Friday, October 17, 2008


Audacity: Somali pirates in small boats hijack the mv Faina, a Belize-flagged cargo ship owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine, on September 25. They demanded a $35 million ransom for the ship, which was carrying 33 tanks and other military supplies to Kenya. By last Friday, they were threatening to blow up the ship. Photo/REUTERS

What is it that makes Pirates different from other brigands; why do dacoits of the sea excite the imagination where the land-bound highwayman invokes fear and loathing? To explain, we cite the curious case of the Pirates of Puntland.
Somalia may be an arid and environmentally challenged country, but its strategic location and long coastline is a major asset. How these improbable pirates came to fulfill the country’s manifest destiny is a long if circular story.
To begin with, during the Cold War, Somalia’s proximity to Arabia and the shipping lanes connecting Europe to its oil attracted superpower competition. The Soviet Union befriended President Siad Barre during his scientific socialism phase (or “camel-sharing,” to use the local term). All Somalis were jalle, brothers — actually brothers-in-arms — after the Soviets provided weaponry that made Somalia Africa’s most militarised nation. But some brothers were more jalle than others. In 1978, against the advice of his generals, Barre crossed the line and invaded the Ogaden to liberate the jalle in Ethiopia, who also belonged to his wife’s clan. When Barre denied involvement during a visit to the Kremlin, his hosts produced aerial photographs pinpointing the Somali army’s positions.
The Soviets flip-flopped. Together with their Cuban protégés, they launched the largest single logistical operation in military history to support their new Afro-Marxist comrades in Ethiopia. The comrades scorched the jalle invaders. The survivors limped home, leaving behind the hundreds of bombed out tanks and burning armoured cars testifying to Barre’s ill-advised gambit. Barre squashed an attempted coup by disillusioned army officers, and then executed the Majertain clan top brass. The survivors escaped across the border, where Barre’s brother diktator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, funded an armed liberation movement led by the former army colonel, Abdullahi Yusuf. Barre switched his support to clan-based militias (i.e., Darod clan militias) to stay in power; conservative Arab governments pitched in with small arms (i.e. AK-47s) worth $450 million. Consistent with the law predicting that most policies end up producing the opposite results, jalle camel-sharing ended up reviving the monolithic status of the segmentary lineage and clans in Somali society, enabling Barre to hold on for another 15 years — a period during which conditions in Somalia in general declined.

But after Mohammed Farah Aideed’s Hawiye Habr Gedir dislodged Afwein (meaning “Big Mouth,” the dictator’s nickname) for good in January 1993, things began to seriously go south. Both literally, in regard to the thousands of refugees pouring into Kenya, and more figuratively in the case of the civil war erupting in the capital, Mogadishu. The conflict provided the backdrop for the benignly entitled US intervention, Operation Restore Hope, which culminated with the battle Somalis dubbed Ma Alinti Ranga and Ridley Scott depicted on the silver screen under the title, Black Hawk Down. We need to highlight two aspects of the failed special forces mission to capture the warlord Aideed: One, the retreat of the international community from Somalia following the extended street fight between the rangers and his Habr Gedr clan; and, two, the contrast between the clan’s unseemly parading of the corpse of the fallen helicopter pilot and the capture of another pilot by a mooryan militia, who treated their captive’s wounds before collecting a ransom for returning him to the US command. Mooryan refers to gangs not affiliated to a particular clan — arguably the best prototype for understanding the Pirates of Puntland phenomenon.

Somalia has remained stateless for over 15 years and life somehow goes on, even in “the Mog,” despite periodic eruptions of civil strife and all-out war in the capital and its environs.
During this span, the notion that clans represent both the main problem and central variable determining the ultimate outcome of the unresolved crisis, has become strongly rooted among Somalis and non-Somali observers alike.

Several countervailing developments during this prolonged period of transition, however, warrant serious attention: The blossoming of the Somali Diaspora; the rise and fall of the Islamic Courts Movement; and the progress realised by the unrecogised Republic of Somaliland. While territorial Somalia remains mired in poverty, Diaspora Somalia, only recently established on new soil, is prospering. Somalis are building a reputation for being peaceful and law-abiding citizens abroad, especially compared with other immigrant communities. They are accumulating capital at a remarkable rate. Somalis based in Dubai are the free port’s second largest exporters after the Iranians.

