Since 1991 when Siyad Barre was driven out of Somalia, it has gone through every upheaval mentioned in the books and its people were subjected to every evil known to man. Stateless, leaderless, rudderless and lost, Somalia was dubbed a dozen names that put us to shame every time we saw them printed: failed state, forgotten country, terrorist enclave, notorious land for drug peddlers and criminals, etc etc. As if the cold war scars were not enough, Somalia was again a pawn used in the war on terrorists with Alqaida establishing cells and local jihadist personalities and the West sticking a red danger label to it and establishing local stooges and neighbouring states to conduct its own proxy war against Alqaida.
And then enters something Somalia seems to excel – Piracy. A lot of people and Somalia desk experts are making a lot of noise and telling us different things about this piracy but none is actually saying what it really is. They are only talking about paying ransom and containing the danger by escorting ships. So in comes a flotilla of war ships from a dozen countries and all this against a very small number of naive teenagers turned pampered pirates. This is like trying to address a rat menace in the house with a shot gun.
What is the real issue? How did it start? Who are the stakeholders? What is the solution? Read further:
Origins: These were initially a very small group of fishermen. As large fishing ships arrived in their localities, their livelihood was threatened. These big ships were using internationally prohibited fishing nets that collect all fish including small ones. Sometimes when the local fishermen challenge them, the later were chased away with canons of hot water. There were even few reports of the large ships intentionally trying to run over the small boats.
Tsunami: Things changed as Tsunami hit the Somali coast. As the scale of the disaster become known, a lot of international assistance came. Nearly all the small boats used by the Somali fishermen were swept away and the United Nations provided new stronger boats and other fishing facilities to the affected fishermen. The new faster boats enabled the fishermen to go further to the sea. In the meantime, large fishing vessels from different countries increased as the local adminstration started giving fishing licenses and providing local guards onboard these ships to fence off the challenges from local fishermen.
Piracy: As the situation become worse for the fishermen, lone acts of attacks started but these were low profile as both the local gurards onboard the ships and a company contracted to guard the coast prevented any clash. As the Pundland government become weaker due to the Somali livestock import ban by the gulf countries, corruption and other ills, elements of the contracted company and the original fishermen upped thier challenges to the big fishing ships eventually capturing one or two and demanding Ransom.
Ransoms and the Insurance Companies: Initial ransoms started in the range of $50,000 to $ 200,000 and were mainly from privalely owned fishing boats and tourist yachts. When the first ransoms were paid, this made possible for the pirates to acquire bigger boats and weaponry enabling them to capture larger commercial and cargo ships. Here insurance companies or ship owners joined the fray and started paying the ransoms quickly as the goods on the ships were of substantial value. The pirates upped these ransoms to an average of $1000,000 per ship. A recent estimate put their annual income at $100m. This is three times the combined budget of both Puntland and Somaliland who are both affected by this piracy which now expanded to the Aden Gulf and to the Indian Ocean outside the Somali nautical 200 mile limit. There were recent reports that outside parties from organized crime as well as local administration officials were involved in these piracy boom
Solution: In an alarmist knee jerk reaction a number of countries with vested interests (illegal fishing off Somalia coast) assembled a flotilla of navy ships and started to escort ships passing off Somalia. The US, French and other country navies also dispatched one or two Navy ships each. The French conducted two successful raids on some of the pirates and hauled them off to Paris to put them on trial. How serious the issue is was highlighted recently when they seized an Ukrainian ship with 32 T-72 tanks on board and demanded ransom of $35m later reduced to $20m as I write this. Such tanks finding their way into Islamist hands frightened a lot of people. How can this be solved?
According to the pirates, leave our shores and no piracy will happen. This is both impossible and untrue. The pirates are lying because they are hijacking ships outside Somali waters. Leaving of the Somali coast is impossible since as long as there is no credible government, illegal fishing will continue to be conducted due to its high profitability and the abundence of fish. The current cycle is encouraged by the insurance companies and ship owners who are ready to pay the $1m ransom than lose lives, potential business and millions of dollars if the ship is abandoned. Flush with ransom money, the pirates have demonstrated how they can acquire faster boats, armour, army and corrupted the local administrations make themselves the de facto power in the towns from where they operate.
But then these do not operate from their speedy boats out in the sea all the time. They have bases on shore. Here is where the solution ought to be searched. In the cities of Eil, Garaad, Hobyo and Harardheere all in Puntland and the Cenral Somalia and remotely Bossasso. Solution 1 is to establish a small force independent from the local administrations not more than 100 to ensure that their local presence is terminated. Solution 2 neutralize all the speed boats the pirates use. It will be a surprise to the west to know these are not more than 10 and a monitoring ship they put out to sea to look for victim ships approaching the coast. These speed boats and the guns on them should simply be destroyed. Somalia is notorious for captured items to find their way back to the owners next morning. Solution3 find and put behind bars the key pirate personalities outside Somalia as they can be extradited on the basis of committing an international crime. These personalities are known people in Puntland and Galgudud regions and openly drive 4 wheel vehicles, put up marriage parties graced by key community figures and advertise themselves loud and openly. This is a rat menace and needs the basic rat poison or trap to tackle it. Not a shot gun. And definitely not an armada of sophisticated warships as is now happening. Go ashore and set the trap. So simple.