Through military prowess, savvy development aid, and international cooperation, Britain has crippled Somalia’s pirate threat.
The Somali pirate menace has been defeated, and Britain has played a central role. Although it passed with little fanfare, May this year marks the one year anniversary of the last hijacking* of a merchant vessel by pirates based in Somalia. (Clearly somebody in a position of influence heeded our warnings…)
Britain has long taken a leading role in tackling the scourge of Somali based interdiction of trade though supporting counter-piracy missions – NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, the EU’s NAVFOR Operation ATALANTA and the Combined Task Force 151 in the Horn of Africa region, and supporting the UK Maritime Trade Operation (run by the Royal Navy and based in the British Embassy in Dubai). Combined with the ‘business’ end of counter piracy work, has been the less flashy but no less important efforts of working within Somalia to help eliminate the root causes of piracy. The Department for International Development’s (DFID’s) 4-year £250 million Somalia programme has been aimed at giving locals viable alternatives to piracy and its supporting industries. One example of such work is the Sustainable Employment and Economic Development Programme, a joint project with UNDP Somalia. The programme is aimed at working to improve the livelihoods of various stakeholders in the fisheries sector in Puntland. It aims to enhance stability in what is a comparatively affluent part of Somalia, and will result in improved infrastructure and development through public-private partnerships, with the aim to create 20,000 long-term jobs.
Underlining the UK’s expanding influence in the region, the FCO and DFID last week hosted the Somalia Trade & Investment Event held at the British Museum in London.
Britain supported the establishment of a Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecution and Intelligence Co-ordination Centre (RAPPICC) in the Seychelles. The RAPPICC targeted the leaders, financiers and enablers of piracy by building evidence packages for use in their prosecutions. Critically, suspected pirates can now be tried in various courts, removing a legal obstacle that had long hindered effective deterrence.
Tough on piracy, tough on the causes of piracy
The unofficial umbrella organisation for the anti piracy efforts has been the rather unimaginatively named ‘Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia’ which includes over 85 countries as well as international organizations and private sector representatives. Heading the organisation has been Thomas Winkler, the Danish Ambassador to the UN.
Winkler said in an interview that prosecuting more than a thousand pirates and transferring a significant number to Somali prisons where conditions are grim appears to be having a preventive effect. “The number of active pirates is perhaps 3,000,” Winkler said. “So if you put a thousand behind bars, and 300-400 die every year at sea from hunger (or) drowning … you will quickly come down” in numbers.
The government of Somalia (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms) has been bolstered by Western funds which have allowed it to steadily extend its authority beyond the capital of Mogadishu. That strategy has had some success, including a recent offensive by Kenyan and African Union troops to push the militant group Al Shabab from its stronghold in the port city of Kismayu.
As well as the trigger happy Russian navy, the expansion of private maritime security has also contributed to a collapse in the number of pirate attacks. Companies such as the UK based Sandline have expanded to offer shipping companies armed guards to serve on board cargo vessels. Tellingly not a single ship that has employed armed security has ever been hijacked.
Much remains to be done, of course. Somalia is still wretchedly poor and threatened by over spilling violence from parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and even Yemen. But the heart seems to have been ripped out of the piracy industry in Somalia. It would be a tragedy if British support suddenly disappeared and we allowed Somalia to turn from a growing regional partner back into a synonym for failed state everywhere.
*The last successful hijacking – on 12 May 2012 – was of the MV Smyrni, a Greek-registered tanker less than two years old and loaded with crude oil worth tens of millions of dollars. It was released after 11 months of negotiations and payment of a record-breaking ransom nearing $15m.