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Op-Ed

Non-Military Solutions to the Somali Piracy Dilemma

Abukar Arman, April 29, 2009

Accused Somali pirates in a Mombasa, Kenya, courtroom on April 23 during their trial for the attempted hijacking of a German-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden. (Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP-Getty Images)

Make no mistake, the proliferation of piracy in the Somali coast is a serious problem — not only for the international community but for Somalia in general, and more specifically, for the current Islamist-led unity government. After all, Islamic law has zero tolerance for banditry, whether sea-based or land-based.

That said, piracy in Somalia was not born out of a vacuum — it was initially an act of protestation by local fishermen in response to the illegal hyper-fishing practiced by numerous fishing companies, primarily based in Europe and Asia . The reckless greed of this "fishing mafia" has been dangerously depleting sea life in that part of the world. In due course the local fishermen were joined by others, including some of the profiteering elements of the Somali civil war, for reinforcement.

The partnership described itself as the de facto Somali coast guard. It offered the following reasons for its controversial activities: to prevent the fishing mafia from abusing the Somali sea resources, and to prevent mercenary ships from dumping toxic chemical waste into Somali waters. Leaders of the partnership gave interviews to the international media challenging the conventional wisdom that identified their acts as "piracy" and the monies they collected as "ransom." This claim not only helped to present a moral argument in defense of the partnership's illegal activities, but it enabled them to score a few public relations points. However, while the grievances that they put on center stage are real and deserving of serious attention, there is practically zero evidence to indicate that these pirates are driven by altruistic objectives.

Meanwhile, the number of highjacked ships and vessels (commercial or otherwise) and the cost of freeing them and their crews have been escalating.

Today, piracy is not only disrupting international trade, it is preventing the flow of the humanitarian aid to several million Somalis on the verge of starvation, and is perpetuating the very culture that has kept Somalia in the abyss of anarchy. The insurance rate for a single trip in the Gulf of Aden went up from $500 last year to about $20,000 this year. There are roughly 30,000 ships that travel through the Gulf every year, and little over 100 have fallen victim to piracy in the last 12 months.

However, the nagging query that most of the media seems to ignore is this — at a time when massive budget cuts became a necessity for the survival of many wealthy nations, how could a seemingly manageable level of threat logically justify the multi-national deployment of the mightiest navies of the world to engage in a much costlier, and indeed indefinite, endeavor (Operation Water Circus)? How many warships are needed in order to carry out surveillance operations on Eyl and Harardheere, where the Somali pirates are based? We are talking about two bone-dry coastal villages that even a rat couldn't find a place to hide.

These pirates are not falling off the sky, and it is not like there is a tourist industry that could give the commissioned speedboats anchored along the shores of these two villages the appearance of leisure boats.

To adequately understand the piracy situation would require a contextual framework beyond the illegal activities. Albeit that in the past eight years, America and much of the world has been inculcated with an ill-advised notion that context is obsolete and that an official statement is all that matters when grappling with complex issues such as extremism, terrorism and piracy. It goes without saying that such a mindset has not only failed to reduce or eradicate any of these ills, it has in fact exacerbated them.

With that in mind, clearly missing in the piracy discussion are a couple of critical factors — first, the importance of the Indian Ocean as a premier strategic region in light of the shifting economic balance of power from West to East, and China's rapidly expanding influence in Africa.

In his insightful essay, "Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean," Robert D. Kaplan presented a compelling argument that the power who controls the Indian Ocean, controls the new century. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is one of a few neo-conservatives whose ideas still generate some interest.

Kaplan pointed out that: "the Indian Ocean accounts for fully half the world's container traffic. Moreover, 70 percent of the total traffic of petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean on its way from the Middle East to the Pacific…" Furthermore, "more than 85 percent of the oil and oil products bound for China cross the Indian Ocean."

The second critical factor is what Phil Carter, acting assistant aecretary for African Affiars, described in his speech "U.S. Policy in Africa in the 21st Century" at The Africa Center for Strategic Studies last February, as the "professionalization of Africa's security sector." If this sounds like a thinly veiled euphemism and a page out of the last administration's foreign policy playbook, it is.

Currently there are three possibilities being considered: re-energizing the Africa Command Center known as AFRICOM, which was rejected by all African nations that were asked to host it; providing United States Navy escort services; or simply securing lucrative deals for private security contractors such as Blackwater (recently renamed "Xe"), however, there is only one such firm that is readily available for hire. Under these scenarios, President Obama's foreign policy would be seen as nothing but a continuation of the old bankrupt neo-con schemes.

Meanwhile, like in the height of the Cold War era, Somalia remains as an exploited pawn in a deadly chess game. As Nick Nuttall, the spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, recently said: "European companies and others" will keep using Somalia "as a dumping ground for a wide array of nuclear and hazardous wastes." Nuttall confirmed the horrific allegations that: "There's uranium radioactive waste, there's lead, there's heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, there's industrial wastes, and there's hospital wastes, chemical wastes — you name it."

For a solution to the piracy dilemma, the Obama administration should:

1) Distance itself from anything that reminds the world of the last eight years.

2) Ensure safe passage for humanitarian aid.

3) Introduce a U.N. resolution banning the dumping chemical waste in Somali waters and banning the illegal hyper-fishing off of the Somali coast

4) Introduce a U.N. resolution that mandates a massive international effort to clean the countless barrels and containers of radioactive materials dumped in Somali waters

5) Sign a security treaty with the Somali unity government. This would not only mark the first time the United States signed any treaty with Somalia, but it would send a peace message to the rest of the Muslim world that America is indeed ready to establish formal relationship with anyone on issues of mutual interest.

6) Help build a Somali navy to protect its own waters.

7) Use legal actions in order to freeze and confiscate assets.

There is no military solution to this problem, as it will only win the pirates more support and sustain the current state of lawlessness.

Abukar Arman is an Ohio-based writer whose articles on Islam, Somalia, and U.S. foreign policy are widely distributed.

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