MOGADISHU, Somalia — “There are twin piracies, but only one that we all talk about,” said Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Somalia’s prime minister, speaking to GlobalPost in his home in Mogadishu.
The piracy everyone knows about is estimated to have cost up to $6.9 billion last year. It is responsible for the ongoing captivity of 199 hostages, with 14 ships currently moored along Somalia’s hot, desolate coastline. It's getting worse: attacks have risen from 111 in 2008 to 237 in 2011, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and the violence is escalating dramatically.
But the piracy the Somali prime minister was referring to is the theft of fish from Somalia's territorial waters. Ali blames the plunder by international trawlers for impoverishing the country's fishermen and pushing them to take desperate measures.
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“The more dangerous piracy is the illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing off the coast of Somalia," alleges Ali. "This has to be addressed.”
With at least 65 deaths resulting from armed attacks on ships over the past five years, many would debate the prime minister's claim. However, he has a point: illegal fishing — which costs Somalia hundreds of millions of dollars every year — largely gave rise to piracy.
“This is a fact, this is not something we are making up. And this is how [piracy] started," said Ali. “I’m not condoning the hijacking of ships off Somalia but … if we’re going to address piracy we should address both piracies.” Ali also criticized “the toxic waste dumping in our coastal waters.”
Similar claims can be heard from other Somalis, in less pleasant places.
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From his jail cell, for instance, Farah Ismail Eid echoes the prime minister's argument.
Eid is a convicted pirate, and one of the few who admit their guilt. It's rare for journalists to have access to pirates; GlobalPost interviewed Eid in 2009 in his prison in Mandheera, Somaliland — a break-away northern territory in the north of Somalia that runs its own government and prosecutes pirates.
“I believe the title of pirates should be given to those who come to our waters [to fish] illegally,” he said.
Eid used to live in Eyl, a fishing harbor that became, for a while, Somalia's pirate capital. He said he owned two boats and had a prospering business trading fish until illegal trawlers plundered and ruined the waters. “The fish we caught used to be enough for the local people, and enough to sell but now there is not even enough to eat,” he said.
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He, like Ali, also accused foreign ships of dumping toxic waste in Somali waters. He recalled going out fishing one day to find shoals of fish floating on the surface. “We thought we were lucky! We collected the fish and stored them in refrigerators, then later we discovered they were like plastic,” said Eid.
“These problems fell on us like rain,” he said.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and the country has been wracked by civil wars. With no functioning authorities — no coastguard to protect its territorial waters and no government to press its case on the world stage — Eid and other fishermen took matters into their own hands. They bought guns and set out to exact a tax on the operators of the foreign trawlers. Their “tax” was to hijack a ship and hold it for ransom.
Eid justified these attacks as a way of attracting attention to the fishermen’s concerns. “We are quite aware that what we are doing is wrong but this is a way of shouting to the world,” he said. “The world should ask itself: Are these people wrong or were they wronged themselves?”
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The piracy proved lucrative. It reaped $160 million in ransoms last year alone, according to the One Earth Future Foundation. The cash was ploughed into new villas and 4x4 vehicles, frittered away on blow-out parties, marathon sessions of chewing khat (a leaf used by Somalis as a stimulant) and big weddings. Or it was invested in bigger outboard motors, more guns, satellite phones and GPS devices — and it quickly spun out of control, according to Somalia experts. Motives of retribution were forgotten as armed gangs attacked cruise liners, cargo ships, and private yachts.
More recently, the pirate gangs have turned to outright kidnapping, seizing aid workers, tourists and journalists in Somalia and Kenya, and holding them for ransom.
The solution, analysts are quick to point out, lies on land. An effective government is needed to exert control of its territorial waters to deter both Somali pirates and illegal foreign trawlers.
Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, with considerable international help from the UN and the African Union, is making progress in beating back the Islamist rebels and is regaining control of the country.
In late February, defence minister Hussein Arab Essa announced the formation of a new Somali National Coastguard to interdict pirates and enforce the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, including the ocean around the coastline. This would allow coastal communities to return to fishing and have an economic alternative to piracy.
As Somalia achieves a very tentative stability, with Islamist militants on the backfoot in the face of foreign military attacks, donors and non-governmental organizations are looking to develop the impoverished coastal areas.
“These kids who are taking their luck on the high seas have nothing to lose. The opportunity cost is zero,” said the prime minister. “The unemployment rate among the youth in those areas is 90 percent so what do they have to lose? Nothing. And if they win?”
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