Book review: ‘The Pirates of Somalia’
In the fall 2008, young Canadian Jay Bahadur, fresh out of college with no clear career choice and wanting to become a journalist but unable to get his foot in the proverbial door, decided to go to one of the most dangerous places on earth to make his mark.
His choice: Somalia, the horn of Africa, a land suffering extreme famine and record drought, a country without a national government after a two-decades-long civil war, and a people who increasingly were turning to piracy.
In September, the hijacking of the Ukrainian tank transport ship MV Faina had made headlines around the world. The ship loaded with Soviet-made tanks and other weapons en route to the Sudan had been captured by Somalian pirates and was surrounded by a task force of warships, mainly American. (Five months later, after a $3.2 million ransom was paid, the ship and its crew were released.)
Looking for sponsors via the Internet, Bahadur made inquiries to various news organizations and got a response from one in the capital of the self-governing state of Puntland in northeastern Somalia. Mahamad Farole, the owner of Radio Garowe and the son of the new president of Puntland, promised to help.
“In Somalia, everything is done through connections, be they clan, family or friend, and these networks are expansive and interminable; you have to know one another, and it seems sometimes that everyone does.”
Bahadur bought his ticket and headed into the unknown.
“The Pirates of Somalia” is his story. Part adventure story, part travelogue, part news story, like African explorers of another era he takes the reader behind the headlines and along the dusty roads of this contentious land.
With the longest coastline in Africa, most commerce in this country of nomads gravitates to the sea. Piracy has always been present, but Bahadur’s sources tell him it has increased due to economic conditions. The tsunami of 2004 devastated the country, killing thousands and destroyed the fishing industry. The industry was further devastated from overfishing by other countries that ignore Somalia’s territorial limits.
Another reason for piracy is the national addiction to khat, an amphetamine-like drug imported from neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia that Bahadur found most of the men of Somalia use – so much that khat distribution is now one of the country’s “most lucrative economic sectors.”
“Most pirates spend money on three things: khat, alcohol and women.”
While Bahadur was in the country, several hijacked ships were anchored off the coast. He tried to get aboard the German-owned freighter MV Victoria, but was denied access. He was able to interview the hijackers and later traveled to Romania to interview the crew once they were released after the owners paid the $1.8 million ransom. He gives a fascinating blow-by-blow of the hijacking, even including a “Freakonomics” chapter breaking down the costs of the venture, determining that the individual pirates actually made very little.
Bahadur ends his book with a dissertation on how the piracy problem can be alleviated, a complicated list of solutions that demand fundamental changes and may never be implemented.
Meanwhile, things have changed somewhat in the piracy arena. Violence has escalated and the price is going up. In 2009, the U.S. Navy increased its presence, killing three pirates after the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, “the first U.S. merchant ship to be commandeered in 200 years.”
While a South Korean oil tanker was ransomed for a record-setting $9.5 million in 2010, early this year Korean commandos took back another tanker, rescuing its crew and killing eight pirates. And a few weeks later, four American hostages were killed in an attempt to free their captured sailboat.
Increased foreign military pressure and deadly force may be one solution, but as Bahadur says, this is treating the symptoms of the disease rather than the cause. “(It’s) like trying to use a bailer to drain the ocean: for each pirate captured (or killed) …. there (are) dozens … on shore ready … to fill the void.”