There be Pirates in Somalia

Naheem Zaffar

We've all heard of Somalia and most of us will also have heard about the occasional pirate ship hijacking that happens off its coast. Everyone is also united in condemning the pirates for their piracy. Yes people, there are people off the coast of somalia, the pirates hijack the oil tankers and more, but is that the whole of it or is there more to it all?

Why are there are pirates in Somalia? What makes it the type of place where piracy can before rife?

Somalia is a place that has been without a functioning government for the best part of 20 years now and has been locked into almost constant conflict and violence between communities that live there.

This may seem a ripe place for foreign intervention to help the people to get back on their feet, and many do advocate such intenventions, but it is important to know that there have been foreign interventions in Somalia which as helped to get the place to where it is now. The first of these interventions has been immortalised by the hollywood film "Black Hawk Down" and wasn't all that successful in bringing about peace of any kind.

Rise of The UIC

During the chaos, people still wanted justice and all over Somalia there were Islamic courts set up which would dispense with justice. THis was in addition to the warlords and other warring factions who would dispense with their own violence for want of control over the population. There was also the UN backed transitional government which had no control. Over a few years the various disparate Islamic Courts joined each other in order to create the UIC - the Union of Islamic Courts. This was not a single entity, but the joining of different courts who could come to differing rulings on matters.

The courts were seen as more just than the warlords and over a number of years they managed to bring some sanity to many parts of Somalia, all culminating in their control of most of southern Somalia in 2006 - after major fighting in Mogadishu, the warlords lost and fled leaving their weaponry behind. This allowed the UIC to gain control of large swathes of land with little resistance as without their weapons, the warring warlords could not offer any resistance. There was hope in the air that there would now be peace and it seemed to be in reach - for 6 months, the capital Mogadishu was in relative peace for the first time in 15 years.

However, not everyone was happy with this, especially the neighbouring country of Ethiopia which had for years been suspected of fundig various elements inside Somalia which continued the violence. The US of A was also unhappy that some of the courts that were part of the UIC were not to their liking and they did not like Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was one of the founders of the UIC and the leader of the Hizbul Islam subgroup.

This didn't stop the UIC in its initial success however after much of southern Somalia had been bought under their control and 6 months of peace had been provided in Mogadishu - something foreign journalists had marvelled at - the Ethiopians, with the help of the US decided to remove the UIC from power. Since the UIC had relatively few foreign backers, it was more or less routed, except for the youth wing of the organisation, known as “the youth” or “al Shabaab” in Arabic, who fought on. The fragile peace that had been held in Southern Somalia was well and truly shattered.

More foreign interventions

The newly installed and supported transitional government had little power and controlled very little of Somalia, going back to the age old conflict that was common before the UIC had taken control. This was not a situation that could continue and within a couple of years, the Ethiopians got tired of supporting the govern and with the backing of the US decided to return the power back to the UIC, their leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed becoming the president.

Job done? Well, not entirely. Since the leaders of the UIC had previously fled the invasion by Ethiopian troops, they had lost face. The youth wing, al Shabaab had since grown up and had actively resisted the Ethiopians, getting themselves quite a strong base and large foreign backing from some rich arabs looking who had been looking for new Islamic causes to fund.

A further problem was that Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader leader of the Hizbul Islam, another powerful faction that had been a part of the UIC had become embroiled in a personal conflict with the leader of the UIC who was now the president of the transitional government of Somalia.

Both the Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab broke away from the UIC and declared its new government which was now supported by the US and Ethiopia illegal and against Islam. The conflict started all over again.

Hizbul Islam has the bigger number of local followers, but al Shabaab has better infrastructure and foreign backers – when the Pakistani government started offensives on its border with Afghanistan against the militants there, there were reports of many of the foreign moving base to Somalia and joining al Shabaab).

Now this is three foreign interventions that have managed to help continue the chaos in Somalia.

Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab are powerful groups and have quickly taken over large parts of southern somalia.

It is entirely possible that the two groups will defeat the interim government as it only controls small parts of the capital, with some allied groups controlling other smaller villages and towns, but nothing Substantial. There is still no light at the end of the tunnel – the process will start again as both al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam are observing a temporary peace which is meant to last until they defeat the interim government.

From the two groups, al Shabaab is the more potent and also the more terrible, as it has not been just seeking to control territory, but also enforce its understanding of Islam, which includes desecrating graves, not allowing the dead to remain burried, forcing women to wear black shrowds instead of the normal Somali styles and generally maiming and killing its opponents without repercussions.

The Fishermen Strike Back

And this is just southern Somalia – a large part of Somalia has broken itself away from the rest in order to govern itself and calls itself Somaliland.

So how does all this fit into the world view of piracy? Why do pirates operate from here? Where did they come from?

This is quite an unforseen consequence of the instability in Somali politics – since there has been no effective government, it has meant that international companies have been able to do whatever they want in Somali waters without fear of retribution or justice - the Somaliland government has a navy without any boats and a government whose writ would not be upheld.

Some of what they started to do was dump toxic waste etc off the coast – there were reports after the Indonesian tsunami that also reached the Somali shores about barrels of toxic waste being washed up onto shores.

And this has consequences as large numbers of people living off the coast of Somalia are fishermen and suddenly they ran out of fish to feed their families. In turn they turned to other enterprises which would get them monies they can use to feed their families. Bigger fish: They started fishing for cargo ships, oil tankers or anything else that would be of value.

So now there be pirates off the coast of Somalia. The only cure is a working government which can enforce justice in the seas and allow the people to return to fishing.