/ 28 October 2011

The fishy business of piracy

Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur
(Profile Books)

Last night I read my two-year-old daughter a Somali children’s story. The Lion’s Share, by Ahmed Said Salah, is about a group of animals, led by a lion, trying to decide how to divide the spoil of a camel they have brought down following a chase in a Somali forest.

As children’s stories go, it’s no more violent than the Danish fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen I grew up with, but because this particular story is set in Somalia, perhaps I had been conditioned to notice the violence first.

This, I believe, is the way most people react to stories about Somali pirates — a bunch of heavily armed bad guys who jump on to ships, holding crews hostage until a fat ransom is paid.

Like most stereotypes, there is an element of truth in this picture, but the picture is only a headline; it lacks explanation.

Jay Bahudar’s Deadly Waters offers an explanation.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book. Bahadur was a guest on Jon Stewart’s TV comedy news programme The Daily Show earlier this year. The interview was horrible. The subject, a deadly serious one, was treated as a joke.

At the time I wondered how Bahadur could have agreed to allow a book about Somalia to be treated with such disrespect. I thought that perhaps the book did not merit ­anything better.

I still don’t understand why that interview was accorded, except perhaps Bahadur believes that there is no such thing as bad publicity. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Getting to the bottom of things
It would be difficult to come up with a better use of time than that used by Bahadur to try to get to the bottom of piracy and put a human face on those involved.

Most of the several months in the field he devoted to research were in Puntland — a semi-autonomous part of Somalia found at the elbow of the country — the area where the Gulf of Aden meets the Indian Ocean.

Using the capital city of Garowe as his base, he travelled to the main port city of Bossaso as well as to several small seaside towns known for their proximity to or involvement in pirate activity or both.

Bahadur was trying to find answers to a number of questions he had about pirates: Who are they? Why do they do it? Does piracy really make those involved in it wealthy? Is piracy a by-product of the local ­political situation?

Deadly Waters attempts to debunk some myths surrounding the subject, myths perpetuated by a sometimes less than rigorous media and myths perpetuated by the pirates themselves. To do this, Bahadur talks to everybody. He talks to the pirate leaders, he talks to their minions and he talks to Puntland government officials, the women who sell khat, Kenyans of Somali origin, former hostages aboard captured vessels, as well as maritime insurance agents, even wannabe pirates.

Newspaper headlines reporting that millions of dollars have been paid in ransom to Somali pirates give the impression that there are large numbers of Somalis living the good life on ill-gotten gains.

Using what he terms “pirate ­freakonomics”, Bahadur explains in great detail how and why this is not true.

Yes, the ransoms are paid, but by the time expenses have been taken care of and all those involved in the operation have been given their share, the takings are not much better for most than a bottom-end, minimum-wage job.

Pirates will tell anybody who cares to listen that piracy began when foreign fishing vessels invaded Somali waters and dragged clean the ocean floor, leaving nothing for the locals to catch.

A political problem

Although this was certainly true several years ago, it hasn’t stopped the pirates from going after ships that are not even remotely related to the fishing business.

The real problem — and this is what makes the book particularly interesting — is politics.

Bahadur points to the vast amount of money that the international community, especially the United States, puts into the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, a government unelected by the Somali people with virtually no control over the country apart from a fragile hold over Mogadishu.

He argues that if such funds were made available to governments that do, at least partially, work in other parts of the country, notably in Puntland and in independent but not internationally recognised Somaliland, some development could begin to counter the need to look for unconventional sources of income.

Bahadur believes that the international community is wasting money on its naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

He has found that, even in areas where there is a strong foreign military presence, pirates are able to board vessels long before help can arrive and, in most cases, once they are on board, a rescue plan is too late. Recent events along Kenya’s northern coast near the Somali border seem to indicate that even an increased military presence does ­little to deter piracy.

It may have been an unexpected result, but in putting together this book, Bahadur seems to have developed a fondness for Somalis. He has given them a human face, something that foreign support to an unpopular government, no matter how much money it receives, has a hard
time doing.

David L Smith established a peacekeeping radio service for Somalis in 2010. The station, Bar-Kulan, has studios in Nairobi and Mogadishu