In Somalia, where can you hide $100 million?


Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been making headlines for months. The story goes like this, or at least this is what we’re told: a few lightly armed Somali pirates in small boats manage to threaten big ships, demand ransoms in the millions of dollars, get paid, and flee. The pirates have repeated this operation so often that the accumulated ransoms have reached some $100 million.

It all sounds like a stock Hollywood movie: maritime hijacking, intense negotiations, converging warships, gun battles, and a brave hero (American, of course) to free the captured ships.

Yet, for all the media attention it has received, certain key questions about the piracy have not been asked:

  1. Where in Somalia are these pirates hiding the $100 million, which is in cash, not bank drafts? On the one hand, they are free to do as they please with the money because they have no fear of being arrested because there is no government to impose law and order. On the other hand, Somalia has no banks, so if the pirates have made deposits, in which country or countries are the banks?
  2. We are being told, and asked to believe, that NATO war brigades have not been able to stop the pirates, but from where are these pirates getting their light arms, and who is supporting and training them?
  3. We hear about diplomatic initiatives, but by whom and for what?
  4. Counter-piracy action has been sanctioned by recent UN Security Council resolutions, and Somali officials publicly acknowledge the need for military and intelligence assistance, but what form, precisely, should this action take?

In contrast to this current media attention, over the past 10 years the Western media did not give even a bit of coverage to the suffering of desperate Somali refugees who fled the country in rusted boats. These boats became stranded and sank in the same waters where piracy is now going on. Ships passing the stricken vessels did not even stop to help those who could not get to shore, as is required by international law. As for the thousands who managed to make it to coast of Yemen, rich and powerful countries did not respond to Yemen’s appeal for relief.

Slow human development has been a feature of Somalia ever since the protectorate of British Somaliland and the colony of Italian Somaliland merged to form the country in 1960. In recent years, civil war, invasion and political unrest have made this poor nation even poorer.

The country has been without an effective central government since President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Since then, civil war has claimed the lives of 1 million people, and famine and illicit trade have become widespread.

Also in 1991, the northwest part of Somalia, the former British part, unilaterally declared itself the independent Republic of Somaliland. Compared to the rest of Somalia, it has enjoyed relative stability. It has its own government, capital city, army, flag and currency, but is not recognized by the international community.

In 2006 an Islamic party gained control of much of the south, including the capital Mogadishu, after their militias kicked out the warlords. But forces loyal to the interim administration regained control at the end of the year with the backing of Ethiopian troops.

By late 2008, Islamic parties-including the al-Shabaab group, which the U.S. accuses of having links to al-Qaida-fought back and regained control of most of the south.

In January 2009, Ethiopia pulled its troops out and Somalia’s parliament met in neighbouring Djibouti, where it extended the transitional federal government extended for another two years, and installed the current president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad.

Piracy is just the latest in a series of misfortunes. A recent report by the U.K.’s Chatham House said attacks more than doubled in 2008, and have involved more than 60 ships. However, these attacks can be stopped by adopting security measures such as: using convoys of ships (already done in some cases); arming crews (the American crew of cargo ship Maersk Alabama fought back); arming merchant ships with heavy guns; or providing military escorts.

The French had successfully rescued hostages and captured pirates until commandos recently stormed a yacht and in the process killed its owner.

It is up to the international community to address the causes of piracy, not just react to its consequences. Rich and powerful nations know that helping this African country get back on its feet is crucial to combating piracy off its shores, so why are they doing nothing?