The piracy of the rich and poor in Somalia

There are four types of pirates with different aims: political, resource, defensive and those who just want loot.

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Piracy was not an issue in Somalia when the country had a functioning government [EPA]

Somali pirates have been a thorn in the side of the international community. It is now estimated that global piracy costs the world $7bn a year.

Frustrated by the failure to eliminate piracy in strategic Somali waters, the UN has enacted several resolutions empowering the international community to actively participate in securing this area. Despite the UN/NATO’s efforts, piracy incidents reached a new zenith in 2010.

The militarist UN/NATO strategy failed because it poorly understood the causes of piracy. Those concerned with piracy catalog the cultural and geographic conditions that facilitate piracy without knowing how those conditions were created and the motives of different pirates. An alternative understanding of piracy evaluates the evolution of the conditions, the actors involved, the motivation of various pirates and how those circumstances are sustained. This approach provides better tools to dissect the reality of piracy in Somalia.

A world map showing the incidence of piracy demonstrates two facts. First, that the main piracy areas are in the Malacca Straits, the Bay of Bengal, the Somali coast, Nigeria, and Caribbean coast of Latin America.

Second, Somalia is the only country where piracy did not exist when it had a government. Therefore, I think the absence of the state is the critical factor that has enabled piracy to grow in Somali waters. A careful study of Somali piracy led me to identify four types of pirates: political, resource, defensive, and ransom pirates. Each group has unique objectives and motivations. 

Political pirates were the first to appear and were members of oppositional movement against the Somali military dictatorship. The Somali National Movement (SNM) warned ships to avoid Somali ports and then hijacked two ships carrying supplies to Somalia in 1989/90. Their objective was to deny supplies to the regime rather than profit from piracy. Political piracy vanished with the regime’s collapse in 1990.

Afterwards, foreign fishing fleets invaded Somali waters to exploit rich fishing resources while others used the unguarded coast as a waste dump. These are resource pirates since they pillage Somali marine wealth. Fishing communities watched as factory ships plundered their resources.

Members of the former Somali coast guard challenged these predators and seized several fishing trawlers before fishermen joined the fray. These are defensive pirates whose aim is to stop the trespassers rather than collect booty.

Many Somalis defend piracy due to the fact that they have no real government and are politically and economically marginalised [EPA]

As the struggle between resource pirates and indigenous people unfolded, Somali criminals seized the opportunity to hijack some of the 30,000 merchant ships plying Somali waters every year. These criminals masqueraded as local fisherman, but they are Ransom pirates who are motivated by the desire for loot.

NATO and other navies in the region have treated all Somalis as criminals, while protecting resource pirates. Similarly, the UN has targeted Somalis without any distinction between criminals and defenders of local resources.

From Somali perspective, the uneven treatment of resource and ransom pirates smacks of injustice and is the reason why the international community failed to bring the population onboard in the struggle against ransom pirates.

Somalis view the problem differently. First, they deem the major powers to have collaborated with corrupt politicians/warlords who destroyed the state, and consider the absence of government to be the cause of piracy. Second, most Somalis feel that those concerned about piracy are disingenuous since they mischaracterise as pirates local resource defenders while protecting fish pirates. Consequently, Somalis are alienated and this is why they do not heed the world’s call.

An alternative to current anti-piracy strategy will involve two coordinated steps. First, since piracy was absent from the Somali coast when there was a functioning government; it would be wise if the international community collaborates with civic Somalis in rebuilding the state. Such an effort could create opportunities for Somalis in their country, protect their resources from predators, and destroy the safe havens of ransom pirates.

Second, the UN can put an addendum to the existing resolutions and empower NATO and others to expel resources pirates from Somali waters. This should be accompanied by modest aid for local fisherman to reconstruct their trade while a trust-building campaign between Somalis and the international community is launched. This strategy will quickly eradicate ransom pirates’ refuge and motivate the local population to cooperate with the world community. 

Such a strategy will make Somali waters safe, reducing shipping insurance and security costs, while building social capital between the population and the world community. The UN is at the rudder to steer this alternative route. Will it lead?

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota & research fellow at the University of Pretoria

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.