Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pirates could be the best thing that happened to Somalia

These pirates could be the best thing that have ever happened to Somalia. I don't mean this in a "they're daring entrepreneurs" sense of course, current fashionable cool aside, pirates are murdering, kidnapping bastards - but in the long run they might prove to be useful if they focus the world's attention on some of the facts of life in Africa.

The Sirius Star (right) may be the biggest tanker that's ever been hijacked, but it certainly isn't alone. It's the 90th ship this year to be hijacked by Somalian pirates who currently have a whole flotilla of vessels they've half inched from the high seas.

We're even back to the good old days where you have entire pirate towns. If you've ever wondered what a pirate city looks like by the way try Google maps and search for Eyl in Somalia, and scroll up and down the river. Fascinating... but it don't look like a pleasant holiday destination I'm afraid.

Things are getting very, very serious. The Norwegians have begun avoiding the place. Even the South Koreans are sending warships to the area afraid of the impact piracy will have on international trade. Dave, who presents himself as an expert on these matters, says that "There have been widespread calls for tougher naval action, and there are already many warships in the area, ranging from NATO assets to a Russian frigate. But given the millions of square miles of sea they are expected to cover, the pirate attacks continue."

Here, I think, lies the crux. When Somalia was just a corner where people crawled to die, or at least when Somalians confined themselves to killing each other then the world simply did not care. With no functioning economy or government for twenty odd years Somalia has to be one of the worst places on Earth to be a human being.

Whilst the warlords have had zero impact on global trade the pirates are quite another matter, they're costing real money. Now the world is paying attention to a land that has been discarded, of no monetary value to the rest of us. The gaze of the most powerful governments in the world has been drawn to the East Coast of Africa and whilst this has already brought with it warships it may well bring something else too.

That's why I say that these pirates may, in the long run, be a benefit to Somalia. I'm sure they are a pestilence on the people who live under their shadow, but they have lit a fire where simple suffering never could. These acts could help focus international efforts to bring the region out of its failing state and bring a little hope.

Being a pirate is not an easy life and Somalian jails are jammed packed with them. If there were a Somalian economy with the semblance of jobs and stability and a functioning state to prevent whole areas falling to what, in previous ages, would have been called robber barons piracy would not be an itch that the world economic system can't quite scratch.

If any good can come out of this it might be that there is a recognition that this is a problem that is too difficult to solve through force alone. In the long term peace goes hand in hand with prosperity and we'll only make the shipping lanes safe if the world's poor gets at least a small slice of the action that rolls past them every hour of every day.


James said...

Its certainly true that Somalians need some genuine help, but they've been victims of 'international efforts' since the cold war. Here's some background: http://www.radicalactivist.net/comment/article.php?id=0701hornafrica
Since the article was written, the Ethiopians have been almost completely driven out of the country, and I don't know exactly what the US game plan is now, but I doubt it has much to do with giving Somalians a small slice of anything...

DocRichard said...

A couple of years ago I raised the possibility that the Green Party should call for enforcement action against Somali pirates, because they force aid organisations to go by long land routes. As I feared, it was as if I had suggested putting kittens into a large catapault to see how far they could fly.

Although I am a Quaker, I would not oppose intensive policing action in Somali waters by navies preferably under the UN flag. If they go in in sufficient numbers, the pirates would be unable to move, so violence would be minimised.

This should be a part of a wider initiative to re-establish peace and democracy in Somalia. So far, the international community set up the Transitional Government, then sat back and waited for them to get on with it. There is far more to setting up a democracy than installing a committee and calling it a government. Democracy has to be built from the grassroots up. The traditional tribal leaders should be involved. As should the Islamic Courts Union, who really did bring peace to Mogadishu in until the Americans set the warlords on them.

Yes this is an infinitely complex problem, but the UN should see it as a challenge, and set about mending it. If they can help Somalia, they can help anyone.

Jim Jay said...

We'll have to see what the US do - particularly now they have a new broom coming in - but I think it's important to remember it's not just the US that has an interest here - and the rest of the world are not just jumping to their tune.

The Indian Navy sank a pirate vessel today and we should bear in mind how much China relies on this shipping channel.

Certainly there will be the use of force (and like Richard I'm not totally opposed to this) but there should be and indeed there *could be* a reassessment of international policy towards Somalia and the region now that they are becoming troublesome.

Whether that will happen - well I don't know - all I'm saying is that if it wasn't for the pirates Somalia wouldn't even be on the agenda.

As Richard says we need a significant initiative to help establish peace and democracy (and a working economy) without thinking you can solve complex problems simply through the use of helicopter gunships and naval vessels.

scott redding said...

I suspect what's worrying The Man is that this is the pirate version of 9/11, a spectacular, a seizure of a ship hundreds of miles off the coast. It could inspire pirates elsewhere and cause problems at "chokepoints" of world sea trade. For example, each year, 70 000 merchant vessels carrying a fifth of all seaborne trade, and a third of the world’s crude oil, go through the Straits of Malacca.