Last week, we featured an interview with Jay Bahadur, author of the new book, The Pirates of Somalia. Bahadur talked about the roots of the piracy problem and his own travels in Puntland, the northeastern Somali region that is home to many Somali pirates. In this second half of the interview, Bahadur elaborates on the geopolitics of Somalia and considers possible remedies to the piracy problem.
Q. You talk about a “third wave” of pirates. What does this mean?
A. The newer pirates do not have the fishing background of earlier pirates, and it is less possible for them to argue that they are doing this to protect Somali fishing. They tend to be militia men who are related to the financiers or the organizers of the mission. They are often in their late teens or early twenties – and have a background in gun-fighting. They are becoming more violent.
Q. You say that Somali pirates do not have crime syndicates similar to the Mafia. Might the pirates begin to organize this way?
A. As ransom payments increase, more people on land will start to rip off the pirates. Pirates might respond by creating standing paramilitaries. This is done in a piecemeal fashion now. Last year, they formed a militia to stop Islamists from pushing north, and I think this will begin to happen more often. I also think we will see more pirates.
Pirates are getting more resourceful. Shipping companies have added armed guards, and pirates responded by attacking packs of six or seven ships. Crews have begun locking themselves in safe areas, so pirates started bringing explosives.
Q. You say that most of the money is blown on khat and cars. Would that have to change?
A. It is pretty easy to get money out of the country, and right now, there isn’t much being fueled into inland property development, for example. Most pirates have very little education and wouldn’t know how to reinvest money. Plus, their families use a lot of the earnings.
Q. What about more lucrative goods like drugs or weapons?
A. Drugs like heroin are not a problem, and they would not be introduced in Somalia because authorities would crack down very hard. Trafficking is possible, but Somalia is not on the usual trafficking route through Central Asia. They have begun trafficking weapons, most of which come from Yemen and have also been sold to terrorist organizations in the south. There are some allegations that pirates are smuggling weapons to Islamists, but I have seen very little evidence for this.
Q. How have the legacies of colonialism contributed to the lawlessness that fuels the piracy problem?
A: The borders of the country were quite arbitrary, as with many other African states. The British planned to give part of what is now Ethiopia to Somalia, but did not. Also, the population of Northern Kenya was mostly Somali – now, about half the population is Somali. Somalis still think of parts of Africa and Kenya as theirs.
Somalia’s post-colonial president, Siad Barre, also caused many problems. He tried Marxist reorganization projects like forcing people into farming collectives or fishing. This was a disaster for the traditional herders of Somalia. He plunged the country into severe debt. They receive some aid from the US, but not enough to reach beyond the central government in the south.
Q. If Somaliland is recognized as a sovereign state, what will this mean for Puntland and piracy?
A. Somaliland [an autonomous region in Somalia] is its own functioning state. The government there has a much stronger connection to its citizens than the one in Puntland and citizens feel that they have a much bigger stake in politics. Somaliland has maintained fairly strict control of its borders and cracked down on piracy. I don’t think official recognition would have much impact on piracy.
But it would stop the federal government from maintaining the pretense of controlling the entire country. It would also make Somaliland eligible for bilateral aid.
The new country would also normalize trade relations with the world and grow stronger. This would be an unwelcome development for Puntland. A lot of territory remains disputed between the two, and Somaliland might become more aggressive in asserting its borders.
Q. Why are your policy recommendations geared toward law enforcement rather than providing jobs and state-building?
A. I disagree with the notion that jobs are the answer to piracy. State-building is necessary in the long term but is not an immediate solution. If you provided every Somali with a job that paid $5 an hour – a very good wage there – some would still choose piracy because they make 50 times more money. I offer what I think would be the easiest, most cost-effective solution to piracy short-term solution to piracy. They need law enforcement on land.
Q. But as long as there are no resources, people will find creative ways to subsist.
A. I agree. Law enforcement, at best, can mitigate piracy, but now there is none at all. This isn’t really about improving law enforcement. Pirates are now being shipped to Kenya and other countries to be tried and punished, and higher prison capacity would enable them to stay at home and be visited by their families. I don’t think mass incarceration is the solution. I’m just calling for a basic justice system.
Q. What are some obstacles to state-building?
A. Stark clan divisions remain, and borders are disputed. Companies will not come in. Puntland has done well considering its limited resources, and Somaliland has done even better. Direct elections, which the Puntland government wants, are a step in the right direction. In Somaliland, direct elections have prevented opposing clans from infighting.
As long as the international community focuses on this top-down government in the South, it will ignore the problems of the smaller states. The idea of a viable central government is a long-term goal.
A. What about a federalist system?
A. That’s what I see in the end. Somaliland is very committed to independence, so it would be hard to incorporate it in greater Somalia. And any government for Somalia will have to be extremely decentralized. These small clan states work. Any direct intervention or attempt to oppose governance will end in disaster. The Islamist terrorism that has popped up is a product of US-backed Ethiopian intervention. That has not been working, and the focus must shift to supporting micro-states like Puntland.
Kristin Rawls is a Monitor contributor.