Somali pirates have once again been in the news, particularly in Britain, with the kidnap of a couple who were sailing through the Indian Ocean on their 38 foot yacht. The pirates have demanded US$7 million or they are threatening to kill them. The British government - unlike the Spanish, which recently ponied up $3.3 million to win the release of 36 hostages plus their ship - is refusing to pay for their release. Apparently the British government doesn't give "substantive concessions" to hostage takers. Unless you're a British bank, of course. The Royal Bank of Scotland threatened to go belly-up and has now received a total of about US$77 billion. In October RBS announced plans to pay out US$8.3 million in bonuses - these are piracy payouts if ever there were. Somali pirates can at least promise to return their hostages safely in return for their ransom.
Back in Somali pirates now hold about 200 people hostage, along with about a dozen ships. Over the years the piracy industry has become something of a lucrative, if dangerous, business. Certainly it is portrayed as primarily a problem of criminals in the western media. But it has to be understood as part of a broader problem related to imperialism and capitalism.
A full analysis would require a book but it's worth noting that Somalia only won its independence from British colonialism in 1960. The damage the British and Italians wrought upon the body politic, including slicing off a chunk of land dominated by Somalis and making it part of Ethiopia, the Ogaden region, and left an under-developed country riven by strife. In 1969 a coup took place bringing Mohammad Siad Barre to power. It was the cold war and rival Ethiopia was aligned with the USA. Barre aligned Somalia with the Soviet Union (later the superpowers would flip, like some kind of geo-political swingers party, with the US supporting Barre and the USSR supporting Ethiopia). Barre used Marxist jargon and had some popularity with promises of developing the country, including gains in literacy. But he was encouraged by the US to invade Ethiopia in 1977, leading to Somalia's humiliating defeat the following year. This undermined Barre's greater-Somalia strategy and weakened the legitimacy of his state. For the next decade, Barre stayed in power by brutally attacking his opponents, backed the whole time by the US and other western countries. He slaughtered thousands and bombed his own cities in order to stay in power.
Eventually, the inevitable happened and in 1991 Barre was overthrown, with the pre-eminent group being the United Somali Congress, led by Mohammad Farah Aideed. With Barre gone along with any semblance of a central, national power, Somalia descended for a time into clan warfare - though it seemed likely that Aideed would fairly quickly win most of the major forces inside the country to his side. It's unclear - at least to me - why the Americans wouldn't back Aideed, he was a naturalized citizen and had even been in the US Marines. The Italians, for their part, gave lots of money to Aideed's main rival, Ali Mahdi.
Whatever their reasoning, the UN invaded, including Canada (remember those pictures of Canadian soldiers torturing Sidane Arone?). Conflict between the UN and Aideed escalated rapidly into armed confrontation, leading to the death, first, of 23 Pakistani soldiers who had tried to shut down Aideed's anti-UN radio station. This ultimately became the first Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized in that spectacularly racist piece of crap Blackhawk Down by Ridley Scott. The result was 18 US soldiers dead - and somewhere in the vicinity of 500-1500 Somalis dead. Aideed wasn't killed or defeated but the UN intervention ensured that he was unable to form a stable national government. And he was killed - perhaps with the help of US special forces - in 1996.
Since then, there has not been a stable national government in Somalia - though regions, like Somaliland, do have more or less stable governments. And the UN and others have attempted to set up pliant regimes, the most recent being the Transitional Federal Government in 2004. But the TFG had no legitimacy inside of Somalia and it was notoriously corrupt. It was overthrown in 2006 by the Union of Islamic Courts, which at least promised to end inter-tribal strife and the widespread corruption. But the US has made it clear that either Somalia will have a government of their choosing, or they will have no indigenous government at all. The US trained, armed and greenlit the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia at the end of 2006, which overthrew the UIC, leading to three years of war. There is now a government of sorts in the central region of Somalia with Western backing but it is shaky and its remit very limited.
This history of warfare and imperial intervention is the backdrop to Somali piracy. Without a central state to organize and fund a coast guard, Somalia's coastline - rich in fishing - has become the target of illegal, industrial fish trawlers. These trawlers actively prevent Somali fisherman from fishing in their own waters and steal about $300 million worth of seafood each year. In addition, with no policing functions available, there has been widespread dumping of toxins and wastes off the Somali coast, also damaging the fishery and creating health problems for the local population. This feeling of being a force that is not committing piracy but is, in fact, defending the homeland is embedded in the names of pirate fleets, like the National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia, and the Somali Marines. And many of these pirates are really just kids, often teenagers, engaging in the only lucrative economic activity within several thousand kilometres. That sense of a mission comes out loud and clear in a fascinating interview that Wired Magazine did with a Somali pirate:
Nine years ago everyone in this town was stable and earn[ed] enough income from fishing. Now there is nothing. We have no way to make a living. We had to defend ourselves. We became watchmen of our coasts and took up our duty to protect the country. Don’t call us pirates. We are protectors.The pirate also has a keen sense of the order of things:
We attack many ships everyday, but only a few are ever profitable. No one will come to the rescue of a third-world ship with an Indian or African crew, so we release them immediately. But if the ship is from Western country or with valuable cargo like oil, weapons or … then it’s like winning a lottery jackpot. We begin asking a high price and then go down until we agree on a price.It's hard to argue with the points raised by the Somali pirates. And seeing through the western propaganda about dangerous criminals, it becomes clear that the pirates have taken on the responsibilities of a state since the Somali state was destroyed with ample help and weapons from the West.
It ought to impress our leaders, so enamoured with neo-liberal privatization. You'd think that a privatized coast guard, imposing tariffs to pass through the Somali basin, would be a model that the IMF, the US and others would want to hold up (pardon the pun). However, don't hold your breath. As the pirates know all too well, it's not really about free enterprise or defense of territorial sovereignty as an inalienable right - it's about power and domination. That's why the Royal Bank of Scotland will get its $77 billion without hesitation but the UK government will hum and haw about negotiating a ransom that will probably end up being $1 million (pirates generally demand around 10 times what they eventually receive). What the pirates have also discovered is that a fly moves faster than an elephant and so, for the moment, this has allowed them to survive and even make a living.