This week, leaders including David Cameron, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will meet at a conference in London to attempt a step-change in the international community’s approach to Somalia. Central to the conference is the issue of piracy, as groups of armed men continue to periodically capture shipping vessels and hold them for ransom.
But the proposed solutions to piracy are overly focused on security on the ground in Somalia, and fail to account for financial flows that make piracy possible and touch businesses in London. My research with Professor Mohamed Samantar of Puntland State University suggest that if the international fails to understand how piracy functions, this latest conference will join a string of failed international attempts to promote security in Somalia.
The thousand mile Indian Ocean coast of Puntland, one of two autonomous authorities in what was once northern Somalia, became a base for piracy only after fishing in coastal waters collapsed due to over-fishing and toxic waste dumping by European-owned ships. To date outside vessels continue to operate in Puntland’s waters with impunity and coastal communities have few ways to make their living.
Nonetheless, now that the returns to piracy have been demonstrated to be so lucrative, it would be difficult to convince Puntland residents to return to fishing alone. Instead NATO and other navies have been patrolling the parts of the Indian Ocean leading to Suez and efforts have been made to prompt Puntland’s semi-autonomous government to shut down piracy in its ports. Both of these “solutions” are flawed.
Focusing on solving piracy within Puntland is mistaken first because the people who organise and finance Somali piracy almost certainly live outside the area — in Nairobi, Suez or possibly even London.
Second, although Puntland has been moderately successful at state reconstruction, its capacities and resources are very limited. The revenues generated by ransoms probably exceed Puntland’s entire budget. While the government might be able to imprison the young, unemployed men who capture the ships, low capacity and the potential for corruption would make it impossible to catch – let alone hold – the rich organisers behind the piracy.
Finally, while it is possible that communities in Puntland could be persuaded to chase out pirates – as the town of Eyl has done – this would simply shift the base of piracy south into ports controlled by the fundamentalist Islamist group al Shabaab. Piracy revenues might then be used to finance its militia and expand terrorism in Kenya and other neighbouring countries.
The option to fight piracy at sea is more promising, but it too has flaws. Both the area that must be patrolled and the volume of ships using Suez are impossibly large. NATO ship commanders have told me that if the task is to be feasible maritime traffic must be restricted to defined ocean corridors. But corridors imply longer routes for the commercial vessels and higher costs. At the moment the costs ships would pay to follow longer routes are higher than the insurance premiums they pay against capture by pirates.
The real solution to Somali piracy lies with a partnership between NATO navies and European commercial interests. NATO needs to prevent international exploitation of Somali fishing waters while also patrolling defined maritime corridors. Higher insurance rates would induce international vessels to stay within these corridors. Ships should also employ self-protections, such as safe lock-in rooms for the crew, so that NATO patrol vessels can reach them before pirates force them to surrender. Finally, the focus should be on capturing those who plan and fund piracy, more than on the young-men who board the ships. Finding the organisers could start with tracking how piracy is financed and how ransoms are distributed. These solutions suggest that it is indeed in the financial hub of London, not just along the coasts of Puntland, that Somali piracy must be tackled.
David Leonard is Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, UK http://www.ids.ac.uk/go/idsperson/professor-david-leonard