Once again the West prepares to demonstrate its confused notion of moral superiority. On Monday, 18 May 2009, five alleged Somali pirates faced a preliminary hearing in Rotterdam accused of attempting to hijack the freighter Samanyolu, which on January 2 was sailing in the Gulf of Aden under the flag of the Dutch Antilles(1). The trial is scheduled sometime this autumn, but during the preliminary hearing defense lawyer Willem-Jan Ausma called the five men modern-day Robin Hoods who “attack ships of rich countries to give the ransom to poor families.” He insisted that they act out of “desperation and poverty,”(2) and Haroon Raza, who represents one defendant, said poor social, financial, and political conditions in Somalia were the root causes of piracy.(3)
Public prosecutor Ward Ferdinandusse fired back: “Not every Somalian picks up an automatic weapon and becomes a pirate. [And the] sailors who find themselves the victims of pirates are threatened, shot at and taken captive, which can be extremely traumatic.”(4) Ferdinandusse’s colleague, Henny Baan, urged judges not to lose sight of the real victims of piracy — the crews of hijacked ships.(5) Cleverly refraining from mentioning shipping companies, Bann insisted: “It is about innocent people put in fear of their lives.” Both prosecutors disregarded the fact that the majority of the deaths to date — excepting a French hostage shot by his own rescuers in 2008, and a security guard(6) and a Taiwanese fisherman(7) who died during incidents in 2007 — have been of Somalis “killed legally” by British(8), French(9), American(10), Yemeni(11), and Indian(12) military personnel.(13) (There are conflicting reports about the death of an Indian sailor(14).)
Because the Samanyulo is registered in the Dutch Antilles, the Netherlands has agreed to prosecute the five Somalis under a 17th-century law against “sea robbery.” If convicted, common pirates face a maximum sentence of nine years and a captain can receive up to 12 years.(15) Nevertheless, the Somalis are delighted to be in the Netherlands. Willem-Jan Ausma described 24-year-old Ahmed Yusuf’s relief at being in a Western prison: “My client feels safe here. His own village is dominated by poverty and sharia [Islamic law] but here he has good food and can play football and watch television. He thinks the lavatory in his cell is fantastic.”(16)
Knowing he may be eligible for Dutch residency after serving his sentence, Yusuf hopes to send for his wife and children as soon as he is released from prison.(17) But Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen is moving to prevent the “pirates” from remaining in Europe. Verhagen has expressed unease at the fact that they find the Dutch prison cells so comfortable. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, he pleaded for a UN tribunal to try them in an East African country, offering Kenya as a possible location. He also proposed that pirates convicted by East African tribunals serve their sentences in East Africa, suggesting that one major economic benefit for the region could lie in generating international funds to build prisons to house the convicted pirates. Verhagen claims that Germany and Britain favor his idea, and that Russia recently put forward a similar proposal.(18)
As the story now stands, most Western media outlets cry: “These Somali (pirates, riffraff, murderous ruffians, thugs) have no claim to justice; their side of the argument is unimportant.” “Kill more of them!” scream many of the bloggers. “They have no right to decent toilets and the safety of our prisons,” reasons Verhagen. “Our clearest moral course of action would be to use them as an excuse to channel development funds into desperately needy East Africa.”
I say: “Not so fast!” Despite facile media stereotyping, reactionary blogging, and cynical political expediency, something more than the lust for adventure and gold might be motivating these young men from the semiautonomous Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland to take to the sea.(19)
Before warlords toppled Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia had a kind of stability recognized by the “community of nations.” As early as 1971, Somalia’s fishery was considered an increasingly promising economic resource. By 1982, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, the UK, and the USSR had negotiated fishing deals with the Somali government.(20) The so-called “piracy” we’re witnessing today seems to have started about 15 years ago in response to the international fleets that moved in to plunder the country’s rich fishery after the Barre regime collapsed.(21)
Under Article 56(1)(b)(iii) of the Law of the Sea Convention, “In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State [Somalia, in this case] has jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to the protection and preservation of the marine environment.” Article 57 of the Convention outlines the limit of that jurisdiction: “The exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured”.(22)
But Somalia is without a functional government, and boats from many countries now freely ignore Somali territorial sovereignty. Foreign fishermen steal an estimated US$300 million worth of Somali tuna, shrimp, and lobster each year. And they reportedly use such internationally prohibited fishing gear as very small mesh-size nets and sophisticated underwater lighting systems.(23) Peter Lehr, of the University of St. Andrews, characterizes the recent incidents of “piracy” as “a resource swap,” where “Somalis collect up to US$100 million a year from ‘pirate ransoms’ off their coasts [while] the Europeans and Asians poach around US$300 million a year in fish from Somali waters.”(24)
Somalia’s sea dogs are eloquent in their own defense, as Sugule Ali demonstrated in speaking to New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman on 30 September 2008. (25)
Q: Have the pirates been misunderstood?
