Page last updated at 21:50 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 22:50 UK

Piracy symptom of bigger problem

By Roger Middleton

Somali pirates
The risks of piracy mean little to people accustomed to violence

Searching for satellite images of the pirate village of Eyl in Somalia, you are confronted not with palaces and piles of arms but a few crumbling houses and rows of battered boats along the beach.

Even here, where pirate millions first reach Somalia, desperate poverty is everywhere and insecurity is the norm.

US President Barack Obama has said that Somali piracy must be brought under control. But the world's attention is for the most part fixed on the ocean, while the real challenges lie ashore.

What we are seeing in the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean is just the visible tip of a complex web of challenges inside Somalia, a web that reaches across the country, the region and the world.

Somalia is one of the poorest, most violent, least stable countries anywhere on Earth.

It suffers from severe drought and its people face hunger and violence on a daily basis. This is not a new situation, Somalia, especially the south, has been in this state for many years.

The risks associated with piracy can be seen as little worse than those faced every day

What is new is that the world is now once again concerned with the goings on of this collapsed state.

Somalis have learnt to live in circumstances under which many might be expected to give up.

In the face of overwhelming adversity they have created thriving businesses, operating entirely in the informal sector, and hospitals built and maintained with money sent home by the diaspora.

However, people who have been forgotten by the world and who hear of toxic waste being dumped on their beaches and foreigners stealing their fish have difficulty being concerned when representatives of that world are held to ransom.

And for many who have grown up surrounded by constant insecurity and bloodshed, violence and the risk of death are unexceptional hazards.

For this reason the current attempts to fight piracy from the sea are only dealing with symptoms. They do not address the reasons why young men are prepared to risk their lives chasing ships around the ocean.

Deadly country

Somali refugees at a camp in Kenya (2007 file image)
Somalia's poverty leads many to flee, seeking a better or safe life abroad

Piracy is in essence a law and order issue, and in Somalia there is virtually no authority to carry out the kind of policing that could effectively disrupt pirate operations.

What government there is in Somalia has bigger problems.

The ongoing battle with the hard line Al Shabaab militia that controls Kismaayo and the deep south threatens not just the security of the state but has made Mogadishu one of the deadliest places on earth.

President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad heads a fairly broad coalition but his opponents have men, weapons and money and are in a fierce struggle to gain control of the country.

When the internationally recognised government is fighting for control of its own capital city, combating pirates must seem a somewhat lower priority.

Even in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in the north east, from where most pirate attacks are launched, the local government is contending with massive problems.

Boats laden with desperate refugees fleeing the war in Somalia leave almost daily, heading towards Yemen.

The smugglers often dump their human cargoes in the sea to avoid capture and leave them to drown.

Even for those who make it to the other side, life as second class citizens in already poor Yemen is dire.

No engagement

USS Bainbridge off the coast of Somalia (file image)
Military solutions do not address the root causes of the piracy

Somalia has spent almost 20 years in a state of civil war, and shifting alliances, international interventions and a steady supply of unemployed young men and cheap guns have acted against any tendencies towards stabilisation.

In a country where the average income is estimated at around $650 (£435) - Somalia is too anarchic for accurate statistics - the lure of up to $10,000 for a successful pirate raid is obvious.

The chronic instability of most of the country and the attendant daily threats to life mean that the risks associated with piracy can be seen as little worse than those faced every day.

Pirate bosses have little difficulty recruiting to fill any gaps in their crews. In this context a solution based on security systems and guns will not address the root causes of Somali piracy.

There are ways that navies from around the world can plaster over the problems of Somalia but as long as a state with grinding poverty, hunger, no law enforcement and no effective government sits beside a rich trading route, piracy will continue.


The outside world has for too long seen Somalia only in terms of threats to their own security.

Targeted missiles and interventions have been used to remove threatening individuals or groups but there has been no serious engagement with the political and developmental problems that allow those threats to take root.

If there is a silver lining to the piracy issue it may be that a deeper, broader and more imaginative engagement with Somalia develops.

Piracy is difficult for the nations of the world and disastrous for sailors - but for millions of Somalis the problems of their homeland are catastrophic.

Roger Middleton is coordinating a new project at the think-tank Chatham House investigating the economic dimensions of conflict in the Horn of Africa.

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