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Dr. Mohamed Mukhtar is a distinguished academician, author and scholar. He is Professor of history and Arabic, and interim chair, department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Savannah State University. Dr. Mukhtar is a two-time Fulbright Scholar; President and founder of Center for Peace-Building Initiative Inc. (CPBI), Board member, Savannah Council on World Affairs (SCWA); and member, Global Advisory Board for Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies. He has written widely on the history of Somalia, the Horn of Africa, the Islamic world, conflict resolution and reconciliation, and the Muslim experience in the U.S.A. His major publications include: Historical Dictionary of Somalia (2003) and coauthored with Omar M. Ahmed, English-Maay Dictionary (2007). His articles and chapters appeared in such journals as History in Africa, Journal of method; Ufahamu, Journal of the African Activist Association; African Renaissance; and Review of African Political Economy. He was a contributing editor to Islamiyyat, Journal of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and the editor of Demenedung, Newsletter of the Inter-Riverine Studies Association. Dr. Mukhtar is fluent in English, Arabic, Somali (both Af-May and Af-Maha), Italian, French and Bahasa Malaysia.
Dr. Ja A. Jahannes, internationally recognized Africanist scholar and Contributing Editor of Africanaonline.com, conducted the interview below with his former colleague to explore piracy off the coast of Somali, and to put this complex issue in context.
JAHANNES: Is there a long history of piracy off the coast of Somalia?
MUKHTAR: The rise and growth of organized piracy and armed robbery in Somalia is related partly, to the proliferation of arms to non-state groups, and after all to the regional and global actor’s role in current Somali crises. From the colonial times (1880s-1960), Somalia was one of the most heavily armed societies in Africa with wars fought against Italy, Britain, France and Ethiopia. During the post-colonial period, particularly during Barre’s regime (1969-1991), Somalia became victim of the Cold War policies where the Soviet Union and the United States struggle for hegemony. Both powers provided Somalia a great influx of arms. With the fall of Siad Barre in 1991, the Somali National Army disintegrated, similarly, the Somali Police forces and other Para-military organizations collapsed; and the national arms fell into the hands of clan militias. Thus, there was an abundance of small and light weapons available for non-state actors in Somalia. However, until the end of the 1980s, piracy and armed robbery in Somalia was insignificant. In late 1989, the Somali National Movement (SNM), a northern, Ethiopian-backed rebel group against Siad Barre’s regime, seized several vessels off the Somaliland coast. The ships and crew were released after ransom, and the rebels warned the international shipping agencies not to cooperate with Barre regime. This seizure served to support rebels claim to sovereignty over a region they called Somaliland after the collapse of Barre in 1991. Since the collapse of Barre, no political faction had the capacity to effectively control and police the country’s vast territorial waters which stretches over 1,200,000 square kilometers, almost the distance from Miami to Maine on the East coast of the U.S.
JAHANNES: Is piracy in Somalian waters a reaction to illegal fishing and waste dumping in Somali waters which has hurt traditional fishing in the area?
MUKHTAR: Yes indeed, in the absence of central government, a group consisting of various warlord and faction leaders stepped in to fill the gap. They claimed to protect the Somali fishermen’s right and function as the legitimate national coast guard. They started issuing fishing licenses to foreign trawlers. This enabled the warlords to enrich themselves without caring about the destruction of the Somali marine resources and environmental dilapidations. Between the years of 2003-2005, some foreign trawler fishing ships started to manipulate the license fees by fishing deep of the Somali coast, and this led to hijacking of many ships by Somali pirates and the asking for ransom for their release. In addition, foreign trawlers exploited the vacuum. They include Japan, Spain, France, Taiwan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Kenya among others, fishing large pelagic fish as well as smaller species, including tuna, swordfish, Spanish mackerel, sardines and anchovies just to mention some. According to a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, some of the vessels used prohibited and destructive fishing methods such as drifting nets, dynamites and breaking of coral reefs, which aside of environmental damages these trawlers created; it led to the disappearance of the marine species. This thriving business, described as a “free for all” among the world fishing fleets, has far reaching consequences, and disastrous effect on the sustainable management of Somali marine resources. Moreover, following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, there have emerged allegations that Somalia’s coastline was used as a dump site for the disposal of toxic waste. The huge waves which battered northern Somalia are believed to have stirred up 10 million tons of nuclear and toxic waste that was dumped by several European firms in exchange for $80 million to Somali warlords. Accordingly, there are far higher than normal cases of respiratory infections, ulcers, abdominal hemorrhages and unusual skin infections among many inhabitants of northeast and Benadir regions on the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia.
