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Inside the world of Somalia’s pirates – Literary Review

Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates
By Jay Bahadur

There’s nothing like getting your boots on the ground. Not if you’re a British, French or American soldier in Libya, perhaps, where we must hope there are as few foreign boots as possible, but if you’re a writer or journalist chasing a difficult story, there’s no substitute for dropping what you’re doing, telling the wife/husband you love her/him and will return with all sorts of exotic, possibly sparkling, presents, flying out there and getting on with it.

Hats off, then, to the 27-year-old Jay Bahadur who quit his job in market research in 2008, just as the Somali pirates story was commanding the world’s attention, and made his slightly tortuous way into Somalia to research the story for himself. Although six weeks in Garowe, the capital of the autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia, does not quite constitute immersion – certainly not by the more formidable standards of the nineteenth century, when British travellers and explorers tended to be more diligent with their language studies and cultural research – it is nevertheless rather more time than your average journalist is able to spend on assignment in “Mog” or “The Dish”. As a result, Deadly Waters is a lively read, full of heartfelt insight and compelling detail into this little understood world.

Sometimes there’s not so much difference between the corridors of power in Washington or London and a remote corner on the Horn of Africa. It all comes down to connections in the end. When you’re investigating an issue that can be sensitive at the best of times, where an incautious question can have a fatal response, it’s no bad thing to team up with the son of Abdirahman Farole, Puntland’s recently elected president. The fact that said son Mohammed is also a journalist makes you think Bahadur lucked out from the start.

With two journalists at work, colour comes naturally to this portrait of Somali pirates. There’s gossip in spades, all manner of anecdotal observation, a window onto backroom dealings and daily life in one of the more unusual parts of the planet.

Somalis like Boyah, the first pirate we meet, refer to themselves as badaadinta badah, or saviours of the sea, sometimes translated as coastguard. Boyah is the self-appointed, headline-grabbing “Chief of the Coastguard, with a CV much like those of his fellow buccaneers.

Fourteen years ago, he was a lobster diver in Eyl. After foreign fishing fleets devastated the reefs with steel-pronged dragnets, he moved into kidnapping foreign fishing boats in the mid-Nineties, before moving onto less well protected commercial vessels. Boyah’s role is to recruit pirates, provide finance and command piracy missions. With 85-150 horsepower engines, the pirates’ skiffs are almost impossible to outrun. In any case, resistance is extremely rare. Once the captured ships are taken back into Eyl, ransom negotiations soon begin, the almost inevitable prelude to cash being parachuted onto the ship’s deck. Half of the loot goes to the hijackers, a third to the financiers, 20 per cent to the army of helpers with a dollop given as charitable donation to the poorest families in the local community.

Bahadur is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom along the way. He notes, for example, that the One Earth Future think-tank has come up with a figure of $238m for the estimated income Somali pirates earned in 2010, a statistic that others, including The Economist, have repeated. Bahadur unpicks the lazy assumptions that lie behind the calculation and comes up with $65m-85m, still more than you need for a takeaway curried goat but a third of the “official” figure. He takes a combative, mostly justified line, on received opinion on Somalia.

As for possible solutions to Somali piracy, however superficially attractive upping the ante sounds to outside observers, Bahadur is right to note that with a fraction of one per cent of all vessels passing through “pirate waters” being successfully hijacked, for the time being at least paying ransoms is “an economically sustainable solution for the long term”, the caveat being the spike in ransom sums demanded.

Since the problem of piracy lies on land, rather than at sea, it is there that any answer must be found. Some of Bahadur’s prescriptions, such as stepping up the security measures adopted by ships, are perfectly sound. Others, like financing “an effective and well-paid Puntland police force” and funding an expansion of Puntland’s prison system, look reasonable enough but do not sufficiently take into account the capacity of the international community to make a complete hash of anything it touches. It doesn’t take much imagination, for example, to envisage the palatial splendour of Garowe head of police’s new mansion, the endemic corruption of his officials, and the thoroughly ineffectual force that would result.

At the end of the book, Bahadur reflects on the fate of Boyah, the pirate who couldn’t quite retire. Arrested under pressure from the US, he looked likely to go down for life, a decision Bahadur applauds as “free of the nepotistic proclivities bred by Somali clannism”, since the miscreant was part of the president’s sub-clan.

This is all very well, and I have heard the same sentiments expressed by many Somalis in Mogadishu and Nairobi – usually from those clans with least power – but to expect Somali politicians to be able to operate without clan loyalties in the back of their minds, if not in the very forefront, is unrealistic. Above all, it goes against Somali culture.

Earlier this year, I remember a venerable Somali statesman, a former state governor of Mudug, tell me the best thing for the international community to do in Somalia was “get out of it altogether”. Rather than keep the clans out of the picture, he had a very different solution in mind. “Just get the clans together with their elected representatives. History shows they’ll take decisions by consensus and agree. Everything comes down to clan in Somalia. There’s no other way.”

After 20 years of the international community’s failed prescriptions, each one ending in domestic disappointment, perhaps it is time for Somalia’s clans to play the leading role in fixing the country’s deep-seated problems, of which piracy is but one manifestation. They could hardly do worse than the international “experts”.