Friday, September 24, 2010

What Somali Piracy Hath Wrought

In a great article over at the New York Review of Books, Jeffrey Gettleman follows a charismatic Somali pirate chieftain Abshir Boyah to tease out some rare insight into how piracy and the inflow of money has affected society and culture in Puntland.

This excess has created a budding pirate culture. Pirate weddings are elaborate two- or three-day affairs, stretching deep into the night, with bands—and brides—flown in from outside Somalia and convoys of expensive 4x4 trucks. The prettiest young women in pirate towns dream of a pirate groom; little boys can hardly wait until they are old enough to sling an AK-47 over their shoulder and head out to sea. In these places, the entire local economy revolves around hijacking ships, with hundreds of men, women, and children employed as guards, scouts, cooks, deckhands, mechanics, skiff-builders, accountants, and tea-makers.

There’s no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays—it’s about the only industry that does. There is even a functioning pirate stock exchange in Xarardheere, where locals buy “shares” in seventy-two individual pirate “companies” and get a respectable return if the company is successful. Most of the money, though, is frittered away. Boyah, who personally has made hundreds of thou- sands of dollars if not millions, asked me for cigarettes when I met him. When I asked what happened to all his cash, he explained: “When someone who never had money suddenly gets money, it just goes.” He also said that because of the extended network of relatives and clansmen, “it’s not like three people split a million bucks. It’s more like three hundred.”

Gettleman also considers the parallels drawn in Martin Murphy's new book Somalia: A New Barbary? between the Berber corsairs who rose to prominence after the Muslim conquest of the much of North Africa came under Ottoman Empire. My first reaction -- and Gettleman writes as much -- upon hearing even the title of the book was that there was tacit approval on the part of the Ottoman authorities who made money off of the abductions and ransoms, whereas the piracy situation in Somalia is helped along by the sheer lack of government structures.

Even with recent efforts by the Puntland government against piracy, I share Gettleman's pessimism on the prospects of peace in Somalia anytime soon, what with the current state of affairs where the TFG is merely hanging on in Mogadishu and the strength of al-Shabab and, to a lesser extent, Hizbul Islam.
There’s very little hope, in the near future, of the transitional government in Mogadishu becoming strong enough to wipe out the pirates’ bases. The government is simply trying to stay alive. The hard-line Islamist insurgents who control much of Somalia have flirted with dismantling the piracy business, but the money is too good. One group, Hizbul Islam, recently moved into Xarardheere and now gets $40,000 from each ransom. The more powerful insurgent group al-Shabab made a deal with the pirates in which they will not interfere with the pirates’ business in exchange for 5 percent of the ransoms. This seems to be the beginning of the West’s worst Somali nightmare. The country’s two top exports—piracy and Islamist radicalism—are at last joining hands.

No comments:

Post a Comment