Pushed to­wards a life of mar­itime crime

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Antony Loewen­stein

Blood Ran­som: Sto­ries from the Front Line in the War Against Piracy By John Boyle Blooms­bury, 304pp, $29.99 Im­pe­ri­al­ism still casts a dark shadow over mod­ern Africa. For­mer colo­nial pow­ers France, Bri­tain, Bel­gium, Spain, Por­tu­gal and Ger­many largely spend their aid dol­lars in na­tions they used to rule. Ox­fam France’s Chris­tian Re­boul told The Guardian this makes sense for Paris “be­cause the for­mer French colonies in Africa are de facto the poor­est coun­tries in the world”.

The other Euro­pean states are equally com­plicit in African dis­ad­van­tage. African suc­cess sto­ries, such as Kenya and Ghana, have de­vel­oped de­spite for­eign med­dling, not be­cause of it.

So­ma­lia is one of the most trou­bled coun­tries in Africa. Blighted by decades of civil war, an alShabab in­sur­gency and peren­nial in­se­cu­rity, its pres­ence on the news is due to ter­ror­ist at­tacks or failed US mil­i­tary in­volve­ment, such as the in­ci­dent that be­came the book and film Black Hawk Down.

Film­maker and jour­nal­ist John Boyle shows in this re­veal­ing book that So­ma­lia was the bas­tard child of Italy and Bri­tain. It was granted in­de­pen­dence in 1960, and the re­sult was “a poor, un­der­de­vel­oped, di­vided, fledg­ling coun­try with lit­tle real chance of suc­cess”. As in the case of many bor­ders in the Mid­dle East now be­ing de-

June 13-14, 2015 stroyed by Is­lamic State, “the bound­aries drawn by for­mer colo­nial pow­ers had lit­tle bear­ing on the true sit­u­a­tion”.

Boyle wants to un­der­stand why so many So­mali men are be­com­ing pi­rates and caus­ing havoc along the So­mali coast­line and In­dian Ocean. The rea­son is twofold. Mas­sive ships from Asia and Europe started pil­lag­ing fish stocks in the 2000s in ar­eas that used to sus­tain So­mali fish­er­men. Re­sent­ment grew.

Com­pound­ing this was the role of Italy, So­ma­lia’s for­mer ruler, in dump­ing huge amounts of con­tam­i­nated waste at sea be­cause it was far cheaper than try­ing to dis­pose of it cleanly in Europe. A Mafia syn­di­cate con­trolled the trade; the UN is­sued re­ports that were mostly ig­nored.

“No one knows how many more [toxic] can- is­ters still lie off the So­mali shores,” Boyle ex­plains, “slowly seep­ing their poi­son into the sea and the food chain. The planet’s most un­for­tu­nate na­tion, un­governed, dev­as­tated by civil war, drought and famine, its oceans pil­laged, now also had to suf­fer toxic and ra­dioac­tive waste caus­ing sick­ness, de­for­mity and death.”

So­mali piracy was born with a le­git­i­mate griev­ance, a de­mand for global fish­ing ships in their wa­ters to pay a fine for tak­ing stock. What started as a small op­er­a­tion soon be­came a hugely prof­itable en­ter­prise. Op­por­tunism soared as savvy busi­ness­men re­alised hi­jack­ing large ships and de­mand­ing mil­lion-dollar ran­soms was an easy way to make money.

Boyle ar­gues that “most pi­rates to­day are no longer them­selves dis­placed fish­er­men but mem­bers of no­madic land-based clans who gen­er­ally have lit­tle or no knowl­edge of the sea. Rather than poor fish­er­men seek­ing re­dress, to­day’s pi­rates are more akin to drug deal­ers.”

This in­dus­try is ut­terly for­eign to Western­ers. When ac­tor Tom Hanks starred in the 2013 film Cap­tain Phillips, the story of the con­tainer ship Maersk Alabama, which was over­whelmed by So­mali pi­rates, the mo­ti­va­tion of the So­ma­lis them­selves was al­most in­vis­i­ble.

Boyle does much bet­ter, though his writ­ing some­times veers into sen­sa­tion­al­ism. This is re­deemed by his in­ter­views with So­ma­lis who are al­leged pi­rates and end up in jail in the Sey­chelles. Mo­hamed Has­san Ali, 39, says he had no ed­u­ca­tion and wanted to be a me­chanic from a young age. “Be­fore the pi­rates scared them away, the for­eign ships were al­ways tak­ing our nets,” he ex­plains. It was soon im­pos­si­ble to make a living sell­ing fish and Mo­hamed found him­self ac­cused of at­tack­ing an Ira­nian ship. He de­nies the charges and says that be­cause of the strong anti-So­mali sen­ti­ment in the Sey­chelles, the venue for many court cases against piracy, he never re­ceived a fair trial.

The cost of piracy to the global econ­omy was es­ti­mated in 2012 to be $US12 bil­lion. Boyle shows how in­sur­ance com­pa­nies are some of the big­gest win­ners from the surge in piracy. But an­other, less dis­cussed rea­son for piracy’s pop­u­lar­ity is the ex­clu­sion of So­ma­lia and sim­i­lar failed states from the global econ­omy.

Boyle only briefly touches on this is­sue, his fo­cus is mostly on hu­man sto­ries, but it’s an in­te­gral fac­tor in the rel­a­tive suc­cess of kid­nap­ping by mil­i­tant groups world­wide. Easy money breeds greater de­mand for fur­ther vi­o­lence when no al­ter­na­tives are of­fered in Mo­gadishu and be­yond.

Sus­tain­abil­ity is not a word usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with So­ma­lia. Global fish stocks are de­plet­ing fast and a re­port in Science in 2006 pre­dicted that at the cur­rent com­mer­cial rate of fish­ing the oceans could be al­most empty by 2050. Boyle concludes with a plea that So­ma­lia’s fish­ing in­dus­try be man­aged and pro­tected be­cause oth­er­wise “there will al­ways be young men will­ing to risk their lives in small boats”.

A So­mali pirate along­side a Tai­wanese ship

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