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Somalia piracy: A chicken or an egg?

By Kalundi Serumaga

Which came first: the instability of the region due to Somalia’s collapse, or Somalia’s collapse due to the instability of the region?

Somalia’s story is a continuation of one that started centuries ago, and that stretches far beyond her 3000 km of troubled coastline. It is a story that is actually quite commonplace in the African interior.

Since December last year, warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, Japan, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain, Germany and even Kenya have all joined the hunt for Somalia’s pirates operating on the Indian Ocean.

Their concerns are real: the US-based GQ magazine makes them clear:

Somalia’s pirates are threatening to choke off the Gulf of Aden, through which 20,000 ships pass each year. The economic consequences of all this piracy are potentially catastrophic. The worlds biggest shipping companies are detouring their vessels thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope, at the bottom of Africa, rather than risking a voyage through Somalia’s pirate-infested seas. Insurance costs are shooting up. Security bills are skyrocketing. The cash-starved Egyptian government could collapse if more ships avoid the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, which provides Egypt with billions of dollars each year. In truth, the whole gulf region has been unstable for about 500 years The rise of the western European empires (Portuguese, Dutch and English), against the already then existing Chinese maritime power created a fierce five way contest among these powers, as well as between them and the numerous peoples native to the islands and coasts from the middle eastern Gulf region all the way to south east Asia.

European and Chinese power began with merchant traders who depended on two things: a trading navy (commonly known as a Merchant Navy) and armed sea power to protect trade routes and maintain military forts and allies along these routes.

In practice, this meant firstly imposing colonial power on the islands and coastlines between Western Europe and south East Asia (where most of the spices, silk, ceramic and minerals were being procured), and Western Europe (where the consuming market was found). In some cases, it involved the removal of uncooperative native rulers, and putting “friendlier” dictators in place.

The Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British Russians and the Americans in that order competed (and often fought) against each other for centuries, to dominate the trade routes between south East Asia and the Atlantic.

This current crisis has now escalated to a new level where some of those nations are now demonstrating a willingness to return to the “days of Empires” and physically confront the raiders, resulting in a number of deaths of both pirates and hostages.

The Somalis, most of whom claim to be former fishermen, have also shown a determination to continue with their acts of water-borne banditry, that have so far made many dollar millionaires (collectively estimated at some $120 million), and have created a whole new type of warlord communities in north Somalia, quite divorced from the life of grinding poverty that affects the rest of the former country.

Their justification is that the wanton dumping by western ships of industrial waste, as well as widespread encroachment by western fishing ships, into Somalia’s unguarded waters, has all but destroyed the local fishing industry. According to them, piracy is therefore both a replacement source of income, as well as a means of protecting Somalia’s territorial waters, in the absence of an organised government.

The western response has been considerably one-sided, in that it has concentrated only on the protection of western interests, and ignored Somalis’ concerns.

Initially, the west focussed on suppressing the militias that emerged following the collapse of the country. This culminated on the “war on terror”where first directly, and then through proxies like Ethiopia (and now disguised as the African Union -AU- peacekeepers), battles for control of the main towns have been fought on and off for more than a decade. They are now applying the same faulty logic to the sea: instead of addressing the root problem of Somali poverty. They simply want to secure the waterways off the Somali coast for the safe passage of their merchant ships. This will also lead to making landings on the Somalia coast, but only in pursuit of the former fishermen turned pirates.

It is a situation similar to the European Union’s (EU) policing of the waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas, to try and catch West African illegal immigrants travelling in large wooden boats. A few years ago, these same boats were used for fishing, until the same EU imposed “liberalisation” of fishing rights on the poor countries of the west African coast. This allowed EU factory fishing ships into western African waters, sucking up and exporting huge quantities of fish, thereby destroying the indigenous fishing industry whose now unemployed African youths sail illegally to Europe, to play cat-and-mouse with the immigration authorities there. Perhaps they would command more respect if they resorted to piracy as well.

Likewise, the curtailment of the pastoralist lifestyle in the Greater Horn of Africa region through their land and water sources being seized for tourism, “conservation”, large-scale mechanised agriculture, and the like has led to the rise of “banditry” and cattle rustling activities, that have now become a culture.

