Between devil and deep sea: Piracy is big, ugly business

 

 

If you thought pirates were a problem for seafaring people only; and that only owners of ships need to worry about them, or that it is an exclusive issue for seamen, think again.
 
PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

In Summary

  •  In ten chapters of the book, Palmer packs knowledge on modern piracy that includes “political developments of Somalia’ in which he revisits the relationship between the political collapse of modern Somalia and the political and economic consequences for Somalis, and also the effects the ensuing chaos have had for Somalia’s neighbours and the world.

  • Palmer further discusses topics such as the Pirate Coast highlighting the value of the more than 3,000km-long coast of Somalia to pirates.

  • This coastline, not much guarded by a force worth calling a navy, offers the pirates space to roam, hunt and hijack ships

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By TOM ODHIAMBO
More by this Author

If you thought pirates were a problem for seafaring people only; and that only owners of ships need to worry about them, or that it is an exclusive issue for seamen, think again.

Pirates can and do influence the cost of fuel in our cars, the price of the plasma TV that you wish to buy, and the cost of housing in your neighbourhood.

There is an emerging and convincing argument that piracy is global business.

Andrew Palmer makes such a case in the book The New Pirates: Modern Global Piracy from Somalia to the Southern China (I.B. Taurus, 2014).

 Piracy is an old trade. And, like organised crime in general, it has often been romanticised. Books and films about pirates make the vice appear heroic and adventurous. Yet piracy has been the scourge of the high seas, leading to deaths of hundreds of innocent sailors. Even today, there are ship owners who don’t bother to pay ransom for their sailors.

 Ransom is what makes piracy lucrative. Money paid in dollars, often dropped on the ship or wired electronically in complex transactions to the organiser of the hijacking of a tanker or ship.

In the book’s introduction, Palmer explains why piracy is both near and far — in the high seas.

“Everything in our world is interconnected; the fact that giant oil tankers can be regularly attacked while carrying crude oil on which our economies are so clearly dependent is not something that we can view in isolation, nor that the failed economies of Africa and Asia often sit astride key lines of communication and control raw materials that are in increasingly short supply.

“Piracy is one of the threads out of which the emergent world or 21st century is being woven; we need to understand it, because it can tell us much about the fabric of our new economy.”

"Political developments of piracy"

 In ten chapters of the book, Palmer packs knowledge on modern piracy that includes “political developments of Somalia’ in which he revisits the relationship between the political collapse of modern Somalia and the political and economic consequences for Somalis, and also the effects the ensuing chaos have had for Somalia’s neighbours and the world.

Palmer further discusses topics such as the Pirate Coast highlighting the value of the more than 3,000km-long coast of Somalia to pirates.

This coastline, not much guarded by a force worth calling a navy, offers the pirates space to roam, hunt and hijack ships. But the pirates have also been known to attack and board ships hundreds of kilometres off the coast of Somalia.  Apart from the lawless coast, only managed in sections by various “governments” in Puntland, Somaliland or Mogadishu, Palmer — in a language that in one instance reads like an academic essay yet in another sounds journalistic and in other parts is social history — tells the story of modern piracy as not just a problem of Somalia. It thrives on the West African coast, too.

 It is a worthy economic pursuit in the South China Sea and could easily become lucrative trade in the Caribbean and countries of southern America.

Organised crime is now a global phenomenon, worth US$ 870, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. But nobody knows the true worth of piracy. Many experts on maritime crime aren’t agreed on its worth to concerned individuals and networks.

Though piracy is still an individual endeavour, it is increasingly becoming organised. There are many investors. And just like one can buy shares in a company listed on the stock exchange, tens of businesspeople, politicians, leaders of crime gangs and ordinary citizens can apparently raise money and invest in piracy.

This money is spent on buying skiffs — small boats that pirates use to approach ships — guns, other weaponry and food for the youthful pirates who form the backbone of the gang.

Palmer shows that in some cases the pirates operate on the basis of luck, but increasingly they are becoming sophisticated.

They can check out what ships are traveling on what route; they use global positioning system (GPS) to track a ship; and once a ship is hijacked they have interpreters to speak to or negotiate on their behalf.

Palmer also notes that the pirates include hundreds of individuals who previously worked as policemen, soldiers or members of the fledgling navies of Puntland or Somalia. These men abandon their duties because of low or no pay.

In The Pirates of Somalia by Jay Bahadur (Pantheon, 2011) the author shows how much each member of the crew could earn from one ransom payment.

Bahadur cites the case of a pirate gang leader, Abdulkhadar, who led the capture of MV Victoria.

The pay for the gang was stupendous: The leader probably earned US$900,000; interpreter $60,000; accountant $60,000; and other crew equally hansome figures.

These millions are allegedly used to buy property in Nairobi, the Middle East and elsewhere.

All that notwithstanding, The New Pirates insists on the need to understand that today’s pirate isn’t the buccaneer of the past.

He could be an employee of the government of a failed state, or the Somali pirates who argue — especially when captured — that they are protecting the Somali coastline from foreigners who dump toxic waste on it or who catch its fish and destroy its marine life and their livelihood; or just a young man somewhere in a college who doesn’t see any gainful employment and puts his IT skills to use by investing in tracking ships for pirates; or just a gun for hire.

Indeed, many terror groups have shown that there are millions of young men all over the world willing to die for a big paycheque at the end of the month, in lieu of the dystopia of slum life or cyclic rural poverty; or just for the adventure.

 

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.