They have transformed the former low-income residential ward of Nairobi’s Eastleigh into a major commercial centre, and the same process is underway in the Rwanda Somalia suburb of Addis Ababa, and in other diverse and sundry cities across the globe where the jalle cluster. The Somali Diaspora are tired of remitting money, they want to invest it. This ethnic capital is already beginning to flow into Somaliland, where clan elders committed to negotiating the peace through political means at an early point in the post-state crisis. When President Riyaale Kahin won the 2002 national elections by a mere 50 votes, Somaliland’s political parties resolved the potential crisis amicably. Successful completion of the national polls later this year is likely to see the rate of investment take off.

Diaspora capital flows into Mogadishu too, but several caveats apply. Southern Somalia is an environmentally benign land where rain falls and rivers run year round, making it a magnet for clan in-migration. The region is ethnically diverse and home to a complex mix of large and small, nomadic, agro-pastoral, and sedentary clans. Because the kheer, customary clan law, is more difficult to administer in these circumstances, Sharia law helps bridge the divide. Pre-colonial southern governance was based on this synthetic Islamic-Somali justice system, and through the agency of the business community, it resumed in the south after the state collapsed.
When the Salafi Al Ittihad movement, in contrast, tried to take over Kismayu, the salafi Islamicists were run out of town.

But the spread of the Islamic Courts model to the even more jumbled social microcosm of Mogadishu provided an opportunity for the failed leaders of Al Ittihad to re-enter the game.
The region’s warlords, who operated as a kheer onto themselves, formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, or ARPCT, to stem the tide. President Bush, against the advice of his own State Department, bankrolled the formerly bête noire brigade.
The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), supported by the multi-clan jihadist militia, Al Shabaab, and funded by the anti-jihadist government of Eritrea, prevailed.
The ICU was a practical arrangement for restoring law and order that brought Islamic civil society actors from moderate organisations like Al Islah and a clutch of radical jihadis under the same umbrella. The ICU model foreshadowed similar political developments occurring in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and its brief six-month rule is now regarded as Mogadishu’s Golden Age.
But like Afwein before them, they miscalculated their capacity to take on a superpower-backed Ethiopian state. The Ethiopians escorted President Abdullahi Yusuf’s beleaguered Transitional National Government back to Mogadishu. Despite the support of the Ethiopian army, the TFG’s political legitimacy is compromised and its ability to govern is severely constrained by a Taliban-Iraqi style insurgency ostensibly spearheaded by Al Shabaab militants.

Meanwhile, the force of African Union peacekeepers that are supposed to replace the Ethiopians and the small Uganda contingent is unlikely to materialise. If the Bush regime’s “Long War on Terror” (LWOT) has effectively maintained a focus on internal events in Somalia, its narrow focus on the several individuals linked to Al Qaeda, like the quest to neutralise Aideed, has proved disastrous for governance across the Horn of Africa. Although US air strikes have vaporised at least two of the prominent Islamicist outlaws, their colleagues survived to scuttle the political dialogue offered by the Djibouti accord. There is no reason to expect a change in the contemporary status quo — itself a product of misguided interests, bungled interventions, and naked opportunism — or incentive for the international community to meaningful engage. But this has changed since the Pirates of Puntland waltzed on to centrestage.

Compared with other Somali inhabited regions, conditions in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland are in many ways exceptional. Large expanses of Puntland are true desert, yielding pasture during short and unpredictable bursts of rain that, in some places, may only appear twice a decade. The maritime plains and low mountain on their fringe are called guban, the burnt land. As in the case of Kenya’s overcrowded Central Province, these conditions pushed the predominantly Majertain clan inhabitants to seek education and employment in the colonial administration.

Large numbers of Majertain migrated south, many settling in cosmopolitan Kismayu after independence. The turbulence erupting in the south forced many of them to undertake the precarious journey back to Puntland. Thousands of these internally displaced persons live in camps on the outskirts of Bossaso, swelling the population of this isolated gubanistan to an estimated 800,000 souls.

A VISIT TO PUNTLAND LAST year introduced this well-travelled writer to the most forbidding landscape I have ever seen.

Puntland makes Kenya’s most arid district, Marsabit, appear lush in comparison. Except for several tame gazelle in the walled compound where I stayed in Bossaso, I did not see one domestic animal on the ground or from the air; no one I talked to could report seeing man or animal during the eight-hour journey to Puntland’s capital, Garowe. I was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of fish in the local cafes and the extent to which Kiswahili is spoken in the port and in the streets.

