Why the Pirates Are(n’t) at Bay
Even as the Somalian pirate movie Captain Phillips receives rave reviews, airwaves that had been rife with Somali pirate stories are now strangely silent.
Why the Pirates Are(n’t) at Bay
By Andrew Ma
Even as the Somalian pirate movie Captain Phillips receives rave reviews, airwaves that had been rife with Somali pirate stories are now strangely silent. At first glance, piracy in the once perilous Gulf of Eden seems to have gone AWOL as camera lenses refocus on land conflict between the Somali government and Islamist terror group Al-Shabaab.
Tom Hanks’ intense portrayal of a heroic naval captain in the midst of the MV Maersk Alabama’s takedown seems to exemplify the U.S. mantra: we saw, we came, we sent troops. But, having bided their time during Somalia’s inclement monsoon season, the once-quiet seas are now seeing a rebirth of piracy, with two attacks on commercial ships this October alone. A closer look at the issue reveals that the multinational military suppression of pirates—so praised by the international community and idolized by Hollywood—fails to solve the true quandary at hand: state building within Somalia. Piracy, which at times seems like a peripheral issue, is in fact a telling indicator of the enormous challenges the region faces.
Somalia’s ongoing civil war, now in its 22nd year, has severely taxed the government’s ability to create accountable institutions. The situation is not an independent conflict of its own, but rather a symptom of political breakdown. Having started in the early 1990s, piracy emerged from a combination of strong clan associations and a weak rule of law; in fact, piracy thrives mainly as a form of indirect political control—stable enough to provide a steady flow of illegal income, but weak enough to provide multiple options for legal evasion.
Yet the rise of piracy is much more than a function of state structure. With rampant overfishing by other countries in the Gulf and a crowding out of employment on land, Somali fishermen and other unemployed youth began to see piracy as an increasingly legitimate alternative. Dr. Peter Lehr of the University of St. Andrews told the HPR of disturbing, quasi-imperialist elements of this narrative. “Piracy started as a self-defense system for fishermen against foreign trawlers that looked to capitalize and infringe on Somalia’s maritime advantages such as Bluefin tuna and lobster fishing,” he said. As a result, fishermen began learning to arm small boats and “defend themselves against these illegal trawlers.”
One might argue that the countries that engaged in this predatory fishing in the first place—including the U.S., much of western Europe, and even some Asian powers—have some responsibility towards solving the issue. These nations must ultimately recognize that the task at hand requires a more nuanced solution than simply sending naval forces into the area. Unlike the developments of other business opportunities, the main problem with piracy’s reoccurrence is its co-optation of Somali culture. Societal beliefs in wealth redistribution as well as the fluidity between loosely associated clans have allowed piracy to maintain public support. Pirates, returning with valuable goods and splitting them among a town, are often rendered not as criminals, but heroes.