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First published in  The Guardian
November 18, 2009

Somali pirates can’t be beaten at sea

The latest ransom payment shows warship patrols don't always work. Empowering quasi-autonomous Puntland is the answer

George Grant

The release by Somali pirates of a Spanish trawler and its 36 crew has thrust the issue of Somali piracy back into the spotlight. The vessel was released after a ransom payment exceeding $3m was agreed. Not bad in a country where per capita GDP is barely $2 a day.

Some 200 hostages are still being held by Somali pirates following a spate of hijackings that included the recent capture of a British couple, the Chandlers. Their capture coincided with a visit to the UK by Somalia’s prime minister, Omar Sharmarke, who duly met with the couple’s relatives to assure them his administration would “not rest until we see the freedom of this couple”. At a meeting earlier that day he went further still, pledging to eradicate Somali piracy completely by 2011.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that Sharmarke is in no position to be making such bold and unrealistic promises. His foundering regime controls little more than a few streets in and around the capital Mogadishu, more than 600 miles to the south of the region in which the piracy problem persists, and that only thanks to the help of 5,300 African Union peacekeepers.

No tangible progress has been made on the piracy front since the current government came to power in January of this year. Attacks off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden totalled 141 in the first nine months of this year, up 70% on the same period in 2008. In fact, going on past experience, the current Somali government will not even exist in 2011, let alone have eradicated piracy. This is the 15th administration to “govern” Somalia since the collapse of the last functioning regime, led by the socialist autocrat Siad Barre, in 1991.

The daunting task of eliminating Somalia’s piracy problem lies with Abdirahman Farole, president of Somalia’s quasi-autonomous north-eastern province of Puntland, from which the vast majority of pirates operate. Unfortunately, however, President Farole is currently in no position to deal with the problem either. He is fighting an industry that brought in some $30m of ransom payments in 2008, with a total government budget of just $17.6m.

The immediate responsibility of dealing with Somalia’s pirates has thus been left in the well-armed hands of the international community, which has risen to the challenge with not inconsiderable enthusiasm. Some two dozen warships from as many different nations currently patrol the million square kilometres of water in and around the Somali coast, escorting vessels up and down the Gulf of Aden, and daily responding to distress signals sent by ships under attack.

Unfortunately, the evidence is that this effort is having only a limited impact. Though coalition warships have been responsible for staving off a number of attacks, too often the ships are in the wrong place at the wrong time: in such a vast expanse of water, it could hardly be otherwise. Indeed, data from the International Maritime Bureau suggests many pirates are simply circumnavigating the warships and conducting their operations further out in the Indian Ocean.

The piracy problem will never be resolved at sea. The only hope of restoring order on Somalia’s waters is to restore order in Somalia itself. This will require a shift away from the current strategy of pouring all our time and resources into sustaining the ailing central government in Mogadishu, towards a focus on building up regional administrations, such as Puntland’s, that enjoy meaningful popular legitimacy.

It is seldom reported that in spite of the suicide bombings, mortar attacks and running gun battles that characterise so much of life in and around Mogadishu in the south, to the north two administrations, Puntland and Somaliland, operate – on land at least – in an environment of remarkable peace and stability. What is all the more remarkable is that they have achieved this with virtual no international assistance whatsoever.

With an annual budget roughly amounting to what Victoria Beckham was paid for her last Giorgio Armani modelling campaign, Puntland’s President Farole is severely handicapped by the lack of resources at his disposal. Yet what he enjoys, that the central government crucially lacks, is a democratic mandate and thus popular legitimacy.

Sharmarke’s assurances that his government will do all it can to combat piracy and rescue those taken hostage will doubtless be a comfort to the relatives, but in reality, the government in Mogadishu can offer nothing more than words.

Though theoretically mandated to pursue the pirates on land, by way of UN security council resolution 1851, the international community currently has no stomach for another intervention in Somalia. Given the failures of past interventions, and the deeply embedded suspicion of many Somalis toward any kind of perceived foreign interference in their affairs, there is no guarantee such an incursion would work even if the will and resources could be found.

The surest way of moving forward is to empower the Puntland administration to deal with the situation itself. If properly resourced, it is home-grown efforts that offer the best hope of dealing with the piracy problem in the long term, not only by way of increased security and other powers of deterrence, but by dealing with the myriad social and economic failures that have given rise to the problem.

George Grant

About George Grant

George Grant was a non-resident Associate Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society. Between 2009-2012 George was a full-time Research Fellow at HJS, before moving to Libya to become Deputy Editor of the Libya Herald, the first post-Gaddafi English-language daily, and Libya Correspondent for The Times. He returned to the UK at the start of 2013 owing to an abduction threat received following an investigation he was conducting into a death list in Benghazi. His most recent report, In Scotland's Defence? An Assessment of SNP Defence Strategy, provides a comprehensive analysis of the Scottish National Party's proposals for how they would defend an independent Scotland. A frequent contributor to mainstream newspapers and broadcasters, including the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and the BBC, George has also given briefings and evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees, UK Government departments and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the fields of foreign policy, strategy and defence. George holds Masters degrees in History from the University of Edinburgh and Investigative Journalism from City University, London. He is a keen squash player and runner, and an active member of his local Church in Wimbledon.

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