Tuesday, April 28, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Borama, Somaliland
April 27, 2009

The pirate story on the Coast of Somalia is as intriguing as any fiction that has the power to capture the imagination of mankind. It gets interesting when modern society recalls that the last pirate attacks across international waters were carried out by bandits more than two centuries ago.

Personally I remember one character, Long John Silver in The Treasure Island whenever I hear of the word pirate. That one eyed, one legged dagger wielding monster still haunts my memory till today.

Hilary Clinton has described the Somali pirate menace as a 19th century crime that needs 21st century solution. What she probably meant was that whereas the 19th century bandits used crude weapons to attack ships, the latter day counterparts can afford rocket launchers, AK47 assault guns or even hand grenades. However, what makes them close cousins to their 19th century sea robbers is their attire and the canoes they use to capture 21century ocean liners and cargo freights.

Having been living in Somaliland for nearly thirty days and mingling with Somali journalists, politicians, businessmen and ordinary citizens including international aid workers, I can confidently state that I have come across interesting issues that are hardly coming out through BBC, CNN or any major Western news network. Which is interesting, considering that in the whole of Somalia, these networks are considered authorities on local issues.

For starters, for some reason, the official government position, the main opposition political parties and Western media seem to be in agreement; that Somali pirates are just common criminals using the fishing excuse to justify their crimes. And to prove its point, the Somaliland government has actually arrested, tried and jailed a few of them in the recent past.

However, fresh information that is increasingly becoming available is that since Siad Barre was overthrown from power and lawlessness settled in, big fishing companies from Japan, China and Western Europe made the Gulf of Aden their playground.

They came with huge trawlers, dug deep and took as much of the livelihood of these poor Somali fishermen and destroyed what they couldn’t take with them. And because there was no government in power with a national coast guard, the situation went on for more than a decade when fishermen decided to take the law into their own hands.

As the Americans shot dead three pirates and captured one two weeks ago, most Somalis see it as a godsend since the young man will have an opportunity to tell the Somali story. What they want to see is a fair trial in the much acclaimed American judicial system to determine between the Somali “pirates” and international fishing companies who the real criminals are.

Ordinary Somalis do not share the government view that these young men in their 20s are common criminals.

They tend to think that because Somaliland badly needs international recognition, because Ali Sharif, the newly installed Somali president needs acceptance from the international community, the last thing the two presidents would like is to see that they are condoning what the super powers are condemning.

However, assuming that both the government and the opposition parties are right; is it possible that a variety of journalists and aid workers from Mogadishu, Baidoa, Bosaso, Puntland and Somaliland can all be wrong and mistaken? Isn’t it worth investigating by the international community, the MI5, the FBI and other international crime agencies to find the root cause of this menace that has made travel rather unsafe on Africa’s East Coast?

With a 19 year old civil war, those who were born the day Barre was overthrown are now young men of 18. Their women age mates have become mothers and probably their wives. Growing in a lawless society where survival is 90% by the barrel of the gun means becoming an adult with limited opportunities.

As one aid worker put it to me; the pictures he has taken while in Mogadishu, “Africa’s dark corridors”, indicate that there is nothing for young men to look for on the land. Hence they have turned to the sea as the only hope for survival; to swim fish and feed their starving families.

Therefore as they wake up every morning to witness another bombing of their shanty villages, as they watch helplessly as multinational fishing boats cart away their only means of livelihood; their last frontier for survival, they resolved to protect what they believe to be truly theirs, with bare hands if necessary. Hence the determination to attack ships of any kind and force them to pay for their cargo!

Yes, they have taken the law in to their own hands, which is wrong, but desperate circumstances may call for desperate measures.