By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
During the late 20th century, international fishing companies moved near Somalia, overfishing, disturbing local ecosystems, and making subsistence fishing very difficult for Somalian fishers. Somali pirates, at first, were mostly desperate fisherman, trying to get some portion of what they felt was rightful compensation from the foreign ships devastating what was left of the local economy. As tends to happen, though, pirating soon became its own business.
Arming Pirate Groups
Wrecking, smuggling and piracy are old traditions for some spots along the Horn of Africa. Since 1982, the UN had declared, that, nations have exclusive fishing rights in the waters 200 miles and closer to their shores. However, when disputes over local fishing rights combined with government turmoil and desperate economic conditions, in the 1990s, piracy saw a revival.
Somalia’s central government was overthrown in 1991 and a long civil war followed. When a parliamentary government was inaugurated in 2012, large regions of the country, known as Somaliland and Puntland, became semi-autonomous. In the interim, the power vacuum allowed the local warlords to exploit the potential for greater profit among the desperate fish pirates. They began arming pirate groups, encouraging hostage taking and charging protection money.
Somali pirates’ method for divvying up shares of a prize is not unlike the earlier system of pirates. The parties financing the pirates get a cut, as do the ransom middlemen, the guards and the local community. The remaining profit is divided more or less evenly among the pirates, with bonuses going to those who run higher risks or do especially well. There are also survivors benefits if pirates are killed in action.
The Somali pirates styled themselves as coastguards. But what had begun as a semi-legitimate defensive operation became an infamous pirate operation, working under umbrella organizations and more driven by profit than patriotism, faith, or any other ideology. Although the pirates lack true motivations, it doesn’t mean they had a lot of other good vocational choices.
Margarette Lincoln has argued that reporting on Somalian piracy has a tendency to use frames and terminology from the Golden Age, often inappropriately applied. Fear, loathing, but also fascination and sometimes admiration. The result is to distance and dehumanize the Somalians. Or sometimes on the other extreme, to romanticize them and downplay the terror and mistreatment of their hostages.
The reality of piracy is not romantic, but neither is it beyond understanding. Hostages are imperative to Somalian piracy, in part, because very often the pirates are detected before they can get a price to port. The captain may send a distress signal, or a patrolling naval ship may see something going on.
But as long as the pirates have live hostages, boarding is unlikely and the insurance companies involved will be willing to negotiate. The military can blockade the pirates, and drones can track them, but armed intervention is risky and rarely undertaken.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Mothership Technique
Modern pirates often hide in plain sight, using stolen, formerly legitimate ships to blend in among still legitimate cargo and fishing vessels, and issuing the showy penance of legend. In the early 2000s, Somalian pirates began using a mothership technique, wherein a larger ship, traditionally used for fishing, would act as a home base, if necessary, hundreds of miles from shore for a host of small light, very fast boats with fiberglass hulls.
The actual raids were usually conducted by a few men on the little vessels, very easy to overlook as a threat, or just overlook entirely, until the boarders were already doing their work. Large ships need to maintain a speed of more than 18 knots-per-hour to avoid pirate approaches. Most get nowhere near that rate and rely on other precautions, from lookouts to security forces for protection instead.
In response to their skilful technique, a major means of dealing with Somalian piracy has been the transit system. The transit system functions as a sort of modified version of the convoy. Encouraged by insurance companies, the U.N. created a heavily patrolled designated transit corridor where merchant ships can traverse the Gulf of Aden in safety, although once they exit the corridor, they are, again, vulnerable. But the real problem remains, which is, what to do with pirates who are captured? The slapdash solution of having them all tried in Kenya or the Seychelles has run out of resources.
Addressing the Complaints of Somali Fishermen
James Wadsworth, asking the question, “Modern Pirate Hunting, What is to Be Done?” posits, “The fishing industries in Somalia and Nigeria could be revived by retracting foreign fishing permits and giving them to Somalis, cleaning up oil spills along the Nigerian coast and rebuilding fishing infrastructure like port facilities and processing plants.
Wadsworth’s proposition may be overstating the ease of such interventions. But he’s correct, that the one thing that really has not been tried is actually addressing the complaints of Somali fishermen, who honestly do not have a lot of other career options to choose from in any sustained or serious way, or in finding other economic options for the militia men who have joined them.
Stability of Somali Government
The discovery of possible oil reserves in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, which features the highest number of pirate-friendly settlements on the Somali coast, could change things with respect to global interest in the stability of Somali central government.
It is always true that pirates need landed allies and networks to prosper. Raising coastal communities does not exterminate piracy, but making them prosperous, stable and importantly, well-defended does act as a meaningful deterrent.
Common Questions about How Somalian Piracy Became a Booming Business
The Somali pirates styled themselves as coastguards. But what had begun as a semi-legitimate defensive operation became an infamous pirate operation.
Hostages are imperative to Somalian piracy, in part, because very often the pirates are detected before they can get a price to port.
Somalian pirates began using a mothership technique, wherein a larger ship, traditionally used for fishing, would act as a home base, if necessary, hundreds of miles from shore for a host of small light, very fast boats with fiberglass hulls.