“Stateless” Somalia and the rise of piracy

Peter Woodward, 18 Sep 2009

The lack of effective governance in Somalia has made the state particularly vulnerable to piracy. Furthermore, there are fears of a growing Islamic insurgency. With the international community reticent of any direct engagement in Somalia, it is unlikely that a durable political settlement will come into place in the foreseeable future.

The emergence of piracy emanating from the coast of Somalia since approximately 2005 reflects a variety of developments in both the internal and external environments. Somalia is frequently referred to as a “collapsed state”, when perhaps it should be remembered that it has only ever briefly been a state at all. For thousands of years Somalis were members of a stateless society.

They acknowledge a common ancestry from the mythical figure of Somal, have a common language, and share a belief in Islam. At the same time they live in a segmented society with six major clans and numerous sub-clans between which there have long been tensions, though with a recognition of common informal laws and practices known as “heer”, operated through ad hoc meetings of elders called “shirs”.

Many of these disputes related to the mainly pastoral and nomadic way of life of the Somalis, based on camels, cattle, sheep and goats. Statehood was introduced by way of imperialism in the late nineteenth century and divided Somalis in ways that have contributed to a collective sense of grievance. Most of Somalia was under Italian rule, while Britain established British Somaliland in the north; in addition, to the south some Somalis were in northern Kenya under British control, others under the French in Djibouti, while expansionist Ethiopia encompassed many Somalis in the southwest region of Ogaden. Re-uniting all Somali’s became a declared aim after independence in 1960.

Following independence Somalia had a few years of liberal democracy, though growing clan tensions contributed to the military coup of Siade Barre in 1969; and with Soviet backing he embarked on ambitious development plans. He also invaded Ethiopia in 1977-78, but after his defeat revolt developed in the north that was to spread south eventually leading to his overthrow in 1991. “Stateless” Somalia and its image of anarchy dates from that time, though in fact a functioning government was established in Somaliland in the north, and a weaker version immediately to its east in Puntland where a number of the ports used by the pirates are to be found.


Pirate waters
Somali pirates identify themselves as former fishermen, deprived of their living by foreign fishing fleets. In the 1970s Barre had encouraged the growth of the industry as part of economic diversification, but since the 1990s more foreign fleets have appeared off the Somali coast, seriously depleting the catches of local fishermen. Early hijacking activity off the Somali coast did indeed involve seizing the catch of foreign fishing vessels, graduating rapidly to holding ships for ransom. According to the International Maritime Bureau there were 111 recorded attacks in 2008 with 42 ships captured for ransom. From their ports in Puntland and further south, the pirates have become more organised with “mother ships” helping the smaller boats, known as “skiffs” to attack several hundred miles out to sea. Their organisations now appear to have quite elaborate hierarchical structures with the proportional sharing of ransom money forming a significant part of local economic activity, and involving a number of clans and subclans.

In addition to more complex organisational structures, the relatively sophisticated weaponry carried by the pirates, including heavy machine guns, has led to suspicions of links between the pirates and the extensive network of the Somali diaspora. Somali businessmen in Dubai are thought to be involved, as well as others in neighbouring Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. However, it is difficult to track possible external connections, largely because all the activities, especially the payment of ransoms, are conducted in cash – normally USD 100 bills – with ransoms believed to now range from USD 500 000 up to USD 3 million.

Seeking a land-based settlement
The growing strength of the pirates led to discussion of the prospects that they could be tackled in their bases on land; but also recognition that in the longer term this would require the re-construction of a state in Somalia. Since the fall of Barre in 1991 there had been no less than 15 failures at state reconstruction, the last of which had involved a major international component. Backed by the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), the regional international organisation, as well as the African Union (AU) and with funding from the European Union (EU) there were lengthy negotiations from 2003–05 in Kenya, the outcome of which was the formation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). It was intended that the TFG would then establish itself in the capital, Mogadishu; but by 2005 a political movement from inside Somalia had set up the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) there instead. It was led by a moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, and reflected both his ability as a popular reconciliatory figure and Islamism as a unifying ideology. It achieved the greatest concentration of power in southern Somalia since 1991. However, the ICU was also supported by a militant group known as al-Shabbab (the Youth) and alarmed Ethiopia, with its fears of Islamist infiltration amongst its own large Muslim population, and in the US, an ally of Ethiopia, which feared links between al-Shabbab and al-Qaeda. The upshot was that, with the agreement of IGAD and the AU, Ethiopian forces with US air support invaded Somalia in early 2007 to drive out the ICU and install the TFG; but it proved difficult with Ethiopian forces being constantly attacked and with insufficient military support from other AU countries. At the start of 2009 Ethiopian troops were pulled back to the border again with hopes for a new Somali agreement.

