Guest Column12/4/08

Piracy in Somalia

Dec. 4, 2008

By Shelley Palmer

Why are the Somalis engaging in piracy? To understand why small groups of armed men are grabbing ships on the High Seas it would be necessary to look at some history.

Much of Africa was not run as “nations” a century ago. Much of the continent was carved up into territories run by the European powers. About 50 years ago the United Nations decided that nations were to be built in all areas of Africa.

The Somali people inhabited French Somalia, a small coaling station opposite Yemen; British Somaliland, which was the northern part of Somalia; Italian Somaliland to the south; and the Ogaden, which is a large section of what is considered Ethiopia to the west. Nomadic herdsmen have followed the rains into the Ogaden for centuries. The people there speak Somali and have nothing in common with Ethiopians. Such is the wisdom of the people who decided where the countries should be. Somalia is the only country in Africa that speaks a single language, and today the Ogaden and French Somalia are not considered to be in Somalia.

In the 1960s and ’70s, many nations poured “aid” into this poor nation. The aid was largely guns, loans and food. The food imports caused huge long-term problems. It depressed the value and production of locally grown grains such as millet and concentrated people into areas where they could no longer produce their own food. Herders provided beef, goats and camels for export. A series of animal disease outbreaks in the ’70s and ’80s caused restrictions on animal exports, effectively destroying a majority of the country’s exports.

The Americans, Russians and Chinese poured large quantities of weapons into the country in the ’60s and ’70s. Somalia was financially ruined and blackballed by IMF loans. The country descended into chaos where armed tribesmen carved out small territories. To move from one place to another you had to pay a bribe, toll or fee called bakshish. Nothing much ever moves very far and it certainly isn’t cheap. You can’t really get things from any port to another city. Gunmen are everywhere.

Bill Clinton landed the Marines in the ’90s to “save” the Somalis from famine. The results were not pretty. No starving people were fed, the economy is still wrecked and kids with AK-47s still sit on every street corner.

Traditionally, many Somali men have worked in jobs as crewmen aboard ships. Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa. Fishing has always provided food. For centuries traders ran along the coast trading goods.

The Somalis have always been fighters. Tribes are in constant low-level wars against each other for what we might view as trivial things. Harming someone from another tribe brings with it a debt that is to be avenged by all other tribe members. Harming or taking from somebody that is not affiliated with a recognized tribe has little or no consequences. There can be no debt enforced when there is no clan or tribe. Thus, not being from a tribe or clan does not bode well for survival in this culture. It isn’t considered a sin or violation of law to take what is not the property of a tribe.

With most of the Somali population on the brink of starvation, some enterprising men took to the sea in small boats and captured a large ship. They brought it home and were paid a fine ransom for returning it. Others got into the game. Now it is the biggest game in town. Ships of all sizes are being grabbed regularly. The crews are generally treated well and the ships are returned undamaged if ransoms are paid. When monetary policies seize the wealth of nations, does anybody get upset?

Now the international community is all up in arms about how to deal with pirates. Due to overseas intervention and destruction of herding and traditional food production, the Somali people can no longer feed themselves. Because of foreign debt, no country will trade with them. Military conquest by powers only concerned with their own interests left this a country awash in guns and armaments of every kind. If you send soldiers there, don’t be surprised if they are killed then dragged around for amusement.

The Ethiopians are drowning in debt, too. To help satisfy their creditors the Ethiopians have been paid to station troops to occupy the capital, Mogadishu. It is an insignificant part of a dysfunctional country. Troops who move more than 20 miles inland won’t likely be around the next day to tell about it.

The Somalis want the same things you and I want. The people who are nation makers have caused this ongoing death and destruction on a massive scale. The war on terror has appeared and overt military actions such as air strikes are becoming more common.

Being a Somali nowadays is no piece of cake.

Shelley Palmer is a Williston resident. He lived in Somalia for two years from 1966 to 1968 while his father was a teacher with USAID. He was 9 and 10 years old at the time.