirates are gaining ground, both literally and figuratively. They know that hijacking ships carries minimal risk and huge potential rewards. Pirates are ranging farther out into the Indian Ocean, and building wealth and political influence on land. Pirates are displacing traditional leaders because they have money and money is influence.

This should be much more disturbing for the international community, but leaders and media continue to be fascinated by the seaborne piracy phenomenon. Hollywood, for instance, is planning a slew of movies on piracy in the Gulf of Aden. This is a nightmare for policymakers. The pirates in their little fiberglass skiffs make gigantic aircraft carriers look like helpless giants. What is a problem for the navies is a boon for local fishermen. Reports indicate that fish stocks in neighboring Kenya have increased exponentially since the rise of piracy stopped the looting of fish stocks by European and Asian trawlers.

The pirates on- and offshore are well aware of the power of media. They have spin-doctors and plants in media organizations such as Al Jazeera and the BBC. They are loaded with high-tech gadgets such as GPS devices, cell phones, and satellite phones. They have negotiators, lawyers, risk analysts, and consultants based in London, Nairobi and Dubai.

The Somali Mess

Furthermore, Somalia has become a free-trade zone because of lack of government control over the economy. The main battles are for the control of the ports and airports. Warlords in control of airports and ports are taking advantage of the lack of government control to make billions from smugglers. Millions of tons of commodities such as food, electronics, arms, and other contraband are transported on the high seas marked “Somalia,” but are actually headed to countries such as Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Mogadishu has become the main source of illegal arms in the region. Businesses, nation states, the Somali diaspora, and local clan militia all contribute to the growth of the illegal arms trade.

As a result, some stakeholders in the region may be invested in the perpetuation of the conflict. It’s not only the pirates making a killing.

Role of Diaspora

An important and often overlooked factor in the conflict is the role of the large Somali diaspora in East Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Canada and the United States. This diaspora is composed of the most educated Somalis. Some in the diaspora have contributed to peacemaking in Somaliland and Puntland, but many are playing a negative role by funding warring clan leaders and warlords. Some run incredibly lucrative smuggling operations and money transfer agencies based in Nairobi, Dubai, and Aden. The UNDP estimates that Somalis in the diaspora contribute about $1 billion in remittances annually. These funds are distributed through money-transfer agencies controlled by clan leaders and warlords who tax the remittances. Thus the funds go primarily to family members, but also to finance clan leaders and warlords. Considering the profits, some of the more successful diaspora entrepreneurs may not want a stable Somalia because it would be bad for business.

Although it seems the United States, China, the European Union, and other powerful nations have tried to suppress piracy in the Gulf of Aden they hesitate to take the initiative on land. U.S. and EU forces have joined with the regional initiative to train and equip the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Uganda have all agreed to train military and police officers for the TFG. The United States led the way in financing this effort, but there needs to be a more aggressive response in all the spheres of defense, diplomacy, and development. Efforts to support the TFG are commendable, but need to be enhanced. The African Union peacekeeping force, for instance, continues to be underfunded and undermanned. Although countries in the region are willing to send troops, they’re unable to finance the force. In the final analysis, however, it is support for development projects that will reduce the violence by restoring hope and bringing jobs, health, and human dignity to the people of Somalia.

The international community should shore up legitimate traditional leaders who are losing ground to new upstarts backed by criminal enterprises such as piracy and smuggling. Leaders of the al-Shabaab militias are also pushing aside the traditional leaders and force-feeding Somalis a stricter foreign version of Islam that is very different from the traditional Sufi belief system. Without support, these potential allies in the traditional leadership will seek alternative sources of economic and physical security for their clansmen. These local leaders are under siege, but they still retain some legitimacy. This won’t last, however, unless they can deliver the basic needs. This means delivering food, health care, and security through the traditional channels.

After 20 years of chaos, the local Somali people are desperate for peace and security. Is the international community ready to step up to the challenge?

Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and teaches African politics and conflict resolution at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions (Indiana University Press, 2004) and is completing a book on peacemaking in the Horn of Africa.