In the past few weeks, a failed state that was forgotten for more than a decade once again made the world take notice. While Somalia's weak transitional government fails to assert control on land, a band of highly organized pirates have taken firm control of the country's sea lanes.
The pirates' recent seizure of a Ukrainian ship transporting military hardware and a Saudi oil supertanker has prompted the world to take action, with many countries sending warships to patrol the area around the Somali coast and Gulf of Aden. A longer-term solution may prove simpler and less costly: Forget about freight and focus on fishing.
Beyond the immediate need to temporarily send warships to police the troubled waters, a coalition force tasked with fishery protection should be deployed. It could be done under the auspices of the United Nations, African Union, or a coalition of willing states. This option will address a root cause of the piracy problem, rob the modern-day buccaneers of their legitimacy, and be more acceptable to the region as an enduring part of the solution.
First, this option will address the very problem that originally sparked this rise in piracy. The problem of piracy in Somalia originated about a decade ago because of disgruntled fishermen.
The headless state had no authority to patrol its tuna-rich coastal waters and foreign commercial vessels swooped in to cast their nets. This proved a slap in the face for Somalis, who saw these vessels as illegal and raking in profits at the expense of the local impoverished population. To make matters worse, there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters.
That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s. Making the coastal areas lucrative for local fishermen again could encourage pirates to return to legitimate livelihoods.
Second, a fishery protection force will eliminate the pirates' source of legitimacy. The pirates' spokesman, Sugule Ali, told the international press last month that his men executed attacks to prevent illegal fishing and dumping in their waters.
Although this claim may seem thin, it matters to the pirates' public image and sense of legitimacy. If the international community steps in to address their concerns, they will lose the one pretense they continue to stand upon for internal support and credibility.
Third, an international force sent to protect local industry will achieve the same goal as warships but in a more acceptable way. The principal reason piracy thrives along Somalia's coast is that there is no coastal authority to patrol these waters. Armed foreign ships will still serve to fill that vacuum and deter attacks, but with the explicit mission of serving Somalia's people – the very people who have chalked up enough reasons to dislike foreign military interventions and are likely to view the presence of warships as intimidation.
Skeptics could argue that intimidation is just what these lawless bandits need. However, temporary crackdowns have not uprooted the problem yet. The Union of Islamic Courts brutally suppressed piracy during the brief period they controlled the Somali capital in 2006, but the pirates waited them out and resurged stronger than ever.
In response to pressure, the pirates also tend to migrate further down the long Somali coastline to focus operations in areas of the sea that are more difficult to patrol. A fishery protection force, however, could convince pirates that it is here to stay and futile to evade.
Piracy will not be eradicated from the region until Somalia becomes a stable, functioning state with a thriving economy. A robust fishery protection force can keep piracy under control in the meantime while the world shifts its resources to this bigger problem. This creative solution could make Somali waters more secure and give its people much-needed hope for the future.