Piracy off the eastern coast of Africa has become a profitable business for many Somalis whose average yearly income used to rarely exceed a few hundred USD. By some estimates, in 2010 pirates were able to generate roughly $238 million in revenue typically through ransoms paid by private citizens, corporations or by states. The pace of piracy has risen exponentially since 2005 when there were 35 attacks compared to 219 in 2010.
Piracy affords high risks but is a very profitable source of income for many Somalis who are unlikely to better their standard of living through conventional means. The 1991 fall of Siad Barre’s regime has been followed by two decades of civil war leaving Somalia a “failed state” as clan warfare consumed Mogadishu and surrounding areas. The international community largely chose to ignore Somalia. The country is essentially divided into Somaliland, Puntland and Central Somalia. The internationally supported Transnational Federal Government controls only a small area in the capital, Mogadishu.
At the end of 2010, it is estimated that 1,181 people were being held hostage off the coast of Somalia. Despite some incidents when hostages were killed during rescue attempts or through abuse and neglect, several hundred have been released once their employers paid large ransoms. Currently, there are approximately 760 hostages still being held typically on their ships moored off the Somalia coast. The mode of operation for many pirates is not particularly complicated. They operate from small skiffs that approach ships in the Gulf of Aden. These skiffs are launched from larger pirate vessels known as mother-ships. Once the pirates commandeer a vessel they often sail the vessel closer to shore.
Raymond Gilpin of the United States Institute of Peace describes the steps involved in an attack on a vessel, “Somali piracy is brazen, but remains a relatively low-tech affair. Pirates utilize small skiffs which can travel up to 30 knots. Coordinated attacks involving three to five of these boats are used in tandem to swarm targeted vessels until the pirates can board a ship with grappling hooks and ladders. Multiple skiffs distract and unsettle the crew on the targeted vessel until one gang is able to board, followed by the others. Ships that get hijacked are usually slow vessels (traveling 15 knots or less), with low sides (or at least sitting low in the water).”
Since the beginning of the year there has been a seasonal lull in pirate attacks reducing the number to a dozen. Once the weather clears in the region, the attacks are likely to intensify. Despite a concerted effort by NATO and others to stop piracy there are few indications that the problem is being dealt with effectively. Currently, as many as 25 countries including the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Malaysia and India contribute ships and other resources to patrol the Gulf of Aden in an attempt to protect commercial shipping vessels. However, because a significant number of pirates operate from harbors in Puntland and because international law dictates that unless a small skiff or other vessel is clearly manned by pirates, the international community can do little to prevent piracy.
Further complicating efforts is the fact that the waters closer to Somalia are heavily monitored, so the pirates are moving further offshore in order to broaden their reach. Although some pirates have been arrested, the legal process is so cumbersome, expensive and problematic that many nations have simply resorted to releasing pirates instead of transporting them back to their nations to face criminal prosecution. There have been suggestions that the paying of ransoms be halted. It is argued that this practice encourages more piracy. While more or less true, the hostages currently being held might meet a nasty end if their ransoms are not paid. Shipping companies compensate for the danger of piracy by paying higher insurance premiums to cover the costs of paying ransoms. Roger Middleton of Chatham House argues, “For the people who negotiate these ransoms, it makes sense to pay a higher ransom earlier…If you have a shipload of oil that was valued at $50 a barrel when it left port, and by the time it’s released the value could be $40 a barrel. So for the company being hijacked, the cost of the ransom is worth it. But obviously, for the overall campaign against piracy, that’s not helpful at all.”
However, shipping companies have witnessed a hike in their insurance rates and their operating costs are rising as a result of avoiding Somalia. Raymond Gilpin points out, “According to international shipping organizations, insurance rates for ships have risen to $20,000 per voyage in 2009 because of piracy, from an estimated $500 in 2008 – a forty-fold increase. Also, avoidance (namely, the alternate route around the Cape of Good Hope) adds roughly 3,500 miles to the journey. The cost of this diversion is particularly worrisome during spikes in oil prices.”
Other options being considered are placing armed guards on the shipping vessels or arming the crews themselves. Undoubtedly this would afford the crews a level of personal security, however, armed gun battles with pirates could end badly. This could also increase the likelihood that the pirates would act more aggressively and potentially kill the crews and dump them overboard and simply hold the ships for ransoms. According to Harnit Kaur Kang of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, “This is something that shall never quite be supported by international law because it entails some kind of an authorization for escalation to full blown armed conflict at Sea. Moreover, there is also the argument that pirates tend to be more merciful towards unarmed crews.”
