Guest Post from Hablayo Cabdi
**Guest posts reflect the opinion of the writer only. It is meant to offer another perspective on the situation. Regardless, the MM staff does not condone taking innocent people as hostages.**
Somalia is a nation of 9.5 million people. Its location on the eastern shore of Africa has made it a strategic location for commerce and travel. The beauty of its coastline, beaches, rivers and forests has been overshadowed by images of poverty, war and strife. Somalia is now synonymous with hunger and famine. The last famine brought on by drought occurred in 1994; despite this the country has been unable to shake this image. By and large people survive well through trade and animal husbandry. Northern Somalia (aka Somaliland) is a principle source of livestock for the Middle East. There are pockets of stability and safety throughout the nation, however south-central Somalia, particularly areas surrounding the capital city of Mogadishu, have been no-go zones for the past few decades.
The nation has strong religious roots, and Islam has flourished in this land since the first Hijra. Many Somalis believe that the first Hijra brought Islam to eastern Africa through Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and subsequently the word of Allāh also spread to its neighbour Somalia. Unlike its Ethiopian neighbour however, Islam is the only religion in this country-it is believed that 99% of the population is Muslim, prompting many Somalis to ask what the other 1% are!
In recent times the strength and resilience of Somalia and its people have been tested by international pressures, coups, and piracy. Press coverage of “Piracy” off the coast of Somalia has taken on a life of its own-prompting satirical parodies on late night talk shows and incredulous reporting on news channels. Despite the almost comical initial reports, pressure has been growing to curtail what some have termed marine-terrorism.
As a Somali-Canadian I have a unique perspective on the issue. For one, I'm not American and therefore I take a more analytical stance on the media coverage in America. And secondly, as a Somali I would hazard to say that I have somewhat of an insider's view. Now that my respective biases have been explored, I invite you all to ask some important questions-lets problematize the issue of Somali piracy together and unpack some of the details that have gone unnoticed.
As Muslims you're all probably thinking “astagfirullah-Muslim thieves! Somebody do something!” I would argue that piracy is a crime of opportunity – one that requires convenience and an abundance of targets. Maybe we should ask the question what are these ships doing there? What could possibly entice these people to be out there despite the danger and volatility? After all, any thinking intelligent person would put safety above all else… right?
Take for example the Playa de Bakio, a Spanish fishing trawler which by all accounts (including Spanish officials) was fishing in Somali waters. Illegal fishing is a crime, one that European and Asian nations have ignored for the last twenty years off the coast of Somalia, it is essentially the procurement of property that is not one's own. They practice fishing techniques that are illegal in their own countries by employing outdated and environmentally damaging equipment to trawl the ocean water around Somalia. Their actions destroy the ecological balance and make environmental sustainability next to impossible (Greenpeace). They benefit from the sale of Somali fish all over the world and reap the profits, yet the Muslim world and the international community have said little about this issue which costs the Somali people upwards of an estimated 94 million dollars annually (a modest estimate) and jeopardizes the economic and environmental viability of fisheries for future generations of Somali children. Who are the pirates? The Somalis who boarded a ship in their own waters or the Spaniards of the Playa de Bakio which by their own admission were involved in illegal fishing?
Lack of governmental oversight in the nation is a motivating factor in the presence of international ships along the Somali coast. Technically, ships can do anything they want in Somali waters since there is no one to stop them. Many nations have taken this opportunity to dump illegal waste. These nations tell their constituents that they are becoming “greener” and they are embracing the philosophy of environmental responsibility while in reality they take advantage of vulnerable populations and poison millions. The 2004 Tsunami revealed what Somalis have been saying for years-the sea activity unearthed thousands of waste canisters as they washed ashore. And yet no one said anything. No one decried such a heinous crime.
Perhaps it is the strategic location of Somalia that influences the international outrage-with waterways such as the Gulf of Aden to the north which is a key shipping lane for Middle Eastern oil and the Indian Ocean to the east which is commonly used by Asian and European ships for commercial purposes. These routes are a lifeline for the Somali people as well since they use the ports of Berbera (along the Gulf of Aden) and Mogadishu (Indian Ocean) to bring much needed supplies into the country – yet these supply ships are never in danger of piracy. They come from as far as Singapore without encountering interference. This indicates that pirates discriminate in their choice of ships, perhaps choosing to ransom those that are detrimental to the well-being of their nation.
This brings us to the Maersk-Alabama, which is understandably a touchy topic because as I type this entry, a American man is being held hostage, and this as we know has the potential to be a very dangerous situation. I asked myself the same thing I always ask when I hear of a ship boarded off the coast of Somalia – What was it doing there? You will probably start asking yourself this every time you hear it too, so I decided to do some digging and check other sources of information. European media outlets have been reporting that the Maersk-Alabama carries an American flag and is owned by Denmark and it is a part of what is known as the U.S. Maritime Security Program. The program is a collaborative effort between the departments of defense and transportation. The goal of the program is to provide cargo-carrying capability to the American military as a part of the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement or VISA as it is known. VISA allows commercial ships to carry military cargo along with its own hold (or sometimes in place of its own cargo) as a way to support U.S. military missions and also to increase the presence of American flagged ships in international waters. A report prepared for congress cited “projecting visibility” of American flagged ships worldwide as a key objective of the Maritime Security Program. Well, it doesn't get more visible than this. British media are reporting that the Maersk-Alabama is carrying military weapons and that it is unlikely that the pirates are aware of this which explains the sensitivity of this case and the media coverage it has been receiving.
If indeed the reports are true it explains what a ship based in Mississippi is doing in Somalia. If this ship is operating with the help of the U.S. government as a part of the MSP then they should be prepared for all contingencies including piracy.
The obvious high profiles of these cases creates the impression that piracy is rampant off the coast of Somalia. This impression is false, an estimated 160,000 ships come through this area annually and in the last year it is believed that 15 ships were held for ransom – which corresponds to a 0.009% probability of being hijacked off the Gulf of Aden by Somali pirates. The fact remains that the magnitude of damage caused by illegal fishing and dumping far surpasses anything that a crew of 10 pirates could ever do. The pirates have demonstrated an ability to negotiate and avoid casualties – the same cannot be said for the shoot first ask questions later mentality of the maritime community. Ironically the nations that are the most eager to police Somali waters with arms (Japan has sent naval ships to the region) are also those that are on environmental blacklists for their exploitation of the Somali people.
I implore everyone to ask the questions that no one is asking-rather than publicizing the stories of the rich and powerful, give the voiceless an opportunity to be heard. Piracy is not the problem; it is merely a symptom of the true disease of international exploitation. Piracy is a temporary solution to a lack of resources, resources that are unjustly usurped by others. Clearly Somali pirates take their cue from their international counterparts! Somali pirates recognize the hypocrisy that is fueling international efforts and are unlikely to cease their activities so long as ample opportunities exist. Neutral countries especially Muslim nations should take a stance against all illegal activities off the coast of Somalia. After all, justice is only justice if it applies to everyone equally. Until that happens, no one can argue from a position of moral supremacy.