A: We don’t consider ourselves pirates. We consider pirates those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.
Q: Why did you want to become a pirate?
A: [Ignoring the continued use of the term “pirate.”] We are patrolling our seas. This is a normal thing for people to do in their regions.
Q: Isn’t what you are doing a crime? Holding people at gunpoint?
A: If you hold hostage innocent people, that’s a crime. If you hold hostage people who are doing illegal activities, like waste dumping or fishing, that is not a crime.
Q: What is the name of your group?
A: Our name is the Central Region Coast Guard.
This short excerpt highlights the least reported aspect of the issue of the “Legitimacy of Somali Piracy.” Illegal fishing wasn’t the only assault that forced these young men to sea: the illegal dumping of toxic and nuclear waste in their waters was another powerful motivator.
The UN’s Somalia envoy, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, claims that the UN has “reliable information” that European and Asian companies are dumping toxic and nuclear waste off the Somali coastline, but he refuses to disclose their names for legal reasons.(26) Undertaking its own research, in 2005 the European Green Party presented the world press and the European Parliament in Strasbourg with copies of contracts signed by two European companies — the Swiss firm, Achair Partners, and the Italian waste broker, Progresso — and representatives of the warlords then in power to accept 10 million tonnes of toxic waste in exchange for US$80 million.(27) Both Switzerland and Italy signed and ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which came into force in 1992, yet they’ve made no effort to prosecute either company.(27) Reports from Kenya have also implicated companies from France, Spain, Greece, and the UK in the dumping(29), though no paper trail has yet substantiated those claims.
Spokesmen for Puntland’s irregular “coast guards” claim that the dumping has gone on for almost 20 years(30), and the tsunami of December 2004 provided evidence to substantiate that claim. The waves that battered northern Somalia brought in tonnes of nuclear and toxic waste.(31) According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assessment, there are hundreds of cases of respiratory infections, mouth ulcers and bleeding, abdominal hemorrhages, and unusual skin infections among people living along the Puntland and Somaliland coasts — symptoms consistent with radiation sickness.(32) And in the period since the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on their beaches, more than 300 local residents have died.(33) Nick Nuttall, of UNEP, notes that, in contravention of general principles of international law, “European companies [have] found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, [with dumping off the Somali coast] costing as little as US$2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like US$1000 a tonne.”(34)
The Situation as it Stands
The current situation along the Somali coastline poses an extraordinarily serious environmental hazard not only to the so-called “pirates” and their families, but to the whole of the eastern Africa sub-region.(35) So it seems perfectly rational and logical that the Puntland and Somaliland “coast guards” would express outrage at the repeated assaults on their communities. Januna Ali Jama, a coast guard spokesman, put it succinctly during negotiations over the MV Faina, a captured Ukrainian ship carrying a suspicious shipment of tanks and military hardware. The ransom demands are a means of “reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years. . . . The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas.”(36)
In truth, the response of the “community of nations” to the coast guards’ defense of their territorial waters seems far less rational. Rather than policing their own fishing fleets and offering assistance with the toxic crisis, including pursuing and prosecuting the miscreants who perpetrated it, everyone from the US to Russia, China, the Netherlands, and NATO advocates mobilizing an international naval attack force. And the media rhetoric justifying that attitude spirals to ever greater heights of polemicist absurdity.(37)
As the Guinean Grand Master musician, Famoudou Konate, once said of a particularly aggressive group of villagers we encountered when we traveled together near the Mali border: “These aren’t bad people. They’re just very, very poor.” In the case of the Somali coast guards I’d add: Poor, and poisoned, but with enough self respect to realize that they’re under attack and to strike out proactively.
