Somali pirates or Somalia’s protectors?

By PAT WATSON

Somali pirates? Or, simply, Somali fishermen turning to the most profitable means available to them?

How you view Somalia’s ocean going, modern-day corsairs could depend on which end of the transit line you occupy.

If you happen to be sitting aboard any of the reported dozen or so ocean vessels along with their crews, numbering some 200, being currently held for ransom by Somalis-at-sea, then the feeling would likely not be too benevolent.

If you happen to be among the owners of the shipping lines being targeted, and having to pay 10 times the previous insurance rates as a direct result, then you would have a vested interest in vilifying the fishermen-turned-vigilantes-turned-pirates.

However, if you happen to live in the coastal regions in what is currently being described as the lawless state of Somalia, then those erstwhile fishermen are the source of your daily security. What they bring back from the waters of the Gulf of Aden, instead of the traditional ocean harvest of tuna, red snapper and barracuda, is the ransom money – estimated at between $30 million and $125 million in 2008 – that comes from harvesting a few of the thousands of ships traveling through the gulf.

But, where and why did this all begin? Recall the influx of Somali refugees into Toronto during the early years of the last decade at the same time that their home country was falling into anarchy. Civil war in Somalia followed the ouster of the late President Siad Barre, who ran the government for more than 20 years. With his military government having grown increasingly repressive, Barre’s ouster by rebel clans, supported by Ethiopia, came in January 1991.

At the height of the subsequent 1991-93 civil war between factions wanting to re-establish Barre’s rule and historically fractious clans, Somalis from many of those clans flocked to Toronto, seeking refuge. Their homeland has been in a state of anarchy since that time. And, not to put too fine a point on it, historical European interference also factors in.

Given the large Somali population now in Toronto and Ottawa – some estimates suggest as much as 200,000 – interest here in what happens there remains high. So, the execution of three Somali pirates by U.S. Navy sharpshooters in the effort to rescue an American sea captain held captive for a few days last week is a matter of strong interest locally.

The state of anarchy notwithstanding, the rise of the pirates is, to some extent, related to the giant tsunami of December 26, 2004, which also hit the shores of Somalia. Along with killing hundreds and displacing thousands, what the tsunami revealed was that a number of European and Asian industries had been dumping toxic waste offshore. The dumping was having a dramatic impact on the health of Somalis living along the coast.

As if that weren’t reason enough, with the disintegration of Somalia’s national coastguard, fishermen became vigilantes to, among other things, prevent illegal fishing in their territorial waters.

We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right, but when people become desperate, morality goes out the window. Given, therefore, the critical state of the fractured nation’s economy, it was just a matter of time before desperation met profit-making opportunity in a country where most families subsist on something like one dollar a day. So today, the south coast port city of Eyl in Puntland is the pirates’ swinging hotspot, as were the days of high living in Jamaica’s pirate capital of Port Royal in the late 17th Century.

Now that the Americans have taken a hard line, having shot and killed those three pirates, it remains to be seen how other pirates combing the coast will begin to respond. Somali fighters have confronted the American military on their home turf before. President George H.W. Bush sent troops there, in 1992, to provide aid and to stabilize the country but the lawlessness proved too much to handle.

Under the Bill Clinton administration, U.S. troops suffered a humiliating defeat and withdrew in 1993 to be replaced by United Nations troops. Fearing Al-Qaeda was taking a hold in Somalia, the George W. Bush administration provided resources and backing to Ethiopia – but no troops – in another failed attempt, in 2001, to topple the Union of Islamic Courts as they settled in to try to bring order back to the country. One other thing: Foreign speculators believe there are billions of barrels of oil to be had in Puntland.

On a feminist note…

Female populations in conservative nations like Afghanistan endure an unbearably anti-female culture, but can Westerners claim a higher ground in gender equity? As long as husbands are beating and killing their wives in significant numbers here, we cannot claim to have achieved parity.

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