Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Somali Update: Perils on the Seas; Sweet Life of Piracy

Peril on the seas

Reprinted From the South African Mail & Guardian
Nov 26 2008 06:00

Be it from the tiny inlets of the Malacca Straits, the remote islands of the Java Sea, or fishing villages on the Somali coast, piracy is back. It went out of fashion after the Napoleonic wars, but has been rising steadily since the end of the Cold War. Reports of four-hour gun battles between the Indian navy and pirates in the Gulf of Aden, or the seizure of one of the world's largest tankers, with $100-million of crude oil aboard, or a vessel carrying 33 Russian tanks, should not be surprising­.

What is eye-catching about the latest attacks is the scale of the pirates' ambition. At least 92 ships have been attacked this year in and around the Gulf of Aden, more than three times the number in 2008.

But is it so remarkable that the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star was seized 450 nautical miles off the Kenyan coast, when supertankers sit low in the water and travel slowly, and pirates now use mother ships with GPS positioning devices and speed boats in tow to extend their range? Most of their targets are sitting ducks and there are flocks of them -- 20 000 oil tankers, freighter and merchant vessels transit the Gulf of Aden each year.

Many of the attacks off the Horn of Africa have taken place under the nose of a large United States military presence. The US Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for US naval forces in a vast area of sea from the Persian Gulf to the coast of Kenya, has rightly appealed for help from other navies -- including the Russians.

The fleet has established a shipping corridor that can be policed -- if the ships stay inside it. But that is not happening. Nor should all the attention focus on Somalia, the ultimate failed state. The attacks are being launched from fishing villages in Puntland, which is not a stronghold of Islamic rebels. In the short period when the Islamic Courts were in power piracy dropped. The obvious truth is a naval one. The logistical challenge of policing more than a million square miles of ocean is beyond the capacity of one nation. It is an international problem that requires an international solution.

The shipping industry, which has never liked being bound by national laws, is now in need of protection. There is an irony to the industry's call for help. Ships such as Sirius Star have been found flags of convenience. They employ low-paid polyglot crews, who are often exempt from strict labour laws or high tax. Shipping has become an almost invisible industry, the silent motor of global trade, but its consequences are not all benign. Big ships burn dirty fuel and are not subject to any form of carbon emissions regulation, and pump out polluted ballast water, soiling seas.

Ship owners are curiously uninterested in the fate of their vessels and their crews because they are fully covered by insurance, and the pay-out on the life of a crew member is 20 times the average annual salary in the Philippines. Paying the ransom is more often than not the easier thing to do. Spiralling insurance premiums that are sure to result from the current wave of attacks may shake them out of their complacency.

And there are other specific measures that can be taken. The creation of a multinational coastguard service for east Africa and the Horn of Africa is one. Putting transponders on ships and equipping them with armed guards and radar that covers the flanks from where they are boarded are others.

But to expect a central government to emerge in Somalia anytime soon is pie in the sky. Piracy will be overcome, but not until the international will exists to do something about it. --

© Guardian News & Media 2008
Source: Mail & Guardian Online
Web Address:

Sweet life of piracy


Dhows rest on a white sand beach in front of a few dozen ramshackle homes. A creek cuts inland, traced by a dirt road that runs to a craggy fishing settlement 3,2km away. Until recently Eyl was a remote and rundown Somali fishing outpost of 7 000 people. Now, thanks to some spectacular ocean catches, it is a booming mini-town, awash with dollars and heavily armed young men, and boasting a new notoriety: piracy capital of the world.

At least 12 foreign ships are being held hostage in the waters off Eyl in the Nugal region, 480km south of Africa's Horn, including a Ukrainian vessel loaded with 33 tanks and ammunition, which was hijacked last month.

The ships are being closely watched by hundreds of pirates aboard boats equipped with satellite phones and GPS devices. Hundreds more gunmen provide backup on shore, where they incessantly chew the narcotic leaf, qat, and dream of sharing in the huge ransoms that can run into millions of pounds.

In a war-ravaged country where life is cheap and hope is rare, each successful hijack brings more young men into the village to seek their fortune at sea.

"Even secondary school students are stopping their education to go to Eyl because they see how their friends have made a lot of money," Abdulqaadir Muuse Yusuf, deputy fisheries minister for the Puntland region, said this week.

The entire village now depends on the criminal economy. Hastily built hotels provide basic lodging for the pirates, new restaurants serve meals and send food to the ships, while traders provide fuel for the skiffs flitting between the captured vessels.

The pirate kingpins who commute from the regional capital, Garowe, 160km west, in new 4x4 vehicles splash their money around. When a ransom is received the gunmen involved in hijacking the particular ship join in the splurge, much to the pleasure of long-time residents. Jaama Salah, a trader, said a bunch of qat can sell for $65, compared with $15 in other towns. Asli Faarah, a tea vendor, said: "When the pirates have money I can easily increase my price to $3 for a cup."

Somalis in the diaspora -- especially in Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and the United Kingdom -- finance the pirate gangs and keep a large chunk of the ransom money, estimated at more than £20-million this year alone, far more than Puntland's annual budget. But the gangs of gunmen sometimes split hundreds of thousands of pounds between them.

In the region's bigger towns, such as Garowe and Bosasso on the Gulf of Aden coast, a successful hijack is often celebrated with a meal and qat-chewing session at an expensive hotel.

One successful pirate based in Garowe, Abshir Salad, said: "First we look to buy a nice house and car. Then we buy guns and other weapons. The rest of the money we use to relax."

The pirates appear to have little fear of arrest by the weak administration, who many suspect of involvement in the trade. By spreading the money to local officials, chiefs, relatives and friends, the pirates have created strong logistical and intelligence networks, and avoided the clan-based fighting that affects so much of the rest of the country.

And though few believe the pirates when they claim to be eco-warriors or marines defending Somali waters from foreign exploitation, their daring­ and wealth has earned them respect. It has become something of a tradition for successful pirates to take additional wives, marrying them in lavish ceremonies.

Naimo (21), from Garowe, said she had attended a wedding last month of the sort "I had never seen before".

"It's true that girls are interested in marrying pirates because they have a lot of money. Ordinary men cannot afford weddings like this," she said. --

© Guardian News & Media 2008
Source: Mail & Guardian Online
Web Address:

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