For centuries, Somali fishermen have been stepping into the waters of the Indian Ocean, pushing their canoes, holding kerosene lamps in the hope of sailing safely through nights’ darkness and coming back with a good catch. They often came ashore with a stock of pelagic fishes, species that swim close to the surface and are easily caught by hooks and lines.
Groupers and snappers have been the kinds that made the sea dwellers happy.
In a strange turn of fortune, the catch nowadays does not only consist of fish species. Ships and boats – big or small – are seized by violent means. It is a relatively new phenomenon in Somalia and orchestrated by Burcad badeed (literally meaning sea gangs), but otherwise known as pirates.
It is a combination of arts and crafts that youngsters in north-eastern Somalia venture into the ocean with motorised speed boats, modern weaponry and good communication devices. The slow moving canoes of the men’s forefathers are no longer applicable in these risky actions.
“A guy suffering from seasickness is of no use in these missions,” said Ali Ahmed Haybe, a marine expert in Mogadishu.
Most of the piracy activities take place along the northern coast of Somalia. On one side, there is the turbulent Indian Ocean while on the other, there is the quieter Gulf of Aden, leading to the Red Sea.
Experts indicate that the youth involved in piracy had abandoned the quieter life style of their fathers. They view trivial fishing activities with slowly sailing off shore until the waters are rich enough to offer sellable as well as consumable fish species no longer palatable.
The practice of gathering gears such as nets, hooks, buoys, knives, lamps and other stuffs before venturing into the sea is seen by the pirates as inferior engagements and misuse of time. Instead, the almost “celebrity” Somali pirates depart from the coast often clad in balts fitted with ammunition and with sophisticated apparatus, including grenade launchers, explosives and automatic machine guns, among others.
“Once these guys are ready for course of action, they display threatening looks,” remarked Mr Mohamed Ali Hirad who once visited Harardhere, about 500km north of Mogadishu, one of the coastal towns from which pirates launch their operations.
Luckily, these Somali pirates do not have to wonder around for very long, looking for ships to hijack. The offshore waters of Somalia are very busy waterway. Hundreds of vessels sail along any time.
The Gulf of Aden offers a passage to most of the world ships heading or coming from the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The tankers shuttling oil and other precious liquids have been passing adjacent to the Somali coast for decades without any threats. Not any more, though, particularly with the capture of Sirius Star, the Saudi supertanker, with millions of barrels of fuel.
The choice is just which ship is easier to assail and even which one is likely to bring better return on risks taken. Records, especially by the Malaysia-based International Maritime Board indicate that the rate of successful attacks is on the increase.
Crew members or passengers who escape the wrath of the pirates will have a great deal to tell their loved ones. Missiles are often fired to try to stop the victims, admittedly into the air. A slight hesitation compels the outlaws to hit the vessel.
Many captains opted to risk sailing away, despite their ships sustaining damages. “Vessels can continue sailing so long the damage is minor,” said Mr Anooy Hussein Qali, a former navigation student at Mogadishu’s former fishery and maritime school.
Business is known to grow only when making profits. No doubt piracy around the coast of Somalia is growing at a rate no other activity does around the world. Managers of crumbling American enterprises would have loved to be in such positions, where their incomes are far superior to their expenditures.
Only 10 years ago, ransom demand amount to tens of thousands of US dollars when relatively poorer fishing vessels were captured from the coastal areas. By 2007, the demand for ransom jumped to six digits. The high demand was first applied on a South Korean fishing boat caught 370 miles off the coast in November. Ransom of US$ 700,000 was reportedly lowered following negotiations.
But the owners of a Danish ship captured in March 2008 were not so lucky. They had to cough US$700,000, as reported by local newspapers in Mogadishu.
Having grown from weakness to strength, the pirates are in a position to dictate the terms. About 20 to 30 million dollars are demanded ransom, making all previous claims just a rehearsal.
When the Somali regime collapsed in January 1991, the militants of the rebel groups who defeated the government led the way to massive, indiscriminate looting and callous destruction of properties.
As the gates of lawlessness and vandalism were opened, gangs by the Somali names of mooryaan, dayday, jirri and other devilish labels, surfaced.
Even the Somali language has been made richer by new words indisputably representing the circumstances. Hirig (remove by force), maalin-taajir (rich by a day), baroomi (shower them with bullets) and many others dominates gang slang.
It is pity that continued violence has given the honest entrepreneurs a hard time. The plight of the business community has been made worse by worldwide economic difficulties, unchecked damping of sub-standard goods and the devilish acts of the pirates pushing costs by negatively interfering with the import and export systems.
Nobody could agree less with a news article in the Daily Nation of November 24: Ransoms bring wealth to pirates in Somalia’s only growing industry.
The last vessel added to the stock of foreign vessels held by the pirates is not another alien ship, but a boat captured on Tuesday and owned by a Somali businessman based in Puntland’s main port of Bossaso with an exclusively Somali crew on board.
Now, the international community is trying to go on its way to confront the piracy mayhem by sending more and more navy vessels. These are empowered by UN Security Council resolutions.
As long as the best option is not chosen, the outlaws roaming around the ocean, tracking down, not tuna fish, but merchant and humanitarian ships, will remain active and piracy the most profitable business in Somalia. No doubt, it will magnetise more and more youths.
Denying the pirates land bases is the trick, which can only be enforced by an effective government in Somalia, according to maritime experts in Mogadishu. Otherwise, the whole world will remain on the tenterhooks.