JAHANNES: In some Horn of Africa quarters, Somalian pirates are seen as heroes rather than villains. Can you explain this?
MUKHTAR: This is a very good question, because it is very specific. The term Somali piracy or Somali pirates is very general and misleading. Piracy is practiced in the Northeastern region of Somalia, the most impoverished region of the country. Pirates thus, are the only real business in their towns. The young men of the region are bringing ransom monies to build grandiose houses, buy luxury cars and marry beautiful women. They are hometown heroes. On the other hand, pirates belong to this generation that has been raised in a violent free-for-all of warlords. Piracy, in fact, has become an attractive option to young Somali men who have grown up without schooling or a government, often knowing little aside from the ways of the AK-47.
JAHANNES: To what extent are agents in Somali able to prevent piracy in coastal waters?
MUKHTAR: Of course the best solution lies in creating a stable, responsible and moderate government in Somalia, which could run the affairs of its maritime problems. However, Somalis failed to do their homework and recover their country from the abyss; and the international community seemed unable to tackle the root causes of the piracy. Somalia needed to root out weapons and militias in order to promote true reconciliation and effective rehabilitation and reconstruction. The current government led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed should be supported, because, it includes individuals that were members of the short-lived Islamic government of 2006 who brought some stability in the country, and Sheikh Sharif in fact was the leader of that government as well.
JAHANNES: What multinational actions can be taken to offset piracy off the coast of Somalia?
MUKHTAR: Effective action to uproot piracy requires strong regional cooperation among the nations of the Indian Ocean rim and the Red Sea. If some nations lack resources necessary to patrol coastal zones such as vessels and aircrafts, or the legal infrastructure to bring pirates to justice, others should provide. It is noteworthy that some international organizations such as the International Maritime Organization IMO paying special attention to support regional approaches to eradicate piracy. In 2006, the IMO facilitated meeting in Djibouti to coordinate among the countries of the Horn of Africa for signing an agreement combating piracy in the Western Indian Ocean. The agreement includes information sharing and coast guard network related to piracy in the region. No action could be sustained without the effective cooperation of the international community. The drama of the piracy after all includes not only Somalis but ships, cargoes, and crews from all over the world. Thus, the fight against Somali pirates has to be coordinated efforts from the international community. The UNSC resolution 1816 and 1848 towards combating Somali piracy will remain meaningless unless it is followed by effective deterrents, particularly in the persecution and punishment of the pirates. Somalia cannot provide such deterrents; it is therefore, an international responsibility. It is necessary that both regional states and international organizations conclude international agreement to deter and suppress piracy. Ultimately, to reduce the flow of pirate recruits, it will be imperative to introduce alternative economic resources, such as retooling individuals who would be pirates for a new profession. Fishing industry, farming and creating sustainable technical or vocational schools could be some means leading to the eradication of Somali piracy and armed robbery. A key to eradicate Somali piracy lies in cutting the head of the snake; neutralizing the larger, complex support mechanism they have. There should be an effective arms embargo. The international community coordinating with regional and Somali government must crack down on the financiers of the pirates. Bank accounts suspected of being used by warlords and faction leaders should be closed. As it is essential to intercept pirates in action on the high sea, it is also imperative to break up the system that supports pirates; the more the system stays in place, the more intractable the piracy problem will become.
JAHANNES: Will a future stable government in Somalia find it in its interest to deter piracy?
JAHANNES: My understanding is that the piracy off the coast of Somali is well organized, well financed and lucrative. Are there other players, other investors in piracy off the coast of Somali?
MUKHTAR: Pirates are well organized, and get most of their weapons from Sana, Yemen and Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. The funding of their operations is structured in a stock exchange, with investors buying and selling shares in upcoming attacks in a bourse in Harardhere, Somalia. Ransom money is paid in large denomination of US dollar bills. It is delivered in burlap sacks which are either dropped from helicopters or cased in waterproof suitcases loaded onto tiny skiffs. It is also delivered via parachutes. To authenticate the banknotes, pirates use currency-counting machines, the same technology used at foreign exchange bureaus worldwide. Hostages usually are kept until ransom is secured. It is alleged that Somali pirates are supported by al-Qaeda and some Somali expatriates.
JAHANNES: Thank you for this very enlightening interview.
Photo by James Scott