August 11, 2011

Somalia, a dreadful opportunity.

I am here to tell you that the continued failure of the international community to bring political stability to Somalia- or its futile efforts at the IMO and everywhere else- will soon result in a near-spectacular increase in piracy out of that country. This will happen because the Somali famine is the biggest humanitarian disaster on earth today, and pirate gangs will soon attract thousands of Somali men who have been painted into a bloody corner. These men- and young boys, as my tale will tell- have just four choices left: Fight for the Al Shabaab and maybe die, fight for the government and maybe die, die of starvation or take to piracy.

The horrendous famine, maybe the worst in the last sixty years, has resulted in a million and a half internally displaced persons in Somalia. Twenty nine thousand children are dead; 10 million (and counting) people have been directly affected. Tens of thousands are making the sometimes month long journey to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, often on foot. Many die on the way. Some mothers abandon weaker children, leaving them to starve to die on the side of the road. An estimated 1,300 Somalis are crossing into Kenya every single day to refugee camps set up by aid agencies. More than $2 billion is needed to address the crisis.
Worse, women and children are being attacked and raped en route to Dadaab- and at Dadaab-since there are few of their men around to protect them. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says that more than 80 per cent of those fleeing Somalia are women and children. But where are the men?

Turns out that the Al Shabaab- an Al Qaeda linked terror group fighting the west supported and UN recognised Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia- is abducting males as young as 12 to fight for them.  And, as it turns out, so are the TFG military units.  Some terrified Somalis are therefore leaving their men and boys behind, hidden in towns and villages, before they begin their march to Kenya and hopefully to salvation.  Jane Okello of the UNHCR is quoted in Al Jazeera, "The men are probably dead or fighting", although she says that some would have stayed back for other reasons.  Amnesty International says that that both the militants and the Somali army are guilty of recruiting child soldiers; Al Shabaab has even set up checkpoints at the border where young men are stopped and taken away.

A provocative question now: if you were one of those men, would you consider joining the pirates instead? I know I might, because maybe that is the only I see to protect my family- and stay alive.  Shipping should beware of these men because they have nothing left to lose.

The simpler response from the rest of the world- and the only one seen thus far- is to throw money at the crisis.  Set up camps, roll out the UNHCR to feed, clothe and shelter refugees. The urgently needed and much more complex response should see the UN involved in bringing about political change in Somalia. Help and pressure the league of extraordinarily beleaguered gentlemen in the TFG- on the back of a UN peacekeeping force or some such- to push for some form of centralised democratic government there. Somalia is a crisis on many fronts: humanitarian, security and piracy crises that affect the world cannot be solved without a comprehensive political resolution on the ground in that wretched country. Failure to do this will mean we will continue to fight elsewhere flames of fires that are lit in Somalia.

Let nobody assume that this will be easy. NATO is stretched already with its Libyan misadventure. Besides, EU Navfor's first mandated priority is the protection of food aid for Somalia, and more aid there will mean more UN's World Food Programme vessels in need of protection and so fewer warships available to protect commercial shipping. This is already happening.

The Americans will also have to be persuaded to put the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident aside and support a UN led political and military initiative in Somalia. They may be more inclined to do so today, given that they have now resumed drone strikes against selected terrorist targets in Somalia after many years. Even assuming US or European support- agreed, a stretched assumption- Somalia's anarchic past will be another huge obstacle. Like Afghanistan, the country is besieged by corruption, warlords and criminal gangs, not to speak of the Shabaab, locally powerful satraps or pirate gang leaders, all of whom are flush with arms and money. Huge ethnic tensions exist within Somalia- and between Somalis and the Ethiopians, who seem to send thousands of US backed troops into and out of Somalia periodically, adding to the chaos. In any case, Somali- Ethiopian wars go back to the sixteenth century.

We know that a political solution to Somalia is the only way to go; the Somali famine gives the UN an opportunity to arm-twist powerful groups- on the back of a mandated military force- into negotiations. The Al Shabaab will be the one to neutralise here, because they will not come to any table. They have to be tackled eventually; better now, when they are not in control of the entire country, then later, when they just might be.
I believe that a beginning must be made today, when Somalia needs the international community as it comes to grips with its humanitarian catastrophe. If we delay, we will be back in a year or two to the same position we were in three months ago- except that there will be thousands of fresh pirate or terrorist recruits already out there attacking us, our ships and our cargoes. And they will be much stronger.

The UN must start now. Countries around the world must support the UN with funds to fight the famine- I am not one of those sailors who finds it easy to damn all Somalis because of the actions of some of their compatriots who I may see aboard speeding skiffs from time to time. And I am not one to point to the last two decades of civil war in Somalia as the only reason for the famine (the IMF and the World Bank, besides oil companies and US' expansionist policies are major culprits, as often) and say that the Somalis deserve their misery. I do not look on them as unworthy victims.

All I say is this: The international community must find a way to engage the less rabid elements in Somalia, and come down like a ton of bricks on the more rabid ones. It must begin the process that will end anarchy and form a representative government there. Moreover, it must start now, because the iron will not stay hot forever; the horrendous famine has given us this opportunity.

We must also do this because our existing initiatives to fight piracy- that seem to consist mainly of touting, much like computer software, newer and newer versions of Best Management Practices- are getting us precisely nowhere.

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