The anarchic situation in Somalia has resulted in sea piracy seen as a legitimised enterprise among its coastal citizenry
Ever since the collapse of the central government led by Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, the nation of Somalia in east Africa has been subjected to lawlessness and anarchy that has ripped the nation and its society apart. The phenomenon of sea piracy in the Gulf of Aden and in coastal regions of the country is related to this breakdown as well as other factors.
The Gulf of Aden is a busy trade route for various international ships, and pirates have seized upon the traffic here to earn money through hijacking and winning ransoms or by looting ships that carry food grains or livestock. The modus operandi for pirates across the Somalian coast involves groups of armed men disembarking from “mother ships” on speed boats and taking hostages of crew members of other ships in the vicinity. Incidences of piracy in 2008 was particularly high, as big tankers such as the Saudi ship Sirius Star, or large arms carriers such as the Ukrainian Faina were hijacked. The pirates have shown increasing sophistication in their actions – through the use of global positioning systems, satellite communications, military hardware and other know-how.
The sudden surge in the incidence of piracy nearby the Somalian coast resulted in an unanimous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution in December 2008 authorising nations to cooperate in their fight against piracy and to deploy naval vessels and military aircraft to interdict vessels engaged in piracy. The UNSC authorised the entry by nations' ships into Somalian territorial waters to punish those engaged in piracy activities when needed. Such an express approval for action, saw a relative decline in successful hijackings of vessels in the region, but the dramatic hijacking of an American vessel followed by an US navy rescue operation has brought back focus on the issue.
The basic rationale for the acts of piracy has been pinned down to the lucrative returns from hijacking – an estimate suggests income from piracy is higher than the entire GDP of the autonomous region of Puntland in north-eastern Somalia, where piracy is most rampant. The sophistication and brazen-ness of the actions are seen as possible only because of the lack of a central authority in control over law and order in the Somalian nation. The perennial civil war since 1991 has seen multiple authorities; warlords have controlled the capital at various times, there has been an invasion by Ethiopian armed forces and the internationally recognised transitional federal government in Somalia has been unable to establish any semblance of rule. The absence of any central rule has resulted in a complete deterioration in the economy and in the livelihoods of the already impoverished nation.
The lack of a central authority governing Somalia has also meant that the nation's coast has been used as a dumping ground of toxic waste and a source of uncontrolled fishing by international corporations with impunity. Reports and even the United Nations Environment Programme have pointed out that tonnes of toxic waste have accumulated in the Somalian coast, a process that was exacerbated by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Fishing trawlers operated by European firms have systematically emptied the fishing zones, resulting in resentment among local fishing communities in the region. The pirates were believed to have started their acts on the seas as a means of dissuading international ships – particularly off the coast of Puntland – from being in the vicinity of their shores. And it is no wonder that the pirates' actions have been supported by the local public concerned about the effects of toxic dumping (including nuclear waste) on their shores and about the unauthorised and bulk fishing in their zones. Many of the locals view piracy as acts of self-defense against commercial ships entering sovereign Somalian territory.
In essence, the “piracy problem” in the Somalian coast and in the Gulf of Aden seems more than merely a lucrative enterprise. The continuing use of the Somalian territorial waters for illegal dumping and fishing by international firms– a practice that has legitimised piracy in the eyes of the locals - is a crime that has to be monitored and stopped immediately by the international community.
The security council's insistence on a security/military based solution will not solve the problem in its entirety, as the larger issue of the continuing anarchy in the country would only force the citizenry to adopt desperate measures for their livelihoods. It is untenable that 18 years have passed since a functional national government was in place in the country. Concerted efforts by the United Nations to bring in civil rule and law by engaging the warlords and various groups in talks have gone ahead nowhere, as powers such as the United States, have bedevilled such processes in Somalia driven by their own strategic concerns – for exploiting energy resources in the country or the “war on terror”. In sum, the downward spiral into further anarchy and the piracy problem are to be addressed not just by a security response by the international community, but through a different form of intervention keeping in the mind the plight of the Somalian population.
Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly