‘Piracy is the buttered side of our bread’

2011-03-19 15:23

In the eyes of the international justice system and the world, the pirates of Somalia are criminal outcasts.

However, to a majority in the communities in their home bases they are heroes, bringing food to families that would otherwise be starving.

They are praised for providing jobs and developing towns not only in Somalia, but even in neighbouring Kenya.

The pirates, when asked, say they see themselves as taking what is rightfully theirs, especially now that foreign ships have emptied their coastal waters of fish.

“Coast guards”, they call themselves, meaning that they fill a void that should normally be filled by government.

Criminal or extralegal networks are seen to bring development where governments and state structures fail even when, as in the case of Nigerian oil rebels, these networks have less money at their disposal than the states.

“Whenever we hijack ships, we re-stock on essentials like food. We buy goats for meat and khat (a mildly narcotic herb that is chewed – pronounced “chat”) from the residents.

We pump money into the region’s economy. How else are the people here going to survive?

All the fish in our sea have gone,” says proud pirate Abdullah Abdi of Eyl, a small coastal town in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in Somalia.

Abdi is one of the estimated 1 500 pirates who have been criss-crossing the busy Indian Ocean shipping lanes and the Gulf of Aden which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

The young men, some of them former fishermen, but also many who used to work as bodyguards and militiamen for Somalia’s many warlords and politicians, have captured dozens of vessels and hundreds of hostages, earning millions of dollars in ransom.


It is difficult to establish the exact amount of money paid by shipping companies as ransom to pirates. On November 6 last year, international news agencies reported that Somali pirates had released the South Korean oil tanker, Samho Dream, after payment of a ransom of $9.5 million (about R66 million).

The tanker was hijacked in April and was carrying more than two million barrels of crude oil that was being transported from Iraq to the United States.
According to the World Peace Foundation – an international think-tank working on an initiative to combat piracy – the shipping industry is losing more than $100 million a year through hijackings.

The losses from ransoms alone – the net pirate income – could amount to half or more of that amount. Local sources told The Forum for African Investigative Reports (Fair) that one band of pirates, the father-and son empire of Mohamed Hassan “Afweyne” and Abdikadir Abdi that operates from central Somalia, hijacked seven ships in 2009 alone.

If ransoms, as is estimated, vary between $100 000 and $10 million, with an average of $1 million per ransom, then the amount paid to this band of pirates in 2009 alone could be as high as $7 million.

According to observers such as the UN Monitoring Group on Piracy, there are at least seven such syndicates, bringing Fair’s estimate of the possible yearly profits from piracy in Somalia up to nearly $50 million.

In comparison, development aid projects in Somalia in 2009 by the UK and the US in the field of employment creation, agriculture and livestock, amounted to no more than $5 million and the total Puntland government budget amounted to $17.6 million.

According to the UN Monitoring Group, the pirate syndicates roaming the Somali coastline can roughly be divided into two main groups. The one is from central Somalia’s two infamous piracy hubs, Xarardhere and Hobyo. This region is home to “Afweyne” and his son.

The other group operates from Puntland in the northeastern part of Somalia.

“Pirate economics” are so powerful in Puntland that it is fast becoming a criminal state. The government of President Abdirahman Mohamed “Faroole”, instead of fighting piracy and developing his region and country, has started to share in pirates’ earnings.

According to the UN Monitoring Group, senior Puntland officials, including President Faroole himself and members of his cabinet (notably the minister for interior General Abdullahi Ahmed Jama and the minister for internal security, General Abdillahi Sa’iid Samatar), have received proceeds from piracy and kidnappings.

Developments based on pirates’ earnings are evident in towns like Eyl, a village that once used to live off fishing.

Now that the fish are gone Eyl’s sandy beaches, adorned with abandoned wooden fishing boats, are ringed with dozens of flashy homes for the newly rich.

A quick survey shows how his townsfolk appreciate Abdi and his colleagues. Zeynab Abdi (no relation), a frail 58-year-old who takes care of her four grandchildren orphaned in Somalia’s decades-long civil war, says her life is better now that pirates take care of her family.

“When they get money, I can feed my children. That which comes from pirates is my lifeline.” Zeynab is especially fond of pirates Mohamed and Farole, who “help her mostly” with regular rice, beans and powder milk rations, even though she is not a close relative of theirs.

“They give me all this every time they are paid a ransom. I and my grandchildren are comfortable. Piracy is the buttered side of our bread,” she nods. Going round the neighbourhood to find news about newly hijacked ships is now part of Zeynab’s morning routine, after prayers.

A few streets away, grocer Sugule Dahir is also full of praise for the pirates.

