Aid rather than blockade: ending piracy off the Somali coast

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Sam Mealy's picture

Aid rather than blockade: ending piracy off the Somali coast

The current policy aimed at preventing Somali piracy is failing. Multilateral militarisation of the greater Gulf of Aden has succeeded in mostly ridding that area of pirates at the expense of pushing them farther out into the Indian Ocean. Although the African Union, the EU and the US, amongst other international actors, have sponsored legal capacity building in Somalia and neighbouring states, the judicial systems there do not have the resources to try and imprison the growing number of arrested pirates. Western countries are reluctant to extradite pirates because of legal costs and fear of them eventually seeking asylum. As such, many naval commanders are forced to release pirates almost as soon as they are arrested. 235 of the 275 suspected pirates apprehended by the EU's Operation Atalanta during March and April of 2010 were released under such constraints.1 These 'capture and release' gaps in the current international legal regime significantly undermine the policy of military deterence. Rationalising the legal regime will undoubtedly help; but deterence alone is insufficient to prevent piracy in the long-term. It addresses symptoms rather than the underlying causes of the problem.

Pirates are generally framed in the media as hostes humani generis – that is, enemies of all mankind. This simplistic framing reduces a complex phenomenon to episodic ransom piracy. Multiple types of piracy have historically been in operation off the Somali coast. Political pirates emerged in  opposition to Siyad Barre's despotic regime during the 1980s. After Barre was deposed in 1991, the Somali state was overrun by competing factions. Resources pirates then exploited the absence of centralised authority, plundering Somali waters of its rich pelagic fish stocks. Illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing is estimated to have cost the Somali economy anything from $100 to $350 million annually.2 European and Asian companies were concurrently signing deals with Somali warlords to dump various types of waste – lead, mercury, cadmium, industrial and hospital waste – for as little as $2.50 per tonne whereas disposal costs in Europe are closer to $250 per tonne.3 Fishermen and other members of the worse-affected local communities such as Eyl and Harradheere in north-eastern Somalia banded together to form groups such as the National Volunteer Coast Guard (NVCG) or the Somali Marines (SM). These self-styled coastguards quickly transformed into the ransom pirates of infamy today as they realised hijacking was a far more lucrative, if dangerous, livelihood than fishing.

Apart from Somali's lack of government and extensive coastline – at over 3,300 kilometres it is Africa's longest – piracy is conditioned by the prospect of great rewards in the face of acceptable risk. Whilst the international community's response to piracy has raised pirates' costs, they are still acceptable in light of the alternatives. Unemployment in Somalia is approximately 50%. The Horn of Africa is an inhospitable region that suffers from perennial food crises and water shortages. Although the UN has declared the recent famine there over, some 2.3 million Somalis – just over 30% of the entire population – are still in need of food aid.4 Even the most lowly ranked pirate can earn anything from $15-30,000 per annum;5 in a country whose GDP per capita has been stubbornly anchored around $500 since independence in 1960, it is unsurprising that piracy remains a popular career choice.

This is in no way an apology for ransom pirates. Their often heinous actions – the brutal killing of four American tourists in February 2011 is but one example6 – should not and will not be tolerated. However, it must be recognised that one of the prime failures of the current anti-pirate policy is that it is reacting to problems on the seas rather than seeking to prevent them onshore. Preventing public problems is difficult: there are greater economic costs and fewer political gains – no politician receives credit for solving a problem that never arose. But the problem of piracy off the Horn is connected to the failure of governance in Somalia, and policymakers' must take a long-run view of the situation if there is to be any improvement in the region. The major issue to address is the lack of local ownership of the problem. This is associated with the West's lack of legitimacy in the area and thus its naval blockade. Somalis have historically viewed Western intervention as aggravating rather than alleviating local problems: from the British, French and Italian colonial boundaries that divided the geographically contiguous Somali nation, the superpowers' military aid that stimulated conflict during the Cold War, to the US's involvement in the infamous 'Black Hawk Down' incident in 1993, and its military and logistical support of Ethiopia's invasion and overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) government in 2006.7 The current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) holds power in theory only, having been run out of most of southern Somalia and  Mogadishu by al-Shabaab, a radical Islamist group. Unfortunately the TFG is perceived as an alien puppet government, propped up by Western financial aid and African Union (AU) soldiers, whilst al-Shabaab is attempting to impose an oppressive form of sharia on Somali society. An al-Shabaab suicide bomber killed the head of the Somali Olympic Committee and the head of the Somali Football Federation, amongst several others, in an attack on the recently reopened national theatre in Mogadishu at the beginning of April.8 Such attacks are common in the absence of civil order. What is to be done about this humanitarian and human rights disaster zone?

 First, we must reframe the discourse surrounding Somali piracy and admit to Western complicity in the creation of the problem. Piracy is a product of failed government but the West's actions have been tied up in the failure of government in the first place. Second, we must reorient resources from militarisation to humanitarian aid. A viable alternative lifestyle has to be created if individual pirates' motivations are to change. These two shifts should at least start to address the legitimacy gap that the international community currently suffers from in the region. A more legitimate response should also hopefully foster local ownership of the problem. Third, the international community should reward good governance: although suffering from a number of problems, the secessionist state of Somaliland is making a decent fist of building functional institutions. None of the cities on its coastline are pirate hubs. The international community should thus grant diplomatic recognition to Somaliland and recognise that a far more decentralised solution to the problem of piracy is required. Local institutions and reconciliation methods should be sponsored rather than the unfeasible attempt to resuscitate the old centralised Somali state.

  1.  Nanda, V. E., 'Maritime Piracy: How Can International Law and Policy Address This Growing Global Menace?', in Scheiber, H. N. et al (eds.) Governing Ocean Resources, 2011, p. 204.
  2. Dagne, T., 'Somalia: Prospects for a Lasting Peace', in Mediterranean Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring 2009, p. 106.
  3. Philips, L., The European roots of Somali piracy, April 21 2009,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Gilpin, R., 'Counting the Costs of Somali Piracy', United States Institute of Peace Working Paper, June 2009, p. 10.