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The Pirates of Somalia | Jay Bahadur


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Published in: 2012

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Jay Bahadur is a Canadian journalist who began his career as a 24-year-old by buying a one-way ticket to Mogadishu, Somalia in 2008. During a six-week stay, he met pirates and learned from the inside how Somalia’s lucrative pirate sector worked. His time in Puntland was turned into the movie “Into the fire”. At the time of writing, Somalia had around 1,500-2,000 pirates active along a lawless coastline stretching over 2,500 km. As of 2021, virtually all piracy off the coast of Somalia has ceased.

CIVIL WAR & STATE COLLAPSE. With the continent’s longest coast, a strategic location along the Suez Canal and a long history of trade, Somalia has all the potential to be one of Africa’s most economically successful countries. But years of disastrous military campaigns, backward-looking Marxist economic policies, and clan-based discrimination resulted in the outbreak of civil war in the late 1980s. In 1991, the state collapsed when rebel factions took over Mogadishu and dictator Siad Barre fled the country. Since then, only the state of Somaliland has shown signs of law and order – the rest of the country is in varying degrees of hopeless state.

SOMALIA CONSISTS OF SIX STATES. To speak of Somalia as a unified entity is a wrong characterization, because in the wake of the civil war, the country was divided into the autonomous enclaves of Puntland, Somaliland, Southwest State of Somalia, Jubaland, Hirshabelle and Galmudug. Somaliland has a coastline along the Gulf of Aden that is comparable to Puntland’s but has basically no pirates. The few that have existed have long since been arrested and imprisoned. Somaliland is politically relatively stable, which is a result of clan stability and a long history of democracy. There is total anarchy in the south and Al-Shabaab is strong there. Down south there are also no pirates as they risk being attacked by other criminals.

PUNTLAND = PIRATE LAND. Puntland proved to have the perfect characteristics to become a pirate nest: its location right between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden (one of the busiest waterways in the world) and the perfect balance of lawlessness and stability. The local state lacks the financial means to hunt down pirates and keep them imprisoned. Puntland has two “pirate capitals”, Eyl and Harardhere, where most of the pirates were based.

FOREIGNERS TAKES ALL FISH AND DUMPS NUCLEAR WASTE. In the mid-1990s, Somali fishermen began to feel competition from foreign fishing vessels, mainly Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean, with advanced equipment. In just a few years, the local fishermen were outcompeted, and the fish stock was depleted. In addition, foreign ships had dumped nuclear waste and chemicals off the coast of Somalia, which had been stirred up from the seabed since the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. This led to the local population starting to get serious diseases.

FISHERMEN TURNS PIRATES. When the Somali fishermen could no longer support themselves, they shifted their focus to catching foreign fishermen. Between 1995 and 1997, foreign fishing vessels were hijacked, and money was successfully exchanged. The foreign trawlers responded by hiring local warlords who put armed guards on the ships. As a result, the focus shifted from hijacking trawlers to hijacking commercial cargo ships.

THE WORLD’S BEST BUSINESS MODEL. Pirates work in small, decentralized groups of 20-50 men – mainly relatives and friends who come together for a project. A hijacking requires a start-up capital of around $50k and in addition enough to cover costs for food and fuel while the hijacking continues, which can be several years. The return on a successful hijacking can exceed 1,000% and in 2010 Harvard Business School named “Somalia piracy” the world’s best business model. Half of the ransom usually went to the attackers, a third went to the investors and the remaining share was divided between guards, food and water suppliers, translators, and mediators.

PIRACY STATISTICS. Somali pirate attacks have occurred from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and along a north-south axis that stretches from Oman to Madagascar – an area almost as large as the United States. In 2005, the ransom could be a few hundred thousand dollars. Just five years later, the highest ransoms reached $13m. However, as ransoms increased (in 2011 the average ransom was $4.5m), the financial incentives for shipowners, who began hiring armed forces to protect their ships, changed. From 2009, the western world also stepped up its military presence with about 30 warships in the area.

THE RISK OF HIJACKING IS LOW. When hijackings fail (60-70% of the time), it is usually due to early detection, increased speed, and avoidant measures. During the years when piracy was at its peak, the Western world spent $1bn to $1.5bn a year to prevent a “pirate industry” worth no more than $90m. It is easy to question the return on this investment, but the figures do not show the deterrent effects of the effort and the lives that have probably been saved.

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