Somalia, Spaghetti and Pirates

Hanad and Abdi sit up against the courtyard wall in the clammy evening heat. A large straw mat has been laid out, which serves both to keep us off the insects and to catch all the pieces of khat leaves they are dropping as they chew the night away. Nearer the perimeter wall, Mohamed and his men are also reclining and chewing, Kalashnikovs never further than arm’s reach away. Somewhere in the distance, we hear the echo of automatic gunfire. The bursts are short and infrequent. Nobody seems too concerned. I ask where it is coming from.

“It is from the south of the city,” replies Hanad, my fixer, “those people are crazy. You go over there and they will kill you. As soon as they hear which clan you are from, they will kill you, without even knowing who you are.”

I’m sat in Galkacyo in north-central Somalia. The city straddles the boundary between the autonomous regions of Puntland and Galmudug. Due to tensions between rival clans, the city is effectively divided into northern and southern zones. Crossing from one area to another is not advised. My guest house is in the northern zone, controlled by the Puntland Harti clans.

Getting here is a long, uncomfortable journey. It involves jumping from Hargeisa to Berbera, then on to Bosasso in a rusty old Soviet Antonov, piloted by three chubby Ukrainians. As I clamber into the sweaty cabin, which features a mix of different seating (including rather classy tiger print), I wonder how low you have to score at Ukrainian flight school to end up on the Somalia circuit. One pilot walks past my seat, breathing heavily. He doubles as the baggage handler. Was that vodka I smelt? Hopefully not.

My flight is packed with Somalis, many of whom are returning from visiting the vast diaspora spread across Kenya, the USA and Europe. Stood queuing in the sweltering heat on a Bosasso runway, I turn curiously to the person behind me, who is African but not Somali, and ask where he is from.

“Zimbabwe. And you?”

“Italy.” I push him for details on his trip, but he answers my question with another question.

“Well, why are you here?”

“I’m here on holiday.” Technically this is true, although everyone on the plane (and throughout the trip) finds this very amusing.

He smiles a knowing smile. “Me too.” I question Hanad on this strange encounter later. He tells me the man is a private military contractor, training a militia in the south of the country. Later in my journey I meet a number of white South Africans who are also not keen to discuss the reasons for their presence in Somalia. Once again, like me, they are just here on holiday.

The next day we set out in convoy from Galkacyo to Garoowe, the capital of Puntland. Less than twenty kilometres into our trip, one Land Cruiser developed a suspension problem which forced us to stop. As we sat drinking tea and watching the local mechanic hammering away at the bottom of the vehicle, a man on a motorbike arrived with some breaking news from Galkacyo. Sheik Hanad, a Sufi activist from a group called Suma Wal Jama, had just been

killed in a bomb explosion. People were saying it was the work of Islamists from the south, in response to his open criticism. Armed Sufi supporters were rallying in town, determined to find those responsible. We had chosen a good time to get out of Galkacyo.

Our second night was spent in the capital of Puntland, Garoowe. It is a non-descript trading town. We have not been in our hotel for ten minutes before a representative from the government security forces arrives, and demands that I go and register at their headquarters down the road. As always, there is heated discussion between our men with guns and their men with guns. In the end we acquiesce. Hanad, the only one in the group who can speak English, tells me to keep quiet and reveal nothing about our itinerary. I assumed that having the authorities know where you are at all times is a sensible safety precaution, but apparently they are not to be trusted. As instructed, I sat in the Chief of Police’s office and stayed silent, while those around me engaged in another angry sounding discussion. Just as tempers seemed about to fray, the chief picked up my passport and his scowl was replaced with a smile.

Sei Italiano! Benvenuto!

It turns out Somalis in this part of Somalia have nothing but positive things to say about their former colonisers. Most of the older generation could still remember some of the Italian they learnt at school many years ago. Spaghetti is still the staple (when people eat anything at all). The Italian government had recently been trying to strike a deal with the Puntland administration to construct roads in return for oil prospecting rights. This deal was obstructed by the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, Hanad tells me, because they were worried how oil money would change the balance of power in their relationship with their independent minded northern territory. Given Italy’s current financial situation, it seems unlikely this deal will be revived any time soon.

