Ever bolder pirate attacks have - out of nowhere, it has seemed - put Somalia on the frontpages and screens of international media. This world attention has a bitter aftertaste, for it comes after a long period of neglect by this selfsame media of persistent internecine warfare and humanitarian crisis in the country.
Georg-Sebastian Holzer is a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. He focuses on conflict management with a regional specialisation on the Horn of Africa The current phase of attention was triggered by the seizure on 15 November 2008 of the giant Saudi oil-tanker Sirius Star, carrying a $110-million cargo of crude oil on its way to the United States. The Sirius Star, 330 metres in length, is the biggest ship ever hijacked. But if this was the most spectacular of a series of such attacks, it was far from the first. From the hijacking of a French yacht in April 2008 to that of a Ukrainian tank-carrying freighter in September, the crisis that is now drawing the attention of western navies and policy-makers has been long brewing.
The involvement of Somalis in piracy is rooted in the circumstances of an internal conflict that has lasted since the early 1990s. There has for years been no authority to enforce and regulate Somalia's fishing area along its coast - itself the most extensive in the whole of Africa. The result has been that local Somali fishing-fleets have no protection or rights over the country's seas, and that international fleets have been able to command the waters and hoover up the country's fishing-stocks. The grievances over this issue led local Somalis to seek to extract "licence-fees" from the international fishermen. Over time the situation escalated, with foreign fishing-crews being held to ransom.
The story of poor Somali fishermen trying to survive by engaging in piracy may never have told the whole story - and today, for sure, it no longer holds true. For the situation now is also one of heavily armed pirates operating from larger mother-ships in the open sea, far away from the Somali coast. In 2008 alone, they have extracted an estimated $150 million in ransoms, which have allowed them in turn to purchase more sophisticated equipment used to capture large merchant vessels.
Among openDemocracy's other articles about Somalia:
Peter Hurst, "Somaliland's democratic lesson" (4 October 2005)
Harun Hassan, "Somalia's new Islamic leadership" (12 June 2006)
Harun Hassan, "Somalia slides into war" (3 November 2006 )
Jawahir Adam, "Somaliland: a window to the future" (21 November 2006)
Harun Hassan, "Somalia: the way forward" (13 February 2007 )
Harun Hassan, "Somalia: Mogadishu's ghost days" (5 April 2007 )
Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (12 April 2007)
Tom Porteous, "Somalia: a failing counter-terrorism strategy" (13 May 2007)
Anna Husarska, "Water problems in Somalia: a photo-essay" (9 October 2007)The Sirius Star incident was preceded by the capture of the Ukrainian ship with thirty-three tanks and other weapons on board, heading for the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Both these high-profile assaults are classical examples of the operation of a war economy, where warlords and well organised criminal gangs profit from the vacuum of legitimate government, security and the rule of law (see Roger Middleton, Piracy in Somalia: Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local Wars, Chatham House, October 2008).
Most of the current pirate attacks are organised in port towns like Eyl in the semi-autonomous Puntland region. After several years of relative stability in Puntland, in 2008 the general security situation there has deteriorated. An increase in criminality and violence means that the regional authorities are ever less able to control their own territory.
The security vacuum in Puntland is linked to the national political environment, and in particular the local authorities' close affiliation with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Many Somalis see the TFG as a puppet of invading Ethiopian troops, who have been installed in the country since December 2006. Many of the soldiers of the Puntland army were sent south when Abdullahi Yusuf, Puntland's president from 1998 to 2004, became president of the TFG.
Now, with the advancing Islamists on the verge of taking over the capital Mogadishu and bringing the final curtain down on the TFG, Puntland is under increased pressure from the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia. The coordinated bombings on 29 October 2008 in northern Somalia which killed around forty people in Bossaso (the Puntland port town) and in Hargeisa (the capital of the other notionally autonomous territory of Somaliland) are striking examples of the Islamists' attempt to control the whole country and send a powerful message - nationalist and pan-Somali as well as religious - to these relatively successful Somali regions.
Somalia's strategic position at the Horn of Africa means that pirates are now able to assert their presence and conduct operations along one of the lifelines of world trade. Around 20,000 cargo ships a year transit the Gulf of Aden and the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal - the shortest sea-link between Asia and Europe. Because of the increased risks, insurance premiums are rocketing. This effect will multiply if shipping companies have to reroute their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, which prolongs the journey by twelve to fifteen days. As prices in the transport business are calculated at the margin, it is only a matter of time that commodity prices in Europe and the US will also see an increase.
The current global economic downturn makes the political and economic concerns of Europe and the United States about this situation understandable. Already, several warships in the Gulf of Aden are trying to foil pirate attacks - with more to come. The Combined Task Force, set up during the war in Afghanistan, and Nato together command twelve warships. The European Union agreed to deploy an air and naval force of four to six ships from December 2008 onwards. These are hardly sufficient to conduct "maritime security operations" in an area that is larger than the Mediterranean Sea.
It is clear that the pirate attacks need to be confronted militarily where they are occurring: at sea. Such action, however, will at best manage to a limited extent - rather than solve - the problem of piracy in the Horn of Africa and its consequences for world trade. For the root causes of the problem lie in Somalia itself.
In that country, 2,5 million people (a third of the population) are now on the verge of starvation, and approximately 1 million are internally displaced. It is only a question of time before the now comprehensively discredited TFG falls. The question is: what will come after?
Until now, the United States especially) has seen Somalia solely through the prism of the "war on terror. In so many areas - and Somalia is one - this approach has achieved an outcome opposite to that intended. A new policy towards Somalia's crisis is needed. One of its requirements is developing an open mind sufficient to contemplate bringing moderate Islamists into some sort of power-sharing government.
Before that can happen, however, the international community will need to overcome its stance of benign neglect vis-à-vis Somalia. The signs here - even after the high-profile attention on the piracy issue - are not promising. The United Nations Security Council's promise (when renewing the African Union's peacekeeping mandate for a further six months in August 2008) to consider peace operations "subject to political process and improvement in the security situation" reads, after all, like a charter for permanent inaction. If the roots of Somalia's enduring crisis are to be addressed, the international community must find ways to play an active and constructive role in partnership with the Somalis themselves.