What the international community really objects to is that it’s no longer able to conduct business as usual. One of the major Western arguments against Somali “piracy” insists that failure of the centralized state government allowed the situation to develop. The “failed state” claim, which asserts that only a strong central government can restore stability to Somalia, is, of course, entirely self serving ― employed to justify Western actions as judged by Western mores. It’s delusional to imagine a functional central Somali government in the near future, and the central government model may never have been suitable at all.
The Somalia of today is just tattered scraps inside a territorial pattern created as the Colonial empires retreated back to Europe. Completely disregarding the legitimacy of the central government, the Puntland and Somaliland coast-guard communities now appear to be evolving their own de facto governmental forms with written constitutions. Guarding their coastline has become their major activity, their national business, you might say. And pirate historian Peter Leeson suggests that there are sound historical precedents for the social evolution that’s taking place.
He notes that historical pirates couldn’t rely on a government to secure cooperation, so they developed pirate systems of order. They drew up documents and had every crewman sign his name or make his mark as a way of indicating that they all agreed to abide by the written rules. Writing the rules down created what Leeson calls “common knowledge,” making it obvious when pirate officials overstepped the narrowly circumscribed powers their crews allotted them.(38)
When asked specifically about the current situation in the Gulf of Aden, Leeson said:
When Somali pirates started out, there [were] not enough of them and they did not spend enough time together to really form anything like a pirate society. What we have seen now with the explosion of Somali piracy, or the growth of it, anyway, is that they are starting to set up pirate communities . . . and, again, since they are an outlaw group, they need some private system of governance to keep their communities together. . . . [T]hey have written rules now.(39)
The Somali coast guards are sea-savvy and fearless, and they are uniting. The clan lines that have divided Somalis for decades no longer seem to be obstacles to cooperation. Captured “pirates” interviewed recently have said that they crossed clan lines to open new franchises. “We work together,” said one. “Good for business, you know.”(40) No central state government is available to protect or assist them, but they’ve developed a functioning economy,(41) and are now, in a sense, nation building. And to further this new spirit of cooperation, they may also have begun organizing a system of community defense tied to traditional elements of their society.
Internal Self Defense
It can be confusing to use the term “Islamicist” when referring to Somalia. Sufism was the traditional form of Islam practiced in the horn of Africa. Though its position was weakened during the Barre regime, it has remained strong in the semiautonomous regions. Fundamentalist Wahabism (the Islam practiced by the Taliban and al Quaida(42)) did not appear in Somalia until after the fall of Barre in 1991, but the Wahabists are the ones who almost took control of Somalia in 2007.
Almost as soon as they attained power, the Wahabists moved against the Sufis.(43) Recently they’ve begun desecrating Sufi mosques, shrines, and graves,(44) and the traditionally pacifistic Sufis have responded by organizing militias that may prove to have an extraordinarily stabilizing influence.(45) Since Wahabist Islam seeks control of every aspect of life, the powerful independent coast guard forces have become another of its targets.(46) But the Wahabists have little presence in the northeast. And, though the traditional Sufi leaders fulminate against the coast guard lifestyle, negotiations appear to be taking place between the Sufis and the coast guard leaders that might strengthen resistance to invasion from the south.(47) One of the most prominent “pirate” leaders claims he’ll stop raiding if the land-based leadership can organize jobs for his crews and a legitimate and functional force to protect the coast.(48)
The point of all this is that “Somali Piracy” is not the monstrous international threat that the “community of nations” makes it out to be. There are logical explanations for its appearance. The men who practice it are embedded in a deeply traditional culture and could easily be viewed as honorable. They claim to want jobs and protection for their communities. Is that so difficult to understand?
In his magnificent Testament, “rogue” poet François Villon introduces a conversation between Alexander the Great and a captured pirate named Diomedes.(49) Alexander asks Diomedes why he’s become a lawless pirate. Diomedes replies that poverty and desperation drove him to sea; had he been wealthy he might have become an emperor like Alexander. After considering the response, Alexander declares that instead of executing the pirate he’ll change his fortune from bad to good. Thenceforth, Diomedes becomes a righteous man who Alexander could, had he need to, call an ally.
Who’s to say that Somalia’s so-called pirates might not respond similarly if they were offered a similar chance?
1. “Somali pirates on trial in Netherlands,” DutchNews.nl, Monday 18 May 2009.
2. “Lawyer calls Somali piracy suspect ‘Robin Hood’,” Associated Press, 18 May 2009.