The Gulf region became even more of a “problem magnet” following the eighteenth century construction of the Suez Canal, which made the earlier long route around southern Africa unnecessary (until now), and its fate finally sealed with the discoveries of oil –the new lifeblood of western economic system- in the Middle East itself.

As a result, the peoples living along these islands and coasts along these vast routes hold a long historical memory of the various episodes of looting, bombardment and occupation by these various powers that were really only interested in plunder, disguised as “trade”.

Historically three types of “pirates” have emerged: the imperial navies of the western powers;  others who come from Western Europe but had rebelled against their masters; and the natives -like today’s Somalis- who were resisting the first two.

As an imperial navy, the Portuguese in particular acquired a fearsome reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness, perhaps partly fuelled by their Roman Catholic contempt for Islam, which was already the dominant religion in the gulf region and parts of South East Asia.

They routinely hijacked merchant ships and ones carrying pilgrims to Mecca and looted them,  throwing the pilgrims into the sea. They also besieged and looted Arab and Asian trading ports, forcing them to pay “taxes”or just ransacked them.

The second type of piracy was in part a product of the very dire living conditions –characterised by poverty and violence- in many European ports in the 1700s onwards.

The great demand for sailors to work on the ships of the merchant and military navies gave rise to the practice of “press ganging”, where soldiers would make late-night raids of the bars, brothels, police holding cells and gambling dens in port cities and simply forcibly carry off any able-bodied men there and dump them on ships preparing to depart.

This meant that a good percentage of the ships’ crew was usually made up of thugs and miscreants who had to be controlled with extreme violence. That in turn would lead to rebellions on some ships which would sometimes result in the rebels taking control of the ships, and then becoming branded pirates, as they sailed the seas robbing merchant ships, raiding isolated coastal towns and working as mercenaries for foreign powers in order to survive.

What is now happening on the seas off Somalia is simply an extension of what has been happening on the African interior for many decades now. Firstly, the complete breakdown of civil law and order does not necessarily prevent the continued exploitation of the affected country’s natural resources. In fact, it often enhances it. Good examples are Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the DRC where trade (in fact looting) of their timber, diamonds and other precious minerals became a global trade during their civil wars; Secondly, clever individuals will always emerge from the native communities to get rich out of the situation, and the wananchi can go hang; Thirdly, as long as bazungu and their trade routes are not physically threatened; nothing significant will be done about the crisis. This is why the rampant 1980s piracy of the Asian Malacca Straits, threatening oil routes was very effectively stamped out.

Big power intervention is about protecting global trade, but the AU intervention has a lot less clearer objectives: is it to prop up a state that clearly does not want to be propped up? Is it to prevent the growing emergence of home-grown states according to the needs of the locals (such as the unrecognised Somaliland in the north)? Is it part of the former war on terror? However understood, the AU intervention prevents political progress that would enable the Somalis (as either one or many countries) to begin re-asserting control over their economic resources, as it is premised on keeping Somalis locked in a state the the British and Italians built on top of them a century ago.

The risk Somalia now faces is to have a continuation of a 5 century-long struggle by the former empires to politically dominate the countries of the Gulf and Far East so as to monopolise the wealth and trade of the area, through making political alliances or even creating states and political dynasties that were to be loyal to them. This is the culture that led eventually to the fall of the Siad Barre regime (precipitating the collapse of Somalia itself), which was inconveniently dumped by the Russian Soviet empire when it switched sides to support Ethiopia’s recently arrived Mengistu in the middle of the costly Somalia-Ethiopia war over the Ogaden region.

This kind of crisis is rebuilding up throughout the African continent. In Uganda alone, many companies are sucking up huge amounts of fish from the main lakes, at the expense of local fishing communities. This has led to fish being priced out of the reach of many ordinary people, and the increase on the amount of immature fish being poached from the lake a combination of desperate and greedy fishermen.

The presumed benefit is the revenue government gets from taxing the licensed fishing companies and individuals. But Ugandans have by now seen the difference between the taxes levied and presumed benefits that follow.

How long before -like the Somalis- they too reject not just the taxes, but the very state that is imposing them?


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