The flood of pirate headlines forces me to start my introduction to Somalia with a relatively small Somali problem, but a big global problem.

Piracy is  a highly visible but second tier symptom of Somalia’s tragic condition. It  affects relatively few Somalis but draws blood from the rich, powerful and — until now — indifferent world.  Somalia has far bigger problems:  a civil war, bombs and mortars killing noncombatant civilians, drought, hunger, disease, homelessness, etc.

With a little internet patience, you can probably find support for any opinion you may have about the pirates. “Somalia has always had pirates”, is one shared by many ‘analysts’.  In an irrelevant way, this is probably true, the same way that Americans have always been mass murderers — it happens now and then.

Puntland

Puntland

Or “Anarchy onshore makes it impossible to control piracy offshore.”  There is truth in this, but most of the pirates are based in Puntland, a self-ruling region where internal security is relatively good. Payoffs with ransom loot, however, closes a lot of government and police eyes (according to a BBC report) the way campaign contributions seem to have blinded regulators on Wall St.

“The pirates are a branch of Islamic terrorism”. This seems unlikely, since the pirates treat both Christian and Muslim hostages well and don’t harm the ships or steal cargoes.  Piracy is a business, nothing more, and seems to be conducted honorably.  It harms fewer people than, for example, money management or banking.

Like any business, piracy needs capital, which may well be coming from ‘private’ sources in the Gulf.  Pirates need to pay their lawyers (some deals are handled through London . . . I’ll pass up the chance to comment on how to tell them apart).  Investors want profits.  They paid for the fast boats, the GPS systems, fuel, arms, ammunition, bribes, support for a few hundred captive crewmen during long negotiations before the ransoms were paid, and maybe also provided the sophisticated ship handlers to guide captured vessels to a safe anchorage.

Several factors probably lie behind Somali piracy.  Historically, there has never been any form of strong central government in Somalia, so the violent impulses found in all societies have met fewer obstacles there, particularly when directed at non-Somalis.

A nasty secret is that the seafood-rich coastal waters have been plundered for years by rich nations . . . including some whose ships are now being plundered in return (France, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan . . . ).  Fish stocks have been seriously depleted (the UN, toothless as always, has long known this).  What’s an unemployed Somali fisherman going to do to feed his family?  Anything he can.

Even worse than stealing one of Somalia’s main export assets, the UN knows that poisonous wastes have been dumped on the Somali coast. When the recent Indonesian tsunami reached the Somali coast, killing hundreds of Somalis and doing extensive damage, the UN Environmental Program reported finding rusting containers of toxic wastes on the coast of Puntland, which took the brunt of the tsunami in Africa.  The news was briefly reported and then buried. Now the rich nations whose industries produced the wastes are shocked! shocked! to find the Somalis claiming to be angry.

Pirate attack locations

Pirate attack locationsshocked! to find the Somalis angry and are using the dumped wastes to justify piracy. Of course, there is no evidence that any of the estimated $80 million in ransom payments in 2008 (an extremely tentative number) has ever been used to compensate victims of foreigners’ crimes, or to clean up pollution.

Could the pirates be hypocrites?  Also shocking! But the crimes against the Somali people are  more damaging than the harm done to shipowners and crews.  The victims appear to be the insurance companies, which have already retaliated by raising premiums.  The real victims, in that case, are all of us, since we end up paying those premiums when we go shopping.

Somalia is in the grip of anarchy, its economy is in ruins, severe droughts and famine are frequent, religious tension (between strict fundamentalism and more relaxed traditional Sufi Islam) and clan rivalries divide the people.  A little piracy is less than troublesome to Somalis.  It is, if anything, a source of Somali pride, the only income for many coastal communities, an enthusiastic thumb in the eye of the world which has ignored illegal fishing and criminal waste dumping.  Who can blame them?

Next time I will get to the serious problems in Somalia