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It took long enough, but Hollywood is finally ready to jump on the “Somali Pirate” bandwagon, with their impending (October 11, 2013) release of “Captain Phillips.” This film will depict the tale of Somali Pirates hijacking the MV Maersk Alabama—a Danish-owned, US-operated cargo ship that was heading to Mombasa, Kenya. Following Hollywood tradition, it is likely that very little context will be given to the situation of piracy off the coast of Somalia and its structural causes. With any luck the discourse on piracy can become more nuanced—if only slightly so—by allowing an honest discussion on the topic and allowing a diversity of voices to be heard, not just the typical “national security experts” who chime in on the topic any time the mainstream news decides to pay (scant) attention to such a topic. This article will seek to provide a brief synthesis of the multifaceted issues facing Somalia today and the responsibilities of the global community in causing many of these problems.
As the formal Somali state collapsed in 1991 the international community decided to rear their collective heads into the Horn of Africa and take a look at the civil war and humanitarian disaster that was ravaging the country. What began as food and aid distribution would develop into a US-backed military intervention that ultimately culminated in the events that were forever engrained in the Western psyche with the sensationalized Hollywood production of Black Hawk Down. To summarize, a team of US Special Forces scoured the streets of Mogadishu on a search-and-kill mission, looking for Mohamad Farrah Aideed, a leader of anti-western interventionist forces. Robert Oakley—US Ambassador to Somalia in 1992/1993—summarized the general feelings of the time by telling us “The idea was they (Somalis) were bad and if we get the chance to kill them, then we’ll kill them.” This mission went awry, leading to the deaths of roughly two dozen American soldiers and perhaps two thousands Somalis. The mission was widely accepted as being a tragic international fiasco, although not without some US experts lauding the intervention, proclaiming “large parts of the country were now free of widespread conflict and suffering” and that “we left it better off than we found it.”
As the West decided to turn its head away from stateless Somalia, other rapacious forces quickly came to reap the spoils of an area that was considered to have resources free for the taking, with little to no regard for the Somali population on shore. Immediately after the removal of the Somali President (Siad Barre) the coastal waters of Somalia became flooded with hazardous and toxic materials. While Swiss and Italian contractors had been forced to negotiate secretive dumping deals with corrupted bureaucrats during the Barre regime, after state-collapse the waters around Somalia began acting as a 1-stop dumping ground for those who saw this as the cheapest way to dispose of their unwanted product. By the mid 1990s over 35 million tons of waste had been dumped into the coastal waters of Somalia, which would have grievous consequences in the time to follow. With no formal structures of governance to lobby for these actions to stop, voices from Somali civil society began lobbying the international community for assistance. These requests often fell on deaf ears, generating bitterness and even more distrust of the global community that was supposed to be helping these citizens rebuild a new and more just society. By the mid-1990s, local groups were warning foreign vessels that further dumping would spur armed retaliation from those whose current and future livelihoods were being devastated.
The problems produced from this hazardous dumping went beyond the destruction of marine life and washed ashore in 2005, as a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) documents. It informs us that after to 2004 tsunami that rocked the Indian Ocean, hazardous waste storage tanks washed ashore the Somali shoreline, rusted and seeping unidentifiable ooze from its containers. The ugly remnants of treating Somali as the worlds garbage dump washed ashore and could no longer be avoided, lead to respiratory infections, bleeding of the mouth, abdominal hemorrhages, and sudden death from inhalation of the toxic material.
Coupled with the dumping of toxic waste into Somali coastal waters, there was a second cause for unrest among the populace—illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. Historical records show that the waters surrounding Somalia are rich in biodiversity and were quite underutilized during the Barre regime, for fishing and other forms of sustenance. A force of international fishing vessels—largely spearheaded by East Asian and European trawlers—began to illegally pillage the waters surrounding Somalia, leading one expert to predict that by 2007, over 700 IUU vessels were pillaging Somali waters each year, annually depriving Somali fisherman of $450 million in potential revenue. Additionally, Somali fisherman in their smaller and less equipped fishing vessels were doused with boiling water, had their nets slashed, and had their boats crushed by the oversized and infinitely stronger foreign forces. These actions were serving to destroy the livelihoods of coastal Somali fisherman, adding fuel to the anger already felt towards meddlesome foreigners.