In February 2009 the Somali factions did come together to produce the Djibouti Peace Agreement. It established an alliance of the TFG with another group known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Somaliland (ARS) led by the ousted Sharif Ahmed, who won an election in the meeting to be named as the new president. With international support he then returned with his government to Mogadishu, though still in a precarious position with less-than-full control of even the capital. However, with the perception that the new regime was less a representative quorum of Somali groups than another internationally backed intervention, more radical Islamist groups stepped up their opposition once more. The radicals included not just al-Shabbab but another group known as Hisbul Islam (the Party of Islam) led by a former colleague and later rival of Sharif Ahmed, Sheikh Hassan Aweys. He had been in exile in Eritrea, which now supported the radicals as a result of its own continuing border dispute with Ethiopia and the latter’s new backing of Sharif Ahmed. The growing conflict led to thousands more people fleeing Mogadishu and some 45% of the population of southern Somalia becoming dependent on the World Food Programme (WFP). In July al-Shabbab went so far as to attack United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) centres, claiming that they were too pro-TFG.

International intervention
Since the unsuccessful US-led UN intervention of the early 1990s the international community has been reluctant to become involved in Somalia; but a combination of piracy and Islamism has re-opened the possibility. It began with an international pledging meeting in Brussels in April that resulted in pledges of USD 213 million. At the same time the World Food Programme in southern Somalia was extended and, unlike the 1990s, local opposition in the form of al-Shabbab has permitted supplies to get through though there are still difficulties. The African Union (AU) also committed itself to a peacekeeping force in Mogadishu, especially following the pull out of Ethiopian troops at the start of 2009. However, the AU force is not up to strength, and with no peace to keep appears largely irrelevant, a situation that has led Ethiopia to suggest that it may feel the necessity to go back in again. Meanwhile the government of Puntland has been making considerable efforts to appear credible to the international community as a partner in suppressing terrorism, including arresting some pirates. However, not all the pirates are currently operating from the territory claimed by Puntland, and those that are may well be able to move south to other ungoverned ports. While appearing discouraging, the situation also appears more urgent. Though piracy levels fluctuate with the seasons, and more off shore measures of protection are being taken, the pirates’ bases appear still able to operate with virtual impunity. At the same time the threat from al-Shabbab further south appears to grow, and in particular there are increasing reports of foreign fighters joining them leading to fears of the area becoming an operating base for al-Qaeda’s international terrorist actions, as it was in the 1990s when there were attacks on Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.

The US will be forced to take greater account of Somalia in the light of the increased perception of an al-Qaeda threat. Yet it comes at an awkward time with Ethiopia’s US backed overthrow of the ICU having worsened the situation. There are still security measures that the US can take with its new base in Djibouti, but these are limited to support for Sherif Ahmed and the TFG, which is making little headway thus far in extending its governance into Somalia. The US appears limited in its diplomatic ability to curb Eritrea’s support for al-Shabbab, a move motivated by an anti-Ethiopian rather than pro-Islamic sentiment. Nor is the US able to do much to discourage Iran from supplying arms to Eritrea further up the chain. The US may take encouragement from its military action to rescue the merchant ship Maersk Alabama in April, while US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has spoken of trying to freeze pirates’ assets. The Maersk was, however, an isolated case at sea; while cash remains king in the ransom business. Moreover, actions against piracy do nothing to counter the Islamist threat of al-Shabbab.

Risk outlook
The Somalian piracy genie is out of the bottle. Their success may stall somewhat with new shipping guidelines and naval protection around the Gulf of Aden. However, recent history suggests that the pirates will adapt their tactics, either technically, or widen their area of operations. Their threat may be to some extent mitigated, but without an effective political solution in Somalia that can begin to enact the rule of law, they will not be eliminated.

A political settlement remains a distant goal. Somalia sits at the centre of a challenging region. There are political tensions with other states around the Horn. Somaliland calls for independence and Puntland autonomy. The international community, scarred by the failed UN mission of early 1990s, is wary of direct intervention; while Somalis are acutely suspicious of imposed political compromises. Added to the mix are clan rivalries and radical Islam. All is built on a country of environmental degradation, dependent on food aid. Somalia is not quite hopeless; but any state reconstruction will require greater understanding among domestic players, the at least tacit agreement of neighbouring states and substantial – politically astutely deployed – international developmental aid.

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Peter Woodward

Peter Woodward, Professor of Politics

Peter Woodward is a Professor of Politics at the University of Reading, UK.

Among other publications, he is the author of “The Horn of Africa: Politics and International Relations”. He has acted as a consultant to UK and US administrations in political relations with North East Africa. He was a speaker at the Piracy Forum at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue in May 2009.

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