Bossaso’s port, a larger version of Lamu’s main jetty, is the engine of the Puntland economy and competes successfully with the modern facilities in Berbera. Yemeni-style wedding cake high-rises are sprouting along the oceanfront. Security is at best tenuous. A mid-day shootout at a petrol station caused a traffic jam while I was there, and armed youth manning mobile roadblocks routinely collect cash and mobile phones after 8pm. Wahabi fundamentalists now control most of Bossaso’s mosques, while the persistence of Eastleigh-style nightlife provides a counterpoint.

The rise of Bossaso’s role as the headquarters of the piracy sector is consistent with these trends. Puntland’s long coastline borders Africa’s richest fishing grounds but Somalia’s marine fishery has declined to less than 10 per cent of the tonnage recorded before the governance meltdown. When Kenya’s Environment Minister, Francis Lotodo, finally chased away the foreign trawlers that used to light up the coastal horizon at night in 1997, the poachers moved north to the waters off Puntland. The shimmering offshore lights induced impoverished entrepreneurs to join the illicit food chain. Unlike the occasional reports of small freighters (usually transporting famine relief) coming under attack while at dock, it follows this activity went unreported at the time.

The growth of the pirate industry followed the usual curve, and began to spike in 2006. Capital investment enabled the maritime mooryan to range over 200 kilometres offshore; a captured vessel was converted into a mother ship and the self-proclaimed Central Somalia Coast Guard began to justify their designation as pirates proper. Details of the operation have circulated in the press of late: 60 ships captured, $30 million in ransom, the TFG’s laissez faire stance, a money trail leading from the pirates’ cove in Eyl to Garowe, Nairobi, and Canada; and imputed links to Al Shabaab militias. But comparisons to the Carribean privateers who transformed the British colony of Port Royale into the party capital of the New World are superficial; the Pirates of Puntland are social bandits in the tradition of Robin Hood, not buccaneers. They steal from the rich and share the cash with extremely poor communities. If the investors claim the lion’s share according to local custom, their spokesman, Ali Sugulle, reports that the syndicate also funds local community development projects.

Unlike Captain John Morgan’s crew, they don’t kill and torture their captives for entertainment. Instead, they treat their captives humanely and share the same food and housing. A British captain who spent several weeks in their hands told the BBC they gave him a goat, although he did not realise the significance of this gesture of Somali hospitality: “For some reason, they gave us a goat, which we took in as pet; but several days later, they slaughtered the animal and cooked him for us to eat.” These “Jalle Rogers” deviate from the universal pirate code and return the cargo intact along with the ransomed crew. Like most of the reportage emerging out of stateless Somalia, the pirate phenomenon raises unanswered questions. The lack of response on the international level — US, EU, regional governments — is an anomaly.

Why seek a UN security council resolution? Bush did not seek approval to shell the mountains behind Eyl when intelligence reported Hassan Dahir Aweis to be in the vicinity. Why should the US intervene directly after Russia sent a warships, especially right after facing off with Putin over Georgia? This in turn leads to the events in Ukraine and the enmity between the Orange faction and Mother Russia, raising the question, “Are these Ukrainian tanks or are they Russian tanks on an Ukrainian freighter? What if it was a Chinese shipment?” These and other factors contradict the claims that pirate money is funding jihadi insurgents. Who is Al Shabaab anyway? Al Shabaab militias began popping up everywhere after the demise of the notorious Aden Hashi “Airo.” Insurgency will stay in fashion until the Ethiopians depart. Of course, the government of the day in Kenya once again finds itself caught in a dodgy position; why does Kenya, or the GOSS (government of Southern Sudan), need obsolete war machines like fuel-guzzling tanks anyway?
Looking at the big picture, the Pirates of Puntland have been extracting taxes from a neglectful international system.
The capitalist high-roaders have gone multinational. For example: The first reference to the three pirates who died after exposure to toxic chemicals on an captured Iranian ship is buried on page seven when you Google “Somali pirates.” It is wholly consistent for the excess-prone Somalis to ruin a good thing by pushing the envelope. It follows that, by the end of the day, the surcharges and premiums charged by shippers and insurers will trump by far the cash collected by the pirates.

Imagine that.