Images of lungi-clad, machine-gun toting Somali pirates holding sailors to ransom have become common-place. The Indian media recently campaigned to have Indian sailors, held hostage for over 10 months, released, with primetime coverage of their eventual return to India. With our sympathies so easily manipulated by the media in favour of the hostages, we don’t often question what has led to the phenomenon of such widespread piracy in the first place -- too many of us dismissing the issue facilely as one more example of a failed African state.
But failed states are not born ‘wrong’ – they are the result of a chain of events in which they often didn’t really have a say. Somalia, for example, was not always a failed state. In medieval times, Djibouti was one of the busiest market cities in the world, in trade importance, the equivalent of Hong Kong, Bombay or Venice. Although largely a muslim country, Somalia had friendly strategic alliances with neighbouring Christian countries like Ethiopia. With the advent of British colonizers, Somalia also saw the birth of one of the earliest, fiercest and longest anti-colonial struggles that was only eventually decimated by British bombs, dropped from the air. And it is this same fierce sense of independence and identity, that is at the root of the piracy problem today.
One of the poorest countries in the world today with a GDP approximately equal to the small Indian state of Goa, Somalia gained independence in 1960, embracing democracy with great enthusiasm. Attempts were made to replace clan and tribal loyalties with a pan-Somali sentiment, but by 1967, democracy was crumbling and the country was taken over by a socialist military dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre.
Thus began an era of widespread nationalization and collectivization of farms, community resources and and a forced suppression of ethnic identities -- identities and affiliations that continued to simmer under the lid. Foreign countries were quick to offer aid as Cold War politics played itself out in yet another small country – Barre allied himself closely to China, but accepted aid from western countries too. Over a dozen European countries and Japan began to invest heavily in the rich fisheries sector – Somali waters were teeming with sardines, shrimps, tuna which the meat-eating locals hardly touched, and which the Europeans hungered for.
Unfortunately for the Somali economy, civil war interrupted the fishery boom -- in 1991, Barre’s government was ousted, and Somalia fragmented into several warring factions. There was no coast guard, navy or government to guard the waters or coast and sharks, in the form of European fishing companies, invaded Somalia’s territorial waters. A January 2005 report by the FAO counted 700 illegal unlicensed foreign fishing vehicles in Somali waters.
In the space of a few years, Somali fishermen who had been making about $15 million a year using largely traditional techniques (which have inbuilt guards against over-fishing) saw their catches decimated by huge European and Asian trawlers stealing as much as $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp and lobster. Piracy began with these small fishermen driven to the wall, trying to ward off illegal trawlers. When this failed, the Somalis began to demand some form of compenasation for their lost livelihoods, holding the trawlers to ransom with rocket launchers and a small but deadly cache of other arms. Many Somalis still see this resistance as a patriotic struggle to snatch their sovereign rights back from illegal intruders – who are the real pirates, they feel.
Unfortunately, as too often happens, the sheer scale of the money involved created its own convoluted dynamics and what began as a resistance movement turned into a scenario so cynical that it has engendered its own millionaires, fiefdoms and ‘stock market’ – the piracy economy today stands at $5-9 billion a year, easily doubling the national GDP.
As it turned out, illegal fishing was only the first blow – the unguarded coastline was soon seized upon as a perfect place to dump toxic European waste.
The sheer scale of this monstrous crime emerged only after 2004 tsunami when barrels of toxic waste washed up on Somali shores – containing radioactive uranium, lead, cadmium. mercury and industrial, hospital, chemical and other wastes. Disposing of toxic wastes in Europe is expensive – costing about $1,000 a tone. Dumping it in the unguarded sea off Somalia costs a mere $2-8 a tonne. (UNEP, 2005). When the pirates began to demand money from illegal dumpers – holding them to ransom with the arms that were now flooding into the country from China and neighbouring countries – it added only a fraction to the costs of what was still a hugely profitable enterprise.
Today, the Somali coast is dotted with the palatial homes of pirate millionaires, who drive expensive cars and feed thriving local economies. There is little talk of fighting trawlers and dumping ships for Somali sovereignity. Haradsheere, 400 km from Mogadishu, even has a stock market where individuals can buy stakes in future hijack attempts, in exchange for cash or equipment.
It is a sad twisted story, one that begins with the attempt to impose national boundaries on ethnic identities, colonisation through religion and firepower, the cynical use of ‘others’ as pawns in the game of European politics and eventually the most damning of all, the buttressing of a ‘high standard of life’ for the West at the cost of yet more lives in a country somewhere on the other side of the world.
-- Based on ‘Riders of the sea’ Sidun Vadukut, Mint Lounge, July 9, 2011