“There are many shops now and business is booming. Internet cafés and telephone bureaus have opened, and people in this area are happier than before piracy.”

Ahmed Ali Ahmed, a micro-economist and a businessman who runs several schools and media houses in Somalia, has noted that houses are shooting up where there were none.

“Pirates are fond of building big houses. If it should cost only $30 000 these people easily invest $60 000 to get the same thing, because they don’t care. I have heard that they have started building houses even in Mogadishu. The contractors benefit. They are the ones who supply them (the pirates) with alcohol and khat.”

Twenty-six-year-old Anab Farah’s business is also booming, but in her case in a very special way: the young divorcee is caterer of choice for the hostages the pirates hold in various locations. Farah prepares three daily meals for the hostages, handing them over to their guardians as takeaways.

She also sells them khat. Thanks to the pirates’ business, the price of a kilogram of khat has gone up to $66, compared to $18 in other parts of Somalia.

“The pirates are important to my work. Many days, I earn the equivalent of $400. It feeds my family and I am planning to buy a car very soon,” says Farah, before breaking into a song that is popular in Eyl these days: “Ya kale, ya kale oo Somalidu dandeeda kafinkara oo aan aheyn burcaat badhet” it goes, meaning “Who else thinks about our plight, as Somalis, other than the pirates”.

Being helped by pirates is one side of the coin; living under “strong-man rule” is another. Twenty-four-year-old Fatuma Mohamed, who is originally from Djibouti, married her Eyl fisherman husband before she knew he had become involved in piracy. She now feels imprisoned in a nightmare.

“One night after we got married, I talked of piracy, and he asked me what my view was. I condemned it. I said neither our religion nor our culture allowed it. He stayed silent.”

It is, however, clear to Fatuma where the food on the table, the school fees for the children and her abundant gold jewellery are coming from, and she hates it. “I would like to run away, but he would kill me,” she sighs, “this man is not scared of anybody”.

In contrast, 15-year-old pirate wife, Halima Hassan, is grateful.

“The pirates are coast gu

ards. Foreign ships have littered, polluted and depleted fish in our waters for ages. Somebody must guard them for us,” she says.

Halima has a point: pirates are bringing some benefit to the region – including neighbouring Kenya – in the form of fish stocks, which are returning to the East African coastal waters now that pirates are scaring off foreign commercial fishing trawlers.

“Kenya fishermen see upside to pirates” headlined the Associated Press news agency in January last year. The agency quoted the director of the local Kenyan Maritime Association as well as the chief executive of a Kenyan fisheries company, both of whom stated that fishing stocks went up “enormously” during 2009.

Both agreed that this was most probably thanks to the absence of commercial fishing by foreign trawlers, which no longer frequent these waters because of pirates.

Halima Hassan recently married an old pirate, Mr Hassan, who is 70.

The marriage was arranged and the age difference alone would be a formidable deterrent to most other young girls.

Not to Halima. This may have something to do with the fact that she now lives in a distinguished-looking grey villa surrounded by an immaculate lawn and indigenous trees. The interior is expensively decorated with Somali traditional carvings and patterns, and the scent of perfume is everywhere.

Compared to the tin shacks that dot this area this is a palace and Halima, adorned in a shimmering golden outfit, is its princess.

Halima gladly guards and cares for the tools of the trade that her husband keeps in the house: several rocket launchers, AK47 rifles, automatic machine guns, grenades and pistols.

“This is how I get bread on my table,” she says, wiping an AK47. “My parents have no money and I have no education. Without this, I wouldn’t eat. Thanks to this, I have so much.”

She points through the window at the parked cars: two four-wheel-drive Toyota Prados, one blue and one silver.

Though many young girls are not happy being married off without their consent, the practice is quite common in Somalia.

As in other poor countries, arranged marriage is mainly driven by poverty.

“The dire situation in our country has led families to sell off their daughters at increasingly early ages. They’ll let them go for anything,” says a local journalist who has written many reports about the practice. But, though the practice remains abhorrent to him and to many other progressives in Somalia, circumstances have changed somewhat.

Before piracy a girl would often be married off to a man barely less poor than her own family, and poverty would largely remain the status quo.

Nowadays, dowries for some families – especially those who have beautiful daughters – have increased considerably.

Says an Eyl elder, who asked to remain anonymous: “I’ve been called upon many times to facilitate negotiations between pirates and parents.

The pirates bring with them beautiful garments, gold-coated walking sticks, perfumes, camels, valuable artifacts and money.”

The elder is concerned about this. Though he has no problem with arranged marriages, he feels that the vulgar “beauty-for-money” practice has “killed the moral fabric” of their society.

» Copyright: The Forum for African Investigative Reports

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