Out of Africa

 
 

Somali pirates are proving to be terrorists of the sea, but what drove them to this step?, asks Eoghan Dockrell.

For almost two decades Somalia, located at the ‘Horn of Africa’, has been a politically unstable country with no central government. Violence in the cities has become a regular occurrence, with over 1.3 million Somalis now staying in refugee camps in neighboring states.

Similarly the economic situation continues to deteriorate, with rocketing inflation, almost half the workforce unemployed and as food shortages become a major problem due to drought, thousands are now facing starvation.

As a result, many young Somali men, desperate to provide for their families, have had to find alternative ways to put bread on the table. These men, with no education and no government to enforce the law, have headed to the coast and declared themselves the unofficial coast guards of the sea.

But what started out as quasi-noble vigilantism, stopping ‘bandits’ from illegally dumping and fishing in Somali waters – has become much worse. After taking the law into their own hands and stopping illegal fishing trawlers from entering Somali territory, it then began to degenerate into a more organised piracy industry. These men are now well-equipped pirates who have been responsible for hijacking over 30 vessels this year.

Western countries, such as the U.S and France fear that the seas off the Horn of Africa could become a haven for terrorists.

Firstly, the pirates seize a ship several hundred miles off the coast (usually out in international waters), then they force it inside Somali waters, where the hijackers keep it until the owners pay an agreed ransom for the return of the vessel and crew. The amount of money demanded by the pirates is often substantial.

Western countries, such as the U.S and France, fear that the seas off the Horn of Africa could become a haven for terrorists. In order to combat this crowing problem of piracy, the UN Security Council drafted a resolution in June this year that allows foreign states to arrest pirates in Somali waters. The document gives nations who are involved in the resolution a six-month mandate to use all necessary means to fight piracy, while co-operating with Somalia’s embattled interim government.

Take a recent example of how this new resolution has helped deal with incidences of piracy. On the 30th September this year, a group of pirates boarded a Ukrainian freighter carrying over 30 million dollars worth of tanks and other military equipment.

The pirate’s official spokesperson, Mr Sugule, speaking from satellite phone on the ship, said he didn’t know the vessel was laden with weaponry and simply wanted money for its return. He demands 20 million dollars in cash only, but explained that he and his crew would be willing to negotiate on this figure.

Putting into practice the new resolution, American Naval vessels proceeded in entering Somali waters to track the freighter. Five U.S. naval boats have now surrounded the stolen ship. Speaking by phone, Sugule was asked if he was concerned. His response was more James Bond than Jack Sparrow, when he coolly replied, “you only die once”.

As of yet, there has been no resolution, with the weapons on board adding another complicated dimension to the negotiations. It is, however, certain that pirates can no longer be associated with their eye-patched ancestors. Traveling in speedboats equipped with GPS systems, they navigate through the Somali waters to the detriment of every cargo vessel and cruise liner. Sugule and his crew are a new breed of pirate and they’re costing shipping companies tens of millions of dollars every year.

The United Nations has taken the first step in combating the problem, and thankfully others are following suit. The European Union has now agreed to launch a coordinated group to back up European surveillance activities off the Somali coast.

The UN must continue to provide naval assistance, so as to restore order in Somali waters. A naval presence is essential to patrol for potential threats and take action where threats arise. And by allowing ships to dock safely in Somalia, urgent supplies of food can be delivered, aiding the thousands of citizens facing starvation.

For Somalia, piracy is only one part of the problem. The country continues to deteriorate politically and the current transitional government may be forced to walk the plank, making way for the rapidly growing Islamic insurgency. The result of such a force holding prominence in this country remains to be seen.

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