The dumping of hazardous materials with the pillaging of the marine life in the coastal waters of Somalia was the perfect cocktail for disenchantment amongst the Somali population. Former fisherman and volunteer coast guards took up arms to patrol the seas and protect what they viewed was rightfully theirs. Henceforth, armed hijackings of foreign ships became commonplace in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
The population saw myriad international actors—many of which claimed to want to help rebuild Somali society—devastating their livelihoods with no regard for their well being; a pertinent fact for a population that has over ten million people living on less than one dollar per day. Having been rebuffed or ignored by the global superpowers who spouted humanitarian rhetoric, citizens would go on to become what Historian Eric Hobsbawm might call “the peoples champion against… the foreigners.” In Hobsbawm’s classic study of social movements—Primitive Rebels—he describes how movements are formed amongst aggrieved groups that feel that they’ve been wronged by an outside force. Furthermore, Hobsbawm tells us that these groups of rebels must “be regarded as ‘honourable’ [sic] or non-criminal by the population, for if he was regarded as a criminal against local convention, he could not enjoy the local protection on which he must rely completely.” Again, we see this narrative prove true as it has been documented that countless Somali coastal communities shelter and protect these ‘pirates,’ seeing them as defenders of their rights and fighting back against the forces of outside aggression.
Coinciding with the time that cases of piracy began to skyrocket (mid-2000s), global powers decided flood the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean with Naval vessels—a military naval insurgency in the sea. Predictably, these forces were spearheaded by the United States, with smaller client states and tools of US domination going along for the ride (NATO, EU countries.) By 2009, over $2 billion per year was being spent on counter-piracy measures in the region, which only served to exacerbate the piracy issue. During three peak years of imperial occupation of the sea (2008-2010), cases of piracy rose from 134 to 243, while the average amount of ransom paid out by captive ships skyrocketed from a $1.25-1.5 million to $3-4 million.
Also worth noting—and worthy of an entirely different article to examine this fascinating phenomenon—cases of piracy were drastically reduced during a brief period of rule (2006) by a grassroots coalition of Islamic Courts in Somalia, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU was formed as a counter-measure to top-down form of governance that were cobbled together by Western forces over the past two decades, overwhelmingly rejected by the people whom it claimed to represent. The ICUs restoration of civic life included large-scale reductions of violence throughout the regions in which they operated as well as setting up new schools. At the call of Somalia’s neighbor—and historically bitter rival—Ethiopia, over fears of “terrorists” infiltrating the ICU, the US/CIA decided to respond in typical fashion. Opposition groups (both indigenous, and later Ethiopian) were trained and armed with US money and military equipment, and these US-backed forces would go on to commit some of the most unspeakable crimes of war as they ravaged the streets of Somalia in the name of “fighting terror.” These crimes including: shelling of civilians, firing mortars at hospitals, using white phosphorous bombs, carrying out summary executions, committing widespread rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and burning down entire villages. With ample documentation to prove US complicity in these atrocities— just like so many other historical examples of such actions—it has gone on to become another footnote in the annals of American imperial war games, barred from discussion in the political mainstream.
There are many other important aspects to the fascinating history of Somali piracy, but hopefully this article provides a big-picture look at some underlying causes of frustration in Somali society. After several decades of foreign interventionism—on land, sea, and air (US Drones)—the people of Somalia are starving for a chance to organize and thrive with their own forms of grassroots governance. Ignoring the grievances of the fishermen of years past only served as a calling for other Somalis who had few job prospects, thus turning piracy into the industry that we see today—and will likely see contextually perverted and distorted in the days to come, courtesy of Hollywood.