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The Pirates of Puntland

A Tale of Somali Pirates, Ethiopia and the U.S.A.

by TOM MOUNTAIN

Pirates, warlords, Marxist guerilla turned G-20 statesman and the USA… the real story of the Somali pirates in the Horn of Africa is a tale that needs telling.

This story starts in a place calling itself Puntland, after The Land of Punt, a once great and glorious civilization in Africa’s Horn, today a forgotten legend found only in the most ancient texts. Formerly part of Somalia, Puntland can be found at the very tip of the Horn of Africa. From its shores desperadoes in small, open boats motor hundreds of miles into the Indian Ocean in search of unwary ships to hijack and hold for ransom.

Many reasons are given for what drives these pirates but the question not being asked is how they have managed to get away with extorting over a quarter of a billion dollars from the international community.
The fact remains that despite the assembled flotillas from much of the world’s navies, with unmanned drones flying over head and satellites in space watching their every move, the Somali pirates of Puntland have been almost unimpeded in collecting their loot and returning to their lairs. No Delta Force commando raids, no  cruise missiles,  not even a smart bomb, little if any attempt has been made to bring these pirates to justice. The answer to this mystery lies at the very core of US foreign policy which is based on using local gendarmes to do its dirty work, and of course, being able to distance itself from these crimes when they are exposed.

The warlords in Puntland are allied with the Ethiopian regime, lead by Meles Zenawi, a Marxist guerilla turned G-20 statesman. With both regimes built on a house of cards the USA and its western allies are afraid to place any stress on the lot in fear of it all falling down. With the Ethiopian regime gone, who is going to enforce western interests in East Africa?

The law of the jungle rules life in the Horn of Africa and in Puntland in particular. In this struggle for survival, clan connections, and loyalty, are all important. In Puntland the clans are ruled by a council of warlords, whose brigandry and opportunism has earned them the support of the murderous clique of former Marxist guerillas who today rule Ethiopia. Ethiopian P.M. Meles Zenawi and his former comrades in arms in the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front, one-time followers of Enver Hoxha and the Albanian Communist Party’s version of world revolution, are today enforcing Pax Americana in East Africa. 
From his seat  of power in Addis Ababa, where in past days another western cop on the beat, Emperor Haile Sellasie, kept his imperial court, Meles Zenawi recently summoned his minions in Puntland. Upon the Puntland leaderships arrival in Addis Ababa press conferences were held where gestures of fealty were duly made and close ties proclaimed, but behind the scenes, fractious meetings marked by not so veiled threats marked the days. It would seem that not enough of the loot collected by the pirates of Puntland was making its way back to the regime in Addis Ababa.

Meles Zenawi, who soon after this meeting  would be on the world stage at the G-20 meeting in Toronto, needs Puntland for its Indian Ocean coastline and as a bulkhead against outbreak of Somali nationalism in Somaliland in the north and the Islamic resistance in the south. He also needs Puntland as a safe haven for the Ethiopian military, still licking its wounds after its mauling by the Islamic resistance and its withdrawal from southern Somalia.

The USA needs Meles to continue enforcing its interests in the Horn of Africa and in times past has seen their enforcers of Pax Americana collapse when domestic matters explode. Ethiopia is fighting home grown insurgencies in its southeast in the Ogaden, in the north in Tigray, in the west in Gambella and in the south west in Oromia. The defeat in Somalia at the hands of a small, poorly trained and armed rag tag bands of Islamic fighters in the southern and Mogadishu regions of Somalia has further demoralized the Ethiopian military which has never recovered from the loss of tens of thousands of its best troops a decade ago in the invasion of Eritrea.

Invasions and counterinsurgency take a large military. A large military requires a lot of money, and with a domestic economy crippled by famine, civil war and a decades-long kleptocracy, Ethiopia is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world.

Ethiopia has about 80 million people and with its abundance of water, rich agricultural land, minerals and now even oil, should be a rich country, at the very least able to feed its own people. In real life Ethiopia’s number one hard currency earner is cut flowers, about $400 million a year. With coffee, at $250 million a year, coming in second, Ethiopia has less than $1 billion a year in foreign currency to bankroll its imports. As a result Ethiopia remains the largest recipient of western aid in sub Saharan Africa, with some years receiving almost 90 per cent of such. Ethiopia also is the recipient of about $2 billion a year in loans, and with such a small export base, it shouldn’t be surprising that most of these loans go unpaid. “Debt Forgiveness for Africa” is how it ends up being described.

What is almost unknown in the west is that Ethiopia also has the largest, best equipped army in Africa, though finding information in the western media about Ethiopia’s military has been all but impossible for over a decade now.

Ethiopia invaded its former colony Eritrea in 2000 and by its own admission lost 123,000 of its own soldiers killed in action. Ethiopia invaded Somalia at the end of 2006, something no Ethiopian leader in history had ever done, and quickly found itself attacked from all sides by the Islamic resistance. By the time Ethiopia officially “withdrew” some two years later, estimates of Ethiopian soldiers killed in action range from 20-30,000.

Today, the Ethiopian army is conducting search and destroy operations throughout the ethnically Somali Ogaden region and at the same time, during a series of the worst droughts in history, blocking all food aid to 90 per cent  of the province. Even the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have been expelled. What is being committed can only be described as genocide and Ethiopia doesn’t want any witnesses blowing the whistle on them.

If Ethiopia can carry out genocide against its own population for years now with the unwavering support of its western funding agencies, it is little wonder that the pirates of Puntland have nothing to fear from all the naval flotillas in the world. The empire of the USA maybe crumbling but it still calls the shots when it comes to its gendarmes on the beat in East Africa, and little is being allowed to threaten an already shaky Ethiopian regime.
The tale of the pirates of Puntland may be hard to believe, but then truth is so often stranger than fiction. And with fiction passing as fact in the western media when it comes to the Horn of Africa, it behooves one and all to stop and take a second look at what is really going on in our parts.

Thomas Mountain lives in Eritrea and can be reached at  thomascmountain@yahoo.com