November 22, 2008
Asia Times

The Great Game of Hunting Somali Pirates

by M K Bhadrakumar

Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, announced it would no longer put its tankers at risk to pirates off Somalia. Maersk said it would reroute its 50-strong oil tanker fleet via the Cape of Good Hope off the tip of southern Africa - a much longer and more expensive route.

The naval presence by foreign powers cannot solve the problem. There are about 14 warships from various countries including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) deployed off the Somali coast, whereas over 20,000 ships are estimated to pass through the Persian Gulf annually. Moreover, there are question marks about the legality of the operations by these warships. While NATO secured a request from the United Nations secretary general for undertaking interdiction work in international waters off Somalia, the same cannot be said for Russia or India. Russia claims the Somali government sought its assistance but there is no one really in charge in Mogadishu. It is noteworthy that the Indian navy statement has made it a point to underline that its warship "retaliated in self-defense".

The obvious thing to do is to act under a United Nations mandate, preferably involving the African Union and the littoral states, which may have capabilities or may be assisted to develop capabilities. But this hasn't happened, lending to strong suspicion that a Great Game is unfolding for control of the sea route in the Indian Ocean between the Strait of Malacca and the Persian Gulf. This sea route is undoubtedly one of the most sensitive waterways for commerce involving cargo such as oil, weapons and manufactured goods moving between Europe and Asia. Actually, the effective regional cooperation in curbing piracy and hijacking at the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait should provide a useful model.

There is some talk that the pirates may provide cover for international terrorist groups. Experts on "terrorism" have already shifted gear and begun speculating about al-Qaeda copying the modus operandi of the Somali pirates. Are we inching toward including sea piracy in the "war on terror"?

Which will be a pity since the anarchic conditions prevailing in Somalia are easy to understand. Somalia is a dysfunctional country like Afghanistan which has never been a shining beacon of stability or democracy. But things changed distinctly for the better when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took control in early 2006. The ICU succeeded in restoring law and order in that country torn by clan rivalries and violence.

But, then, the George W Bush administration viewed this as unacceptable. By the perverse September 11, 2001, logic, how could an Islamic government be allowed to be a trailblazer of good governance? The result was the invasion by Christian Ethiopia in 2007, with US backing. The invasion failed to produce decisive results and instead helped only to splinter the ICU, with the radical elements known as shabah (young men) gaining the upper hand.

The result is plain to see. Therefore, there is no question that the problem of piracy is also to be addressed ashore in Somalia. But, problems often enough, lend themselves to solution if only soldiers and geostrategists would step aside for a while. That is, at least, the expert opinion of Katie Stuhldreher. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor recently, she put forth a three-way approach to the Somalia problem. One, the international community should appreciate that the piracy in Somalia has its origin among disgruntled fishermen who had to compete with illegal poaching by foreign commercial vessels in its tuna-rich coastal waters.

This unequal fight created a local impoverished population. Resentment was also caused among the coastal population over the shameless dumping of wastes in Somali waters by foreign ships. The disgruntled local fishermen, who lost out, soon organized to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. Their campaign succeeded and prompted many young men to "hang up their fishing nets in favor of AK-47s". . . .


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Lutz Kleveman, "The New Great Game," Guardian, October 20, 2003

Salim Lone, "Somalia: 'Most Lawless War of Our Generation'," DemocracyNow!, April 27, 2007

[At some 3,300 kilometres, Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa. With a fertile upswelling where the ocean reaches Africa's Horn, the seas are rich in tuna, swordfish and shark, as well as coastal beds of lobster and valuable shrimp.--Daniel Howden and Abdinasir Mohamed Guled, "Off the coast of Somalia: 'We're not pirates. These are our waters, not theirs'," Independent, November 14, 2008]

Katie Stuhldreher, "To turn the tide on piracy in Somalia, bring justice to its fisheries," Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 2008

[The pirates are actually a blessing in disguise. They provide an excuse for the administration to beef up it's military presence and put down roots. . . .

When the Asian tsunami of Christmas 2005 washed ashore on the east coast of Africa, it uncovered a great scandal. Tons of radioactive waste and toxic chemicals drifted onto the beaches after the giant wave dislodged them from the sea bed off Somalia. Tens of thousands of Somalis fell ill after coming into contact with this cocktail. They complained to the United Nations (UN), which began an investigation. . . .

In 2006 Somali fishermen complained to the UN that foreign fishing fleets were using the breakdown of the state to plunder their fish stocks. These foreign fleets often recruited Somali militias to intimidate local fishermen. Despite repeated requests, the UN refused to act.--Mike Whitney, "Somalia: Another CIA-Backed Coup Blows Up," Global Research, December 2, 2008]

[A draft text seen by Reuters says countries with permission from Somalia's government "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace" to capture those using Somali territory for piracy.--"Somalia Backs U.S. Plan to Hunt Pirates," Reuters, December 11, 2008]

Colum Lynch, U.N. Authorizes Land, Air Attacks on Somali Pirates," Washington Post, December 17, 2008

"U.S. Navy to lead anti-piracy force," AP. January 8, 2009

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