Somali Piracy – Solutions lie on land, not at sea

The current problem of piracy resides in the collapse of the Somali state back in 1991. Until such time as a legitimate government is installed, which importantly, has the support and confidence of the majority of the population, will we be in a position to see the territorial integrity of the Somali coastline restored.

Many of the prisoners languishing in the jails of coastal towns in Puntland are former fisherman charged with piracy. It is known that once the anarchy began and the Somali state was no longer capable of protecting the integrity of its coastline, foreign fishing vessels swooped in and drastically overfished their waters. Today’s catch is on average 10% of what it was a decade ago. Many of the pirates aren’t fisherman at all of course, just opportunists looking to make a quick buck and were it not for the lives being put at risk, I would generally be in favour of any measure that transferred largesse from foreign multinationals, into the African economy.

Be that as it may, in the meantime, corrective measures fall far short of what is required because the costs are just too prohibitive. Currently there are some 20 warships patrolling an area of 1.1 million sq. miles in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. It is estimated that it would take 140 warships to fully secure the Gulf of Aden and ten times that amount to secure transit in the Indian Ocean. So merchant ships are often left to provide their own security measures. Some use barbed wire and hose pipes and other “passive” deterrents, while others prefer more aggressive methods but at the end of the day the solution lies on land, not at sea.

The Transitional Federal Government which is now attempting to secure Mogadishu, has received the support of the UN, the EU and the US but it may be suffering from a crisis of legitimacy among the Somali people themselves.

There are three reasons for this as far as I can tell;

(1) The government was not elected by the people.

It received it’s mandate from the Djibouti peace process and these “elected” representatives are powerful figures drawn from the four “noble” clans. It thus appears to be perpetuating the very divisions that sowed so much discord in the aftermath of the civil war when the major warlords emerged. Recent internal wrangling has stemmed from clan divisions with each clan and sub-clan looking for more representation. This is a major distraction to the real problems at hand.

Even the Federal Charter of the TFG allows a minimum number of major posts to be allotted to members of either the Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Isaaq clans. This may appear to be a natural response to practical exigencies, reflective of the real politik of powerbrokers but it as yet remains essentially undemocratic. The mass of resignations that accompanied Pres. Yusuf Ahmed’s decision to sack his last Prime Minister seemed to be made entirely on the perception that their clan had somehow been shafted or sidelined in favour of another. There seems to be a fundamental class cleavage here with the (externally) engrafted political class, alienated from the conditions of ordinary Somalis on the ground.

(2) The invasion of Ethiopian troops at the end of 2006 to secure Mogadishu for the installment of the TFG, was a disaster.

This only reinforced the impression that the TFG were ‘stooges of Ethiopia’. Ethiopia is a secular government with roughly 70% Christian population, whereas Somalia is almost wholly Sunni Muslim. They were referred to as ‘Crusaders’ in some quarters. Even more, it has been well attested that the only brief period of law and order enjoyed by Somali’s in the past decade and a half, was the six month interval in which the Islamic Courts Union held authority in the southern half of the country.

According to the respected Somali human rights campaigner, Salia Ali Aden, women could leave their homes without fear of being raped or robbed, vast municipal clear up projects were begun, a viable corridor for humanitarian aid was set up and the dreaded warlords responsible for so much random violence, kidnappings and the pilfering of this aid were finally expelled from the cities. Whatever one’s personal prejudices towards Shari’a Law are, it appeared to be a solution that worked for the Somalis themselves and one in which they vested much confidence. It was organic and grew wholly naturally from the grassroots – a Somali solution to a Somali problem that didn’t require outside intervention.

The International Crisis Group, in an influential study, has shown that the decision by the CIA to financially support these same warlords (who were initially ran out of Mogadishu by the ICU), has had the unsurprising effect of further radicalising Islamists. Many of those from the ICU who may have joined the TFG/Djibouti process of inclusion, have instead opted to align themselves with either Al-Shabata or Hizbul Islam – the splinter groups that emerged from the ICU.

The decision by the US to designate the former a terrorist organisation, has been greeted with some satisfaction by its leaders – membership at once shot up and they are now the most powerful entity in the region. This brings us to the third factor which has undermined the TFG’s credibility;

(3) The radical groups that have emerged from the ICU, espouse the populist doctrine of Pan-Somalism.

The perception that the TFG is aligned with Ethiopia, whose troops stand accused of killing 7,000 civilians during the two year occupation, means that the Ogaden separatists and those who support them within Somalia are more likely to align themselves with Shabata. Siad Barre, in an attempt to dilute the power of the clans back in ’77, prosecuted a war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region which is populated almost entirely by ethnic Somalis.

Lying in the east of Ethiopia, it is now called Somali Region and for the past two years due to the escalating activities of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, it has been subject to a virtual media blackout. Back in 2006, nine Chinese oil workers were executed by the ONLF and reporters from the New York Times who went to cover the story were arrested and imprisoned for five days.

Brutal reprisals to match a determined nationalist upsweling are undoubtedly taking place in this area, yet little or no reliable information is emerging. A recent submission to the US sub-committee on Foreign Affairs revealed an air of trepidation that their Ethiopian allies in the region may be roughing it too much here – further increasing the likelihood that both confrontations will eventually dovetail.

Until the Federal Government of Somalia secures legitimacy in the eyes of its people, piracy – the symptom of this malaise – will continue to express itself.

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