An option that has been little discussed is for the international community to recognize Somaliland independence. Once granted international recognition the international community could supply Somaliland with the necessary resources to deal with piracy in the region. Presently, its fledgling coast guard lacks boats and facilities to incarcerate pirates once they have been captured. Somaliland Adm. Ahmed Osman told NPR that his coast guard needs, “Boats. Boats. Boats.” With nearly 500 miles of coastline to patrol and an existing inventory of eight boats, an influx of more naval crafts would greatly assist the Somaliland coast guard. However, the problem would still exist that there are a lack of facilities in which to incarcerate pirates arrested by Somaliland officials. Despite a new UN funded prison in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, the region needs many more such facilities.
If these problems can be addressed the best managed and most accountable region in Somalia could potentially assist in securing vast areas of the Gulf of Aden. However, without a comprehensive legal framework many nations are hesitant to return suspected pirates to Somaliland for prosecution because it lacks prisons that meet international standards.
Even if the international community recognizes Somaliland it would take several years for Somaliland to develop institutions based on law and order and for internationally recognized legal standards and practices to take effect. However, if problems like enabling Somaliland to become a viable state are resolved the international community will also have to address the fact the Puntland and Central Somalia are still largely lawless. Further, by focusing solely on piracy in Somali waters and in the Gulf of Aden the international taskforce protecting ships is ignoring developments on the ground in Somalia.
Like Somaliland, Puntland is grappling with a lack of resources to fight piracy in its waters. Puntland’s president, Abdirahman Mohamed Mahmoud, suggests, “We need just a small fraction of the money the naval fleets are wasting now to effectively combat piracy. I think they are not interested in fighting piracy.” Mr. Mahmoud ran for office promising to address piracy because much like Central Somalia and Somaliland piracy undercuts the abilities of these regions to improve governance.
Ambassador William M. Bellamy suggests, “Part of the answer to the problem of piracy is going to be to try to engineer some progress inside of Somalia towards some more effective means of governance.”
Rising global oil prices threaten to undercut the global economic recovery. Already, shipping companies are avoiding the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal as transit points for oil. Resulting from the hijacking of a Saudi supertanker with $100 million USD in oil on board, the A.P. Moller-Maersk, a Danish company has decided to divert its fleet of 50 oil tankers away from the Gulf of Aden. Frontline, a Norwegian shipping company is considering the same. While this will unlikely be a major driving force behind rising oil prices at the gas pump, piracy does add uncertainty and ancillary costs for shipping companies. The next few months will see a rise in the rate of pirate attacks as the weather calms in the Arabian Sea. As a result, the international community will have to commit more resources to the region.
With Europe, the U.S. and others committed in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Côte d’Ivoire the question of resource commitments comes to the fore. Piracy is driven by economic considerations. As such, unless efforts address the Somali economy, many Somalis will turn to piracy as their only source of income. Therefore, building a strong central government in Mogadishu and/or enabling Puntland and Somaliland to become fully independent states would do much to contain the threat of piracy.
It is increasingly unlikely that Somalia will be reformed and resuscitated in the months and years ahead without a multilayered approach. As noted previously, this would include granting Somaliland and Puntland full independence which would enable those two states to address the issue of piracy off their shores. Piracy will be undercut once they attain self-governance and legitimacy. Finally, any international effort will have to incorporate Somali clans which are based in Somaliland, Puntland and Central Somalia and are in many ways the bedrock of Somali society.
Raymond Gilpin illustrates the progression of some clans from protecting Somalia’s territorial integrity to outright piracy, “Clan militia made the transition to maritime crime by claiming to protect Somalia’s territorial waters from poachers and polluters. Under a number of names (including: the Central Somalia Coast Guard, the National Volunteer Coast Guard, and the Somali Marines) clan militia started by forcibly levying taxes and fines on ships they managed to board. This quickly evolved to hijacking.”
Strengthening the Hawiye and Darood clans could enable some quantifiable progress to be made against piracy from within Somalia and thus avoid having to inject outside forces into Somalia. However, if progress is not made in improving domestic situations on the ground and in developing Somalia from a political-economic standpoint, piracy very well could be a long-term threat that the international community will have to confront. Strengthening the abilities of the governments of Puntland and Somaliland to address piracy from within could be the most effective approach.