October 25, 2011

Last tango in Somalia: Western complicity with 'Pirate-in Chief'

I am convinced that the solution to piracy is impossible not because of lack of political will, but because it suits some Western nations to either have it flourish or to ignore it while they play their usual internecine geopolitical games with well-used blinders on. Or give vent to greed. The 'international community'- a euphemism that actually means NATO to the cynics amongst us- is not outmanoeuvred by the pirates. It is often an accessory to their crimes.

As I write this, President Faroole of the State of Puntland in Somalia seems to be on an official visit to the UK; he met the UK Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, where he was felicitated, what with being the keynote speaker at the feel-good Combating Piracy Week Conference and all.  

Bellingham, the British Minister, welcomed Faroole on his arrival. “We are pleased to welcome President Faroole to London. The UK is developing a useful dialogue with the Puntland State of Somalia on matters of mutual interest, such as piracy", he said.

Very warm and cuddly, all this, except that Puntland is a pirate State and Faroole- at least by some accounts- is a warlord and a thug. He has been described in segments of the African press as the Pirate-in Chief and a godfather of the piracy cartel. But that is not all. The Puntland mafia is said to be involved in everything from human trafficking to African style atrocities on other tribes. 

In a publication last year titled "Pirates, Smugglers and Corrupt Tycoons – Social Bandits in Africa”, FAIR, a professional association of investigative journalists in Africa, quoted a March 2010  UN Monitoring Group report that said that “pirate economics” are so powerful in Puntland that "it is fast becoming a criminal state. The government of President Abdirahman Mohamed Faroole, instead of fighting piracy and developing his region and country, has started to share in pirates’ earnings. Senior Puntland officials, including Faroole himself and members of his cabinet have received proceeds from piracy and kidnappings."

"Over 30% of ransom payment was retained by Puntland government officials," the UN Group was quoted as having said.

The lethargic UN discovered this only in 2010; two years earlier, (and before Faroole was President) Yussef Hassan, editor of garoweonline.com (which describes itself as an independent news channel in Puntland), told CNN in an interview that 'government officials' were directly involved with piracy' in Puntland.

Reports from Puntland speak of men, women and children thrown overboard after being crammed into boats and promised a better life across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.  There are also horrendous stories of the rape of local women by drug-crazed pirates under the Puntland administration's protection. In addition, government protected goons are alleged to have shelled villages and murdered men, women and children in the Horn of Africa; there are tales of inhumane deportation, rape and mutilation that go along with these atrocities. The recent famine in Somalia has opened another revenue stream; reports say that displaced Somalis are being severely ill treated in Puntland which takes a third of humanitarian assistance from the transitional Somali government, pockets large amounts and simply 'deports' the refugees of famine.  

So why is Dr. Faroole being welcomed in the UK? This is because the West covertly supports Faroole. It gives Puntland money for development. It gives it more money for 'fighting the pirates.' Then Puntland gets more Western money, this time to 'rehabilitate' pirates. Huge amounts were paid additionally to Puntland to hire 'Saracen' to fight piracy. Saracen is a South African mercenary outfit that is widely believed to be connected to publicly discredited (and quietly used by Western powers in Iraq and elsewhere) Blackwater founder Erik Prince.  The Saracen deal with Puntland is now apparently off, but much of the money is already paid and gone.

In the midst of all this is the fact that the US war on terror is changing course in Africa, and the West will continue to support Faroole and his like for many reasons. This is in line with Harry Truman's "He's a bastard, but he is our bastard" