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Fight on land,win on sea

How Somalian instability is fuelling pirate attacks

Written by Alia Allana |
April 24, 2009 11:34:03 pm

Can piracy be fought on the high seas alone or is it a battle to be won on land? That pirates are an international nuisance is not debated by anyone but the means by which they should be tackled is. Over the past year lawlessness in Somalia has been on the rise and has spilt out to the sea seen in the increased number of hijackings. The seizure of Maersk Alabama and the hostage crisis forced the United States to act; Captain Richard Phillips was brought to safety,American President Barack Obama scored a political victory and the view travelling around is that the pirates are now “less likely” to attack American vessels.

The US is by no means alone in acting against the pirates. India has deployed its naval strength for the effort. France chased pirates over land; and the Dutch captured a few pirates alive only to return them later. Both French and Dutch ships have experienced fresh attacks despite going after the pirates with force: acting individually when the issue is of policing an ocean is unlikely to yield results. Given the lack of success thus far,the international coalition should look for solutions elsewhere. Piracy is caused by deep social unrest and the answer lies on land in Somalia.

The trouble with approaching the Somali crisis with the US at the forefront is due to two misadventures of the past. The first has been amply described in the Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down. In the early nineties in the highly public Battle of Moghadishu — which many Somalis describe as a “witch hunt” for a popular and ruthless Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid — culminated in the shooting down of two American Black Hawk helicopters,and left hundreds dead and cemented Somali distrust against US policy. Aidid was viewed as a hero by some and was crucial in the overthrow of Siad Barre,who many believed had the capacity to unite Somalia.

More recently,the aim of the Bush administration was to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in order to avoid the “Talibanisation of Africa.” The ICU,however,was seen locally to be the most stable government Somalia had seen in two decades; one which brought some protection from the warring warlords. However,motivated largely by their regional interests and openly backed by the US,Ethiopia invaded in 2006 with the aim of removing the ICU. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) took the ICU’s place.

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Somalia now stands at the brink of political collapse again. Clans have increased agitations,pirates are more active and fundamentalists looking to fill in the vacuum. However,US support is needed in preventing neighbouring states,namely Ethiopia and Eritrea,from getting involved in Somali issues.

The most logical course is to ensure that Somalia,already viewed as no man’s land does not descend into further chaos. The international community with the new US administration may have the tools of diplomacy on its side. The first step will be to keep the option open for dialogue with assorted stakeholders with a view to fostering a regime that can unite Somalia.

Clan loyalties serve as the bedrock of Somali society and hold tremendous power. Currently the standoff between the Huriwiye and Darod clans has brought the TFG to its knees. This can be constructively utilised by the international community through one positive change which is taking place: the presidential election thrust moderate Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to leadership. Formerly a high-ranking member of the ICU from the Hawiye clan,he is now within the TFG. The TFG has traditionally consisted of the Darod clan but Sharif Sheikh’s accessibility has appealed across the clan divide.

The Obama administration is keen towards indicating a departure from the policies of the Bush administration; constructive dialogue with the Muslim world has been high on his agenda. Somalia should be used as an example. The people of Somalia are moderate Muslims. Al-Shabaab,for instance,received a lot of international attention for their Islamic outcries of jihad,but the electoral process has indicated something very different.

This week major international players gathered in Brussels at the Small Donor Conference to discuss Somalia. Rather than focusing on micro issues such as piracy and aid,the international community should take account of the bigger picture: it should look towards harnessing international support for the new government in Somalia.

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