The Power of Pirates

More than two years ago, I spent six months studying piracy off the coast of Somalia. The problem then, as it is today, is that piracy is one of the most trying “tragedy of the commons” challenges facing the east coast of Africa’s horn and the Gulf of Aden.

This most trafficked shipping way has been the target of significant pirate activity over the past decade, growing steadily since the collapse of the Somali state in the early 1990s –most will know this only by reference to the US’ Blackhawk Down fiasco.

But as government order broke down and the international waterways were soon poached by hungry foreign fishing vessels, Somali fisherman became desperate. If their livelihoods were being erased by boats flying foreign flags, the Somalis would police the waters themselves–exacting tariffs and taxes from any boat they could.

This gave rise to the Somali Marines, a group now considered to be the first–and perhaps strongest– of the pirate gangs. Time has splintered this group further, and the influence of foreign military engagement in Somalia (Ethiopia in 2006, for example) has polarized a number of groups against other political factions and, in the case of Al Shabaab, towards an extremist ideology akin to Al Qaeda.

What becomes clearer, however, is that the scourge of piracy (and it’s continued growth) is not solely a consequence of politics and insecurity, but a function of economic collapse, opportunism, and recognition that the interest of states, local communities and the private sector (the companies whose staffs and stowage are targeted) might be to eliminate piracy, even when their proposed solutions often make the problem of piracy worse.

More to follow.

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