Thursday, April 23, 2009



By Shashank Bengali
Hargeisa, Somaliland
April 19, 2009

Eye patches, walking of planks, parrots and other things that have nothing to do with Somalia.

So now that the dramatic pirate story has been resolved -- except for who plays Richard Phillips in the movie -- what happens to Somalia?

Last week was extraordinary on a few levels. There was the heroism of the Alabama crew. There was the nail-biting Navy assault that saved Phillips, the first U.S. military action against pirates on the high seas in two centuries. There was the spectacle of dozens of reporters converging on the same story (at the height of the frenzy one news organization hired a helicopter and motorboat, the kind of spending move that reminds you why the news industry is in crisis). And there was the more surprising spectacle of seeing Somalia at the top of the news agenda around the world, if just for a moment.

It remains to be seen whether all this attention on the Alabama translates into serious, long-term attention to solving the fundamental problems of Somalia. My guess is: unlikely.

Americans love a good hero story. It doesn't get any better than pirates on the high seas and troops swooping in to rescue a hard-bitten seafarer with a heart of gold. What no one likes -- or likes to read about -- is a complicated story with virtually no good guys, lots of pretty bad guys and probably an equal number of guys who you don't know all that well but really hope aren't bad because you've just sunk a lot of money into them. That, in a nutshell, is what the world has with Somalia today.

Somalia's current stab at a government says it wants to end the political failures that breed anarchic activities like piracy. For a start, they're asking for more money to develop their military. This is not a promising opening move. Their current army isn't really an army, in the sense that they don't have guns or uniforms or regular salaries or -- absent the African Union peacekeeping force -- any real territory to control. In Puntland, the semiautonomous and increasingly estranged where the pirates are based, the Somali military is as foreign a force as the U.S. Navy, and a lot less well equipped.

For now, the military scare tactics will continue to be the job, for good and ill, of foreign forces offshore. This is not a long-term solution but it's not a totally bad thing either. For one, it should remind other nations that they have a stake in what happens on the ground in Somalia. Now is the time to support the transitional government of the untested but decent Sheik Sharif Ahmed, the most promising president in years, rather than renege on funding pledges or, in the case of African Union nations, peacekeeping commitments.

There's an important non-military component to this: countries should also help Somalia go after the networks that fund the pirates, who are being bankrolled by Somalis living in Europe, North America and the Middle East, and whose funds are sloshing around the hawallah system worldwide. Somalia says it has intel on some of these groups. If they're willing to share that with friendly governments it would be a show of seriousness.

Sure, there's a lot of spectacle and silliness when you think of pirates. I did more public radio interviews last week than I've ever done on one story, and on two occasions my segment opened with the rousing chorus: "Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate's life for me!" I suppose it's a waste of time trying to fight the popular perception. But more people know where Somalia is than they did last week, and that's a start.

As for casting "Alabama Down" (the Nairobi press corps' consensus working title for the movie) I would go with Russell Crowe as the tough, uncompromising Phillips -- or, if the studio insists on an American, George Clooney in the "Syriana" beard.