Tensions are escalating in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast, where 20 Somali pirates have hijacked a Ukrainian vessel loaded with 33 Soviet-era tanks, rocket launchers and ammunitions on its way to Kenya. The pirates have demanded a $20 million ransom for the safe return of the cargo and 20 crewmembers. Somalia has authorized foreign powers to free the ship by any means necessary; currently six U.S. warships are monitoring the situation, and the European Union is staging an attack with help from over 10 countries, including Britain, Germany and Russia.
These piracy acts are not a new occurrence; over 26 ships have been hijacked in the last year, with ransoms totaling nearly $30 million according to the Associated Press.
“The root of the problem is the political crisis in Somalia. This failed state is harmful to the stability of the free movement of shipments throughout the region,” said Prof. Ayele Bekerie, Africana studies.
Somalia is widely considered to be a failed state. It has had no stable central government since the fall of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party in 1991, and many speculate that this instability is the main cause of the escalating piracy situation.
“I think the problem you have there is a failed state and the implications of a failed state for other states and world security. Somalia has collapsed, and there is no effective government. The lawlessness is now affecting the world in, among other things, the piracy you see,” said Prof. Muna Ndulo, law, and director of the Institute for African Development.
According to Bekerie, after the collapse of the government, Somalia was divided into three sections, with autonomous clans and sub-clans that “engage in their own economic interests.”
“Some were engaged in piracy, particularly those in the central region of Puntland. These forces started to realize that they could make millions of dollars by hijacking the boats that come through the Gulf of Aden,” Bekerie said. “They operate as groups, but they cannot be traced back to a government, state or any recognizable legal entity, so it is difficult to find them or hold them accountable.”
The Gulf of Aden is a vital waterway connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Recently, rocketing insurance costs may be forcing shipments to go all the way around Africa, and entirely avoid the treacherous region.
“Piracy is making one of the busiest transport routes prohibitively costly. Insurance premiums for sending ships through the Gulf of Aden have increased ten-fold, and the cost is being transferred to consumers of the manufactured goods, oil and other products that pass through there,” said Prof. Sarah Kreps, government. “It could become so dangerous and costly that ships circumvent the Gulf of Aden/Suez Canal route altogether, opting to go around the Cape of Good Hope instead, which would further add to transport costs.”
Some have also speculated that the large ransoms awarded these pirates may be making their way into the hands of a number of dangerous organizations, including terrorist groups.
“The ransom payments are funding a number of illicit activities, from human trafficking to drug smuggling to an al-Qaeda linked terrorist group called the Shabab,” Kreps said.
From a humanitarian perspective, the pirates are preventing international relief efforts from reaching Somalia.
“The piracy is making it more difficult for the international community to deliver aid to Somalia. The World Food Program has had to suspend deliveries and while Canada is helping escort those deliveries, this is an interim solution that is set to expire without any replacement at the end of this year,” Kreps said.
What’s Being Done
On Wednesday, the current transitional Somali government authorized any foreign power to use any force necessary to free the arms laden ship. The E.U. announced yesterday that they are staging an air and sea attack to be carried out within the month. Currently, German and Russian frigates are making their way to the region to support the U.S. Navy currently monitoring the situation.
“Piracy is an international crime. Any state in the world would have jurisdiction to prosecute it provided that there is domestic legislation authorizing courts to hear such cases,” Ndulo said.
On a more general scale, all three professors believe that the situation needs to be addressed at the governmental level, with efforts focused on instating a permanent Somali government.
“The U.N. and the international communities have to find a way to control the sea routes, and for now they can work in collaboration with the temporary government,” Bekerie said. “They have to send troops into Somalia to bring about some sort of political solution. The more you neglect the crises, the more you allow these groups to reek havoc on the movement of ships throughout the region.”
According to Kreps, there is evidence that the reinstatement of a central government would aid in controlling the problem more than the temporary task forces currently trying to stem the violence.
“Interestingly, the only time in recent years in which piracy disappeared off the coast of Somalia was a six month period in the latter half of 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union ruled Somalia,” Kreps said. “The subsequent removal of the courts caused piracy to resume, but the brief respite coincided with some form of government, suggesting that piracy could be controlled with a functional government in place. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government is internationally recognized but clearly lacks the capacity to control activities within state borders let alone out at sea.”
Bekerie warned that the pirates should not be underestimated, either in voracity or sophistication.
“This is a very sophisticated 21st century group that knows how to communicate their messages and organize themselves to get what they want. They know the limits of the ships that are surrounding them. They know that the ships cannot attack because of the danger of it being bombed out,” Bekerie said. “It is something that we should take very seriously, and that the U.N. needs to address immediately.”