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Somali pirates: The Whole Truth
By Rosemary Ekosso
April 18, 2009 - www.ekosso.com
We have all been overwhelmed with images of the heroic rescue of an American ship's captain from Somali pirates. The BCC report I saw this morning on TV referred to him as "the latest American hero". Tsk, tsk, Senor BBC! You can be so snide!
We have heard of the threat to international shipping. We have heard of warships and destroyers being deployed to the area.
It all sounds very straightforward. These people are unscrupulous robbers who will stop at nothing to get what they want – filthy lucre – and they even barter human lives in their greed. And the brave and well-armed Americans are going to teach them a lesson.
These pirates appear to be pretty unsavoury characters, don't they?
But it is not the WHOLE truth. Let's do a bit of current affairs.
Somalia collapsed into lawlessness and statelessness in 1991. And while we're doing the history, let's clear up a misunderstanding of what Somalia is, in fact. There are two Somalias, in a manner of speaking. One is Somaliland, not shown on many maps – unlike this one, which is nice and relatively peaceful and not recognised by anyone as a separate nation (although there have been some positive-sounding noises, as Wikipedia says here. The conspiracy theorist in me sometimes thinks it is not just because of lazy ignorance, but also because it makes greater sense among some people to portray all inhabitants of the Somali Peninsula as a bunch of chronically anarchic, bloodthirsty savages.
The other is the Somalia in the news, the one that went into deliquescence so dramatically and news-worthily, especially as North Americans were killed in the process. It was made into a movie, Black Hawk Down. But beware of movies about war made by either by victors or people who refuse to admit defeat. Remember Rambo and the plain truth about the Vietnam War?
So what happens when a State becomes a rudderless ship? Well, all kinds of bad characters move in. We know of "warlords", such as the late unlamented Mohammed Farrah Ai-did-not-care-about-the-people-who-died-as-I-fought-for-power and his comrade in power Ali Mahdi-I-did-not-really-care-either. We know about their militias. We know how women are treated in that country. We know the struggles of Somali refugees around the world. We know, or should, about the fate of some Bantu Africans in Somalia. And we know of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the feminist, writer and politician who so exercised Dutch public opinion some time back.
But what we might not know is this:
Dumping Nuclear and other Toxic Waste in Somali waters
I'll give you a quotation.
"As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died."
Fishing in troubled waters
I'll give you another quotation:
"The piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response to illegal fishing. Somalia's central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia's tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax."
Both articles are well worth reading. You'd think the word would rush in and report this because it is possible that the toxic waste contaminates the fish that is thus caught and served to an unwary public.
All this leads me to think that there are four kinds of pirates here.
First, the Somali fishermen who resented the theft of their fish and the threat to their livelihood.
Next, the Somalis who mutated into bad pirates asking for ransom money.
Then the toxic waste dumpers, whose activities, according to this article here, were/are arranged by
"A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company called Progresso..."
It seems the black hand of the Italian Mafia is involved. What is Mr Silvio Berlusconi doing apart from telling Italians living in tents because their homes have been destroyed by an earthquake that they should think of their temporary housing as a camping holiday?
Anyway, the waste might have gone unnoticed for longer if it were not, it seems, for the Tsunami of 2005, which washed horrid things ashore. Things that poisoned and killed people. But do we hear about that?
Lastly, the fish thieves who sell their catch to unsuspecting (I'm being charitable here) lovers of fish.
But why are we only hearing about the bad Somali pirates with AK-47s? And anyway, so far as I know, Somalia does not have a munitions industry, so who's selling them those guns?
What is at stake?
Trade routes. We understand that there has to be trade. Otherwise how would we get our oil, our TVs and our sweat-shop clothes from places like Cambodia?
But the health and livelihood of Somalis, and not just the fishermen, is also at stake.
In our indignation, we should not overlook one thing, however. Although the waste dumpers and the instead-of-teaching-them-to-fish-I-will-steal-their-fish brigade are very bad people indeed, they operated with the collusion of Mr Ali Mahdi, whom I have mentioned above. Foreign powers doing bad things to Africans are very often helped by other Africans. Just look at many of the continent's so-called leaders. In fact, Africans doing bad things to Africans are very often helped by other Africans, sometimes even by the victims of the bad things. Who helps to rig elections in Africa? Ordinary people who suffer as much from the depredations of dictatorial regimes but are bamboozled into thinking that they are protected by their ethnic or regional affiliation with the corrupt dictatorships. But before you sink into Afropessimism and start wringing your hands and saying we are a cursed race, remember Marshall Petain of France and Vidkun Quisling of Norway. Remember Oswald Mosley and Lord Haw-Haw.
I am not condoning piracy; it would be like condoning what is now called terrorism, however much injustice and plain old cheating by some people might incense me. I don't hold with blowing up people or holding them for ransom. Often, the people who suffer the violence are not the perpetrators of the evil the violence (when it is not completely, depressingly senseless) is often claimed to seek to eliminate.
My point is that the only way to solve the problem is to look at all sides of the issue, both from the perspective of the pirates – the bad and the less bad, and from the perspective of the shipping community. Demonising the pirates won't do it. I think some groups of Somalis have shown the world that they do not really care what it thinks of them. And they are the ones with the guns and without hope. People without hope are very hard to beat.
If the illegal fishing is stopped, those who claim to patrol the coastline for this reason will, one hopes, go quietly back to their fishing.
If the toxic waste dumping is stopped, the seas cleaned and compensation paid - including in the form of treatment and care for those Somalis who have suffered directly or indirectly from this crime against humanity - and the European companies which were involved are punished, then the other eco-warrior Somalis might be persuaded to go back onto dry land.
If Somalis are provided with alternatives means of survival (make no mistake; this is all about survival), then they will be less likely to resort to arms.
I do not think it will be easy, partly because the lawlessness is of great profit to certain Somalis. But it's got to be tried. And it cannot be tried by telling lies about what is really going on in those waters.
I'll leave you with the words of one Somali:
"But while Europeans are well [with]in their right[s] to protect their trade interest in the region, our pirates were the only deterrent we had from an externally imposed environmental disaster. No one can say for sure that some of the ships they are now holding for ransom were not involved in illegal activity in our waters. The truth is, if you ask any Somali if they think getting rid of the pirates only means the continuous rape of our coast by unmonitored Western vessels, and the production of a new cancerous generation, we would all fly our pirate flags high."