Solution For Somali Piracy Has To Be Found On Land, Not At Sea – Analysis


Sri Lankan scholar Amali Karawita says that Somali piracy is a by-product of a Failed State.

The Salama Fikira (FP) Group, a leading global security and risk management firm, warned in January, that despite a perceived decline in Somali piracy, recent incidents indicate that the menace has not been eradicated and remains a formidable challenge.

By January 2011, 736 people were taken as hostages and 32 ships were captured by pirates. Piracy impeded the delivery of shipments and increased shipping expenses, costing an estimated U$ 6.9 billion a year in global trade according to Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP). 

According to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), a veritable industry of profiteers also arose around the piracy. Insurance companies significantly increased their profits from the pirate attacks as these companies hiked premium rates in response.

 “The hijacking of a bulk carrier off the coast of Somalia on the 14th of December 2023 was the first since 2017, “ said Lt.Col. Conrad Thorpe, Chairman of the Salama Fikira. “ While unusual, it was not surprising given the Somali piracy capability has never been relinquished,” he added. 

Thorpe warned that the tactics employed, including the use of a mother ship (a large ship which can go long distances), enable pirates to operate at sea for extended periods and at considerable distances, catching ship owners off guard. 

The Somali pirates, once a significant concern between 2008 and 2016, saw a decline in activity due to concerted international efforts. But since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza began in October 2023, the world’s attention was diverted, leaving the coast off the Horn of Africa unpoliced. 

The FP Group warned that pirates are expanding their reach into the Arabian Sea and northern Indian Ocean, targeting ships away from the perceived Houthi threat area in the Red Sea. 

Piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia rose dramatically after 2005 and reached a high of 243 in 2011 but then plunged in 2012 to 63  attacks, says a World Bank report. Since the first known Somali hijacking in April 2005 till about 2013, 149 ships were ransomed for an estimated total of US$315–US$385 million, the report says. 

The international community has now mobilized to combat the surge of piracy off the Horn of Africa. Over 40 countries are involved in military counter-piracy operations. Since 2008, the United Nations (UN) Security Council has adopted 13 resolutions to support counter-piracy action off the Horn of Africa.

Land-based Crime

But a Sri Lankan researcher, Amali Kartika Karawita of the London School of Public Relations in Jakarta, says in her paper entitled: Piracy in Somalia: An Analysis of the Challenges Faced by the International Community, that piracy is actually a “land-based” crime and not a “sea-based” crime. People take to piracy because of economic problems and unsettled conditions in their countries, on land, that is.   

Somalia is a failed State pushing its young men into crime including piracy. Since millions of dollars can be made through piracy it is now in the hands of the rich with links with money launders in Dubai.

Therefore, the solution to piracy lies not so much in capturing and prosecuting the pirates at sea, but in setting right the horrendous conditions in Somalia, Karawita argues.

“Piracy has become a lucrative business in Somalia due to the political instability caused by the absence of an effective government. There are fights between different factions striving for power,” she points out. War lords rule the roost. Agriculture and industry (if any) have collapsed due to the internal wars and absence of governance. This has created unemployment and abject poverty.  

Civil War

From 1969 to 1991, Mohamed Said Barre ruled the country with an iron hand, but his overthrow transformed Somalia into a theatre of violent fights between clans for power. At the dawn of the present century, radical Islam entered the fray. War with neighbouring countries only made matters worse. 

The international community failed to rebuild and stabilize the country. Foreign aid was eaten up by the influential few. There was no strong central authority to ensure that such things did not happen. People began to indulge in crime, including piracy, to make ends meet first and then to become rich.

Grinding Poverty

Poverty in Somalia is endemic. Over 12 million people were living below the international poverty line of US$ 0.19 per day in 2017. The unemployment rate was 67% for a population in which 70% were under the age of 30. 

“When taking into consideration that a single pirate hijack can lead to a ransom range between US$ 500, 000 to US$ 3 million with individual profit going up to US$ 15,000 USD—in a country where poverty is rampant and economic opportunities are low, it becomes understandable why piracy is an attractive business for young Somalis,” Karawita says. 

The US, with the support of the UN, launched a multinational operation in December 1992 called United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) to curb piracy. But UNOSOM only reinforced the warlords’ power and allowed the proliferation of armed groups. The UNOSOM was eventually withdrawn, Karawita recalls. 

The failure of the international community to find a durable solution to the Somali politico-economic problem provided a fertile ground for the emergence of radical Islamist movements seeking to create an Islamic State. Since 1991, local terrorist organizations such as Al-Itihaad have tried to establish an Islamic State. Al-Qaeda also developed a network here. 

Somalia’s 3,330 km coastline and its land borders were not patrolled. The absence of an effective authority over Somali territorial waters led to foreign fishing vessels plundering Somali’s fish stocks, costing the country US$ 300 million a year in losses. This affected supply in Somalia. 

Somali waters had also become the dumping ground of hazardous waste for industrialized countries since the early 1980s. This destroyed fish stocks. Shipping companies found dumping in these unpoliced seas much cheaper than disposing off their waste by scientific methods (US$ 2.50 per ton, against US$ 250 per ton). 

To combat such dumping, Somali fishermen began attacking foreign ships and seeking ransom to let them off. Fishermen joined hands with militias and unemployed youth to hijack ships.  

Those who took to piracy on a big scale lived lavishly. But the traditional Somali practice of sharing wealth with the community, led to many common folk developing a stake in piracy, albeit indirectly.

The piracy-led economy was also built on corruption. People openly bribed their way through officialdom. Somalia was ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries in 2011, obtaining a score of 1 on a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being the least corrupt. 

Corruption is intrinsically linked to money laundering. Organized pirates’ syndicates operating in Dubai have been laundering money acquired through ransoms. These syndicates play a major role in the development of piracy off the coast of Somalia, especially in providing access to new technologies useful for hijacking and tracking ships. 

Since 2008, the international anti-piracy operation “Atalanta” was highly successful. Several states like China, Russia. India and South Korea have been sending navy ships in the region. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) serves as a liaison between different naval forces involved in counter-piracy operations within the Gulf of Aden; an Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor and a part of the Somali basin. 

Then there is the Djibouti Code of Conduct to share intelligence. But this is a non-binding agreement. Therefore, the level of political support is quite weak, Karawita says. 

Much depends on whether States have sufficient national legislations and willingness to commit forces for anti-piracy work, and bring pirates to trial. Both are expensive. 

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 101 defines piracy as: “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew of the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft. . . on the high seas against another ship or aircraft.” 

This means that when piracy is committed within territorial waters of a country, it cannot be classified as piracy. This is a handicap. And if the State concerned is weak or is a Failed State like Somalia, piracy will not be investigated at all.

(This story was published in Daily Mirror, Colombo on February 6, 2024)

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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