3. “Somali pirates on trial in Netherlands.”
5. “Lawyer calls Somali piracy suspect ‘Robin Hood’.”
6. “Pirates,” GlobalSecurity.org.
7. “Somali Pirates Kill Crew Member on Captured Ship,” newsVOA.com, 4 June 2007.
8. “Somali pirates killed ‘legally’,” BBC News, 19 December 2008.
9. “France Questions 3 Somali Pirates,” VOA News, 15 April 2009.
10. “US captain rescued from pirates,” BBC News, 13 April 2009.
11. “Yemeni forces free seized oil tanker.”
12. “India claims pirate ship sunk,” CNN.com/world, November 20, 2008.
13. “Lawyer calls Somali piracy suspect ‘Robin Hood’.”
14. See “Ecoterra Somali Marine & Coastal Monitor. Part XXIV – MT SEA PRINCESS II Released, americanchronicle.com, April 26, 2009; “Yemeni forces free seized oil tanker,” AFP, 26 Apr 2009; “Somali pirates kill Indian sailor, injure another,” 10 May 2009; and “The pirates must not be allowed to destroy our dream !” australia.to, no date.
15. “Lawyer calls Somali piracy suspect ‘Robin Hood’.”
16. “Somali pirates embrace capture as route to Europe,” Telegraf.co.uk, 20 May 2009.
17. “Somali pirates on trial in Netherlands.”
18. “Try pirates in Africa, Netherlands says,” NRC – Handelsblad, 19 May 2009.
19. See Wikipedia, “Pirates in Somalia.”
20. Marine Fisheries Review, December 1982,44(12).
21. “Piracy at Sea,” 13 April 2009.
22. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 10 December 1982.
23. “UN envoy decries waste dumping off Somalia,” Middle East Online, 26 July 2008.
24. Off the lawless coast of Somalia, questions of who is pirating who, Chicago Tribune, October 10, 2008.
25. “Q. & A. With a Pirate: ‘We Just Want the Money,’” by Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times, September 30, 2008.
26. “UN envoy decries waste dumping off Somalia.”
27. “‘Toxic waste’ behind Somali piracy,” Al Jazeera, 11 October 2008.
28. “Somalia's secret dumps of toxic waste washed ashore by tsunami,” The Times, 4 March 2005 (see Timesonline.co.uk).
29. “‘Toxic waste’ behind Somali piracy.”
30. “Predictable Distortions: Pirates, Profits and Propaganda,” Counterpunch, 28 April 2009.
31. “Somalia's secret dumps of toxic waste washed ashore by tsunami.”
32. “Predictable Distortions: Pirates, Profits and Propaganda.”
33. See United Nations Environment Programme, “The Environment in the News,” Wednesday, 16 March 2005.
34. “You are being lied to about pirates,” The Independent, 5 January 2009.
35. “Somalia's secret dumps of toxic waste washed ashore by tsunami.”
36. “‘Toxic waste’ behind Somali piracy.”
37. “Predictable Distortions: Pirates, Profits and Propaganda.”
38. “Q&A with Author Peter Leeson,” thehill.com, 05/14/09 04.
40. “Somalia’s Pirates Flourish in a Lawless Nation,” the New York Times, 30 October 2008.
41. “Piracy Special: The pirate kings of Puntland,” al Jazeera, 17 June 2009.
42. “Analysis: Somali infighting could help al-Qaida,” AP, 27 May 2009.
43. See “Somalia Opposition Leader Denies Reports He Was Wounded,” VOAnews.com, 8 June 2009.
44. “Somali rage at grave desecration,” BBC news, 8 June 2009.
45. Ibid.; see also, “State-Sponsored Sufism,” foreignpolicy.com, posted June 2009; and “Mystical power: Why Sufi Muslims, for centuries the most ferocious soldiers of Islam, could be our most valuable allies in the fight against extremism,” Boston Globe, 25 January 2009.
46. “Six killed in clashes between Somali pirates and Islamists,” AFP, 24 May 2008.
47. “For Somali Pirates, Worst Enemy May Be on Shore,” the New York Times, 8 May 2009; see also “Toxic developments in Somalia: Horn of Africa under threat,” garoweonline.com, 20 May 2009.
48. “For Somali Pirates, Worst Enemy May Be on Shore.”
49. See François Villon “Testament,” lines 129-160.