The main aim of my trip was to get to the coast and investigate the pirates. This was not unrealistic, after all, Hanad had very close connections with them, and had even organised an interview for a European film crew a few weeks earlier. However, things had not gone entirely according to plan. The pirates, an understandably paranoid bunch, would not let the film crew come out and film any of their hostages on a ship they had recently hijacked. However, they did agree to take a camera out onto the boat and ask the hostages any questions they wanted answered. This all went smoothly, but a few days later some of the pirates were captured by the US Navy.

Their first reaction was to blame the film makers, accusing them of putting a GPS tracking device in the camera equipment (which they confiscated). The film crew, along with Hanad, were able to escape, but Hanad’s brother was not so lucky. He was picked up in a tea joint (that we would later visit) and held hostage for weeks while the pirates insisted that Hanad admit he had betrayed them. I will never forget what Hanad said when I asked how he got his brother back.

“First, I paid the tribal elders to mediate in the matter. But they took weeks, and all the time they were just asking me to pay for khat and nothing was being achieved. Eventually, I decided to settle matters myself. I borrowed some guns and an RPG from a dealer. Then I bought the ammunition. Six rockets and thousands of bullets. The bullets were very expensive. Then my friends and I went down to where the pirates were staying, down at the coast, and I told them that if they did not give my brother back, I would use the RPG to sink their boats. ”

The calmness in Hanad’s eyes as he told this story was unnerving. I asked whether he was worried.

“No, I had to get him back. I would have killed them all. They did not want trouble. They returned him to me.”

There were three things I liked about this story. Firstly, that an arms dealer in Somalia will let you borrow the weapon for free as long as you buy the ammunition you intend to use. Secondly, that despite what you might assume, bullets do actually cost a fair bit in Somalia. And thirdly, I was very happy that Hanad was on my side.

Given the current state of affairs, Hanad thought it unlikely that the pirates would want to meet up with me. But we could still head to the coast and see how they worked, and talk to the local communities about how piracy had affected them. The most fascinating thing I wanted to find out about was how some local initiatives had actually defeated the pirates. How and why were the Somalis having some success where international naval forces were failing so miserably? We jumped in our beat up Land Cruiser, and headed off on a six and a half hour drive through the desert to Eyl to find out.

An hour in, we lost phone reception. I enquired what we would do in the event of a breakdown.

Hanad said it was simple. “We use your satellite phone to call for help.”

“And what satellite phone is this exactly?”

“The one I asked you to bring along…”

Arguing about who was at fault was pointless by this stage. We had no sat phone. We would have to hope Allah carried us through without a breakdown. He did.

The journey to Eyl is not an easy one. Although sections of the route are paved, much of it is over rocky terrain, making access to the coastal town very difficult for anything apart from a convoy of 4x4s. Or a shaky lone Land Cruiser, if you are lucky.

Three years ago there was a spike in the level of piracy in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, with over sixty vessels suffering actual or attempted attacks. This was over double the 2007 levels. Those unfortunate enough to be captured found themselves held hostage for weeks or months while ransom payments were negotiated. If you got picked up by pirates in 2008, odds were high you would have an extended stay around Eyl.

My hunt for the pirates first brought me into the office of the Eyl District Commissioner. The office, like the town, is a simple affair. Behind his desk are two posters. One is by Mines Advisory Group, advising of the different types of UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) found across the country from the civil war. The other is from the Ministry of Justice, funded by

Norwegian Church Aid. It states quite simply “Stop – Piracy money is unlawful in Islam”. The Commissioner’s view of the pirates, like most people I spoke to in Somalia, was very negative.

“The pirates were very bad for this community. They would drive around town at high speeds in their new Land Cruisers causing danger to residents. They would drink and gamble. They even encouraged our young women to prostitute themselves with promises of money. Eventually, the community decided to stand up to them. I gave them 24 hours to get out of the town, or we the citizens would fight them and force them out. There would have been much bloodshed. In the end they went peacefully.”

The pirates have not gone altogether. They have simply moved further south into central Somalia, where there is less government control. They now operate from areas such as Garacad, Hobyo or Haradheere, a day’s drive from Galkacyo, which is currently home to the hijacked Italian oil tanker Savina Caylyn.

The decision to expel the pirates from Eyl was a local one. Similar efforts were made by the communities in Bargal, Laasqoray and Bosasso. The Commissioner and his people received no outside assistance with this task, whether from the central government or the international community. Nor have they received any reward since making this risky decision.

“Since this time, we have received very little assistance from the international community. The UNDP, UNICEF and UNFPA have all visited here, but done nothing to help us. Since the pirates left, the only development work to occur here was the construction of the fish processing house on the beach. Yet even this lacks freezers and other vital elements. It is empty and unused.

The international NGOs do a lot of work on the main highway, but they do not like to stray from it as driving is too difficult.

If we could request one thing from the international community, it would be to improve the road from here to Garoowe. With a good road we could start businesses linked with Garoowe and Galkacyo and sell our fish. Also, the UN workers in the city could come on holiday to Eyl!”

Hearing that the NGOs did not want to risk their shiny white Land Cruisers on that hellish road was not surprising. An improved road does not seem like too high a price to ask for guaranteeing the rule of law in their town. This lack of assistance is especially galling to local politicians when contrasted with the amount of money being spent on anti-piracy patrols. Over a dozen countries have sent warships to protect their shipping in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. There are also the multi-national task forces such as EU NAVFOR. The estimated annual expenditure on all this patrolling, which is split amongst the participating countries, is $1.5 billion.

GorGor, a local journalist, emphasises this feeling of neglect by the international community. “There is a piracy problem here because there are no opportunities. If people remain as fishermen, illegal trawlers have decreased our fish stocks. If you go out fishing today, you will not catch enough to pay for the fuel. Spain, India, the Arab nations, they are all stealing our fish. We require capacity building and investment from other nations to give young Somali men options other than piracy.”

GorGor and his fellow residents in Eyl question the mission of the foreign navies. “Some people say they are here to protect the foreign fishing vessels while they steal our fish.” They also question why navies were not sent earlier to prevent the illegal dumping of European toxic waste in their waters, which they allege has been happening since the early 1990s, and has recently been back in the news after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami washed up the waste on the Puntland coastline.

This suspicion is not helped by what is seen as a heavy handed policy of stopping and searching local fishing boats. The first day that I was in Eyl, there was uproar because a local resident had his boat confiscated on the way back from a fishing trip. While GorGor’s fellow countrymen are incorrect in their assumptions about the foreign naval vessels, these conspiracy theories thrive in an environment in which there is no direct communication or consultation between the foreign powers at sea and the Somali people on the shore.

While in Eyl collecting all this information, I also got a chance to go down to the beach and see firsthand the effects of foreign fishing. There are abandoned boats strewn across the coastline. There was also another visible sign of Somalia’s problems. Backing onto one of the most picturesque patches of beach is a huge concrete compound. Hanad tells me this was built by the former Puntland Finance Minister. I ask him where the minister got the money from for such an extravagant project. This is so funny it warrants translating into Somali for the guards, who also burst out laughing. Apparently this is a typically European thing to ask.

Our time in Eyl is soon at an end, and I (rather unwillingly) leave this pristine Indian Ocean coastline, with waves that could attract surfers under different circumstances, to head back to Galkacyo, and eventually, my exit point of Djibouti. On the way back, we break down outside the very tea joint where Hanad’s brother was kidnapped a few weeks earlier. Monstrous trucks, loaded with cattle and other goods, thunder past on their way to Mogadishu. Hanad gets progressively more agitated, which in turn stresses me. This would not be a good place to run into his former pirate friends. After a tense two hours, we finish repairing our second breakdown of the trip, and get going again. Amid all the tension, it is amusing to see that Somalis have the same attitude to manual labour as most other countries: one guy does all the work, while everyone else crowds round and comments on it.

By the time we return to Galkacyo the security situation has deteriorated. Nine men are dead after a machine gun battle at a mosque, and from the sounds of things outside our compound, far more are keen to join them (or have the other side join them). I try to go up onto the roof to photograph the gun battles, but am prevented by Hanad. He is unsure what the rival militias would do if they spotted a white person in this compound, but neither he nor my guards are keen to find out. So we spent the end of my trip as we had spent the beginning, sat on a mat, chewing khat, talking about Somalia. For a land where life is so uncertain, I was surprised by the warmth and generosity of my hosts. Even my guards, two of whom were Mogadishu veterans, were very sociable, and (albeit through a translator) keen to discuss their lives with me. The next day I left, saddened by the thought of what the West’s $1.5 billion a year could be doing for Somalia, were it not being wasted on naval patrols.

Is The Western Anti-Piracy Policy Working?

Somalia has a coastline of over 3000km. This is an impossibly large area to patrol. It is therefore surprising that foreign governments still choose naval patrols as their preferred option for fighting piracy. Navy patrols off the Somali coast have reduced the success of attacks, but in response the pirates have simply increased the number of attacks. There were 97 pirate attacks in the Somali region (and 142 worldwide) in the first quarter of 2011, which represented an increase of over 100% on the previous year. Many pirates are also captured then released again (following confiscation of their weapons) due to the complexity of putting them on trial. Over 600 have been through this process so far, many of whom no doubt returned to piracy after release.

The war on piracy cannot be won at sea. Piracy in Somalia thrives because the government there lacks the capacity to combat this form of organised crime on land. They require police, courts and prisons, not only to deal with the pirates, but also Islamic extremists and criminal gangs which specialise in people trafficking.

It also thrives because of how easily the proceeds of this crime flow into (and then out of) Somalia. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) between $150 and $300 million was paid out in ransoms last year. Tougher regulations must be put in place to prevent ransom payments being made, and make the laundering of these payments more difficult. Yet this is still focussing on cure rather than prevention.

The Somali people need to be given opportunities other than piracy, and this will involve and international effort to develop the infrastructure and economy of Somalia, a far more difficult (and politically less attractive) way of spending taxpayer money. The idea of investing in a country that is at risk of being overrun by Al Shabab Islamist militants does not sit well with potential investors, but the current policy of ‘containment’ is simply not working.

One potential source of funds for this development is oil. Puntland is believed to be rich in the natural resource, but has been off limits to oil companies due to the lack of security. Canadian oil and gas company Africa Oil Corp has recently signed a deal with the Puntland government to sink two exploration wells. Yet it may be political, rather than security, problems that impede this source of revenue for development. Hanad, a Puntland NGO worker and activist, highlighted the tensions between the government of semi-autonomous Puntland, and the Transitional Federal Government, based in the southern capital of Mogadishu. “An Italian company offered to develop the road infrastructure here in Puntland in return for oil exploration rights a few years ago. The Puntland government wanted to go ahead, but the TFG blocked the deal. They do not want the Puntland government to appear to be more powerful than them. They think the Puntland politicians want to take over all of Somalia.”

Hopefully Somali politicians will be able to reach a compromise that reassures foreign investors and begins to create the environment necessary for development. As the British think-tank Chatham House concluded as far back as 2008, “The most powerful weapon against piracy will be peace and opportunity in Somalia, coupled with an effective and reliable police force and judiciary.”

  3 comments for “Somalia, Spaghetti and Pirates

  1. Penta
    February 22, 2012 at 10:41 am

    A fascinating story, well told. Thanks.

  2. Ben
    February 23, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Great post, I am now going to try and visit Eyl. I

  3. May 17, 2012 at 4:21 am

    Cool Photos I enjoyed viewing them!

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