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article imageDealing with Somali piracy, mission impossible? Special

By Christopher Szabo     Sep 22, 2011 in World
Pretoria - A seminar held by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, South Africa, looked at ways of dealing with the problems of piracy caused by political instability and the resultant social breakup and poverty.
The conference, which featured both top military personnel and defence analysts from the world of academe as well as journalism, expressed the difficulties African governments faced in tackling the problem.
Two major issues; lack of capacity and lack of political will, surfaced as the most serious and difficult to overcome. Speakers pointed out that as much as 39 per cent of global trade passes through the Indian Ocean, but nations on the East Coast of Africa – with the sole exception of South Africa – did not contribute to protecting this trade for the simple reason that it was beyond their means. A Japanese embassy official indicated that this should be treated as significant, while the Africans present tended to look on the negative side.
Lisa Otto of the ISS’s African Conflict Prevention Programme sketched the rise of the Somali piracy phenomenon. She pointed out that as Somalia collapsed as a state, there was nothing that could exercise a coast guard function and as a result, ships – mainly from Europe – used Somali waters to fish and Somali coastlands to dump dangerous waste.
Thus the first Somali “pirates” were exercising what she termed ”vigilante justice”, by making the ships pay “taxes” to them. Later, they found hostage ransoms paid better. Up to this point, the phenomenon was relatively minor and local. But then, Otto explained, criminal gangs began to get involved, and these linked up to Somali warlords, who control clan-based territories within the country. (Unlike many African countries, the Somalis all have the same language, culture and religion, but are split along clan lines.)
Soon, the ransoms were in the millions of US dollars. Some 20 percent of the hijack money went to the warlords, thus perpetuating the instability in Somalia. She added there were an estimated 5,000 pirates in five main gangs.
Lisa Otto of the ISS.
Lisa Otto of the ISS.
Otto stressed the pirate operations were “very sophisticated” and that pirates had access to intelligence from corrupt port officials, both in Africa and elsewhere. She also emphasised that that targets were carefully selected as they left ports according to considerations like speed, freeboard (the height of the ship’s deck above the waterline) whether the ship had armed guards on board or was escorted or in a convoy, or alone and the decision was taken in a cold, calculated way.
“This is a business”, she said.
Another serious problem was that pirates were influencing parts of Somalia and helping these areas financially. A typical ordinary pirate earned some $10,000.00 per take, which took about three months’ work and this is close to a Somali’s expected lifetime earnings. Many pirates participate in two or three attacks and then retire, Otto said.
Their families benefit as do the corrupt port officials. She said many suburbs in Nairobi and Mombasa, in neighbouring Kenya, were built by pirate money and said many in Somalia were in favour of the pirates.
Currently, the option of piracy is a “no brainer” because there is a high reward and a low risk. Even if a pirate is captured, they are often not imprisoned long because of gaps in national and international legislation.
The answer was to change the equation by lowering the reward and increasing the risk. Another important aspect was to give potential pirates a chance to earn an honest living.
Generally, the conference felt that Somali piracy would be around for decades and it would take a sustained effort by both African nations and the international community to end the scourge.
Currently, some 600 seafarers are held prisoner in pro-piracy areas of Somalia, waiting to be ransomed.
More about Somali, Piracy, Impossible, South Africa
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