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About-turn recommended

by Peter Hauff

In brief

Assault gun on board: Somali fishermen put their boat to sea

Assault gun on board: Somali fishermen put their boat to sea

The international community’s stra­tegy against piracy in the Gulf of Aden is not successful. Experts propose “unconventional” approaches to finally get to the root of the problem: poverty and a lack of alternatives.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that many households in Somalia live directly or indirectly from piracy. In a country with an annual per capita income of less than $ 300, the argument goes, kidnappings promise a better life. According to the FAO, each pirate earns between $ 10,000 and 15,000 for every successful attack, and ransoms are estimated to vary between
$ 1 million and $ 5 million.

Along the Somalian coast, the international military operation is not deterring ­pirates. The number of pirate attacks has doubled since military action began in 2008, so maritime traffic has not become less risky. Instead, the regional economy has adapted to piracy. A study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) reached this conclusion as early as 2010. It argued that international military operations had merely stopped the situation from becoming even worse. Another effect is that ransom money has become calculable, according to Anja Shortland of the DIW.

A recent report by the University of Duisburg-Essen’s Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) is even harsher. Its authors state the international community’s strategy is fundamentally flawed, arguing that it does not make sense to fight piracy only by deterrence. Currently, suggestions are being discussed about how to improve coordination, but in the scholars view, that would do little to improve a misguided strategy. The authors recommend regarding piracy as a symptom of overarching problems “in the Somali context”. The study discusses five issues to show what more promising incremental strategies could look like:
– At the local level, international agencies must cooperate more closely with the clans that have been enforcing a sense of social order after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. Workshops with elders, Muslim clerics and business people could serve to prevent bandits from attacking ships. An unconventional proposal the INEF authors make is to provide microcredit to pirates who want to move on to a new and peaceful livelihood.
– At the regional level, the study recommends more involvement of Somalia’s neighbours, including Yemen across the sea. They state that piracy is raising these countries’ trading costs. One difficulty, however, would be to make the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia, bitter enemies, cooperate. African Union peace troops (AMISOM) are currently protecting Somalia’s transition government from attacks by Islamist militia, INEF points out, but they are not doing anything about piracy.
– The authors dispute that pirates are discouraged by the risk of ending up in prison, though they agree that imprisonment may be useful to the extent that inmates are trained for a peaceful livelihood. The INEF paper is in favour of improving literacy and teaching agricultural and administrative skills, for instance. The ­authors insist, however, that “clan punishment” for families or clans of pirates and forced social work would be more effective deterrents than prison sentences.
– INEF suggests that an international fund should centralise ransom payments and ensure that racketeers use some of the money for public investments (roads, hospitals, schools). Shipping companies often choose not to report attacks because they do not want to pay higher insurance premiums. Therefore the international community does not have a clear understanding of how much ransom is paid and how the money is transferred.
– Diplomacy could help to de-legitimise ­piracy in Somalia, where bandits benefit from a Robin Hood image. Many Somalis feel alienated from the international community because of over-fishing along their coasts and imports of toxic waste. Somalis themselves would be best placed to dispel related prejudices.

A Somali coast guard could also prove helpful, the INEF authors state. “Just one warship which is not fighting piracy, but which is provided to protect Somali waters could make a difference.” The biggest obstacle, they argue, is that many have an economic stake in piracy – from Somali village elders to foreign insurers. Simply streng­thening the international military deployment, the INEF document warns, would compel pirates to build up arms, without removing any of their motives.

Peter Hauff