Piracy and Poverty in Somalia, part II

I’ve received a lot of hits from people googling “piracy poverty Somalia” and stumbling upon this MediaScout entry of mine from November. This was no doubt triggered by the high-profile hostage-taking of an American captain off the coast of Somalia, but the act of typing those three words into a search engine, I think, is heartening: people want to go beyond the war talk and Navy SEAL firefights (and, hopefully, the done-to-death “argh, matey” jokes) to probe the root causes of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. My MediaScout piece is months old now, but some of it is still relevant, especially since piracy isn’t going anywhere – three more ships were hijacked yesterday and today. If you’re interested, here it is:

Piracy and Poverty in Somalia

November 19, 2008

What do you do with a Somali pirate? Well, nobody knows. Following the hijacking of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star this weekend — the largest ship ever hijacked — and pirates’ seizure of two more ships off the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden yesterday, modern-day buccaneering is all over the Big Seven. Somali piracy has been occurring for years now, but the numbers are getting too big to ignore: Seven hijackings in twelve days; ninety-two attacks so far this year; fourteen ships and 243 crew still in pirate custody, with the 318,000-ton Sirius Star carrying $100 million in oil cargo. Turning piracy into a numbers game may seem cold, but money is what this issue is all about; Somalia has been without a functioning government for some two decades, and The National (video link) reports that pirates have landed $20 million this year. Piracy means employment for young gangs and income for an embattled country — trickle-down economics on the high seas.

For an issue that the Big Seven seem to think came out of nowhere, there is some surprisingly insightful analysis. Mostly, though, it points out just how daunting the task of fighting piracy is. Striking pirate bases would kill civilians; Canadian naval forces capturing pirates for prosecution would require gathering evidence admissible under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; extra security or taking different shipping routes is expensive. Just today, the Indian navy said it sank a suspected pirate vessel, with the pirates getting away. But as journalist and piracy expert Daniel Sekulich tells The National, the only way to fix Somali piracy is to address the wrenching poverty and crisis of governance underlying it. It may be tough for the Canadian media to wrap their heads around twenty-first-century sea dogs, but this is no joke. “It looks like a deliberate two fingers from some very bright Somalis,” an unnamed analyst tells Reuters of the Star capture. “Anyone who describes them as a bunch of camel herders needs to think again.”

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