The reasons behind piracy: piracy off the Somali coast has been headline news, but the media have neglected to say why the pirates do what they do. According to Somali accounts, the pirates have been hitting back at an international community that has allowed illegal fishing by international vessels in Somali waters, which has resulted in the near death of the local fishing industry. Massip Farid Ikken reports.
THE MAIN PURPOSE OF THE European Union-led Operation Atalanta off the Somali coast against pirates is to protect international vessels using those sea lanes against attacks by Somali pirates. There are 10 countries involved. The corvettes are allowed to respond with fire in case of an attack.
On the other side, the Somali prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, has been begging for help to control the illegal fishing by international crews in Somali waters, an action which, according to the prime minister, is the original reason for the piracy off the country's coast.
"I hope that the military vessels [involved in Operation Atalanta] will also combat the international vessels that are fishing illegally in our waters," Prime Minister Sharmarke said in May. "Illegal fishing has dramatically affected the lives of local fishermen as it has reduced their capacity to earn a living by fishing. As a result, they now try to survive by illegal means such as piracy, and attack the ships they consider as the reason for their poverty. At least 220 international boats have been fishing illegally in Somali waters," the prime minister revealed.
Sharmarke is not the only one who blames the heightened incidents of piracy off the Somali coast on illegal fishing by international crews. The well-known Somali author, Nuruddin Farah, has been saying as much in recent months. When he addressed a meeting in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, this January, he strongly denounced the little attention given to the Somali pirates' side of the story. He bemoaned how the Western media has, as usual, told only one side of the story to suit Western interests while neglecting the very important concerns of the Somalis about illegal fishing in their territorial waters -an action that has blighted lives in fishing communities in the country, and which has led to increased piracy off the Somali coast in recent months.
"The media coverage has been onesided and superficial," Farah said. "The pirates are said to have earned colossal sums of money from their piracy. But where has all the money gone?" the writer wondered. When such a huge sum of money enters a poor country like Somalia, it should be noticed. The pirates would have spent their money on buying luxury cars and clothes and so on. And their families or neighbours would have been talking about it."
Farah continued: "An alternative would have been the pirates sending the money out of the country, to Europe or USA. Well, that is also a mystery since we know how difficult it is for average Africans to transfer money to Europe. I tried to send [pounds sterling]3,000 from England to South Africa, it took nine weeks." Farah is widely considered one of Africa's greatest novelists. He won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998, and has been several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He told the Stockholm meeting: "People should focus on more important things when considering the case of the Somali pirates. They should ask themselves why is there piracy off the Somali coast? Who are these pirates?
"Most of them are former fishermen who have revolted against the international vessels stealing their fish. The huge fishing boats with their modern systems grab all the fish, leaving the local fishermen to go back home empty-handed to their starving families."
To worsen matters, the international vessels also dump chemical wastes off the Somali coast. According to Fatah, the result has been dramatic. It has not just destroyed the marine resources, the chemicals are also a health hazard for the local population.
Clive Schofield, an Australian scholar, has done a study on how Africa's largest fishing area (the Somalia coast) has been targeted by international vessels. In his book, Plundered Waters: Somalia's Maritime Resource Insecurity., he writes about how for decades the marine resources off the Somali coast have been stolen by crews of international vessels, mostly without permits from the United Nations.
Another Australian, the journalist Connie Levett from the Sydney Morning Herald, has also been critical of the behaviour of international fishing boats along the African coasts. In November 2008, in an article headlined "Fishing vessels are pirates too", Levett referred to Schofieid's study and went further by naming and shaming ships from France, Spain, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Belize and Honduras for illegally exploiting Somalia's marine resources without any control. Similar voices have been raised in Germany. In a press release in May this year, the Africa consultant of the Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV), Ulrich Delius, declared:
"Instead of combating the causes [that provoke the Somali piracy], German politicians are acting nonsensically--just for the sake of acting. But gunboat diplomacy will merely increase the violence instead of effectively stopping the piracy in the long term."
According to Delius, the only effective way of stopping the piracy is to take away the basis for it, ie, by stabilising Somalia as a country. Since 1991, Somalia has not had a central government controlling affairs in the country. Delius wants the international community to take measures to fight the poverty and misery in the country as part of the fight against piracy in Somali waters.
In September last year, Jawad Rhalib, the Belgian-Moroccan documentary maker, drew attention to himself by making a sensational documentary called The Damned of the Sea, which focused on vessels from England and Scotland that illegally fish in Moroccan waters. The huge modern boats have advanced computer systems that track the movement offish in the area, enabling their crews to have a good catch. Unable to compete, local fishermen abandon their boats and look for other jobs.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), more than 2.6 million Somalis (35% of the population) are in urgent need of food aid, while 700 international vessels have been reported fishing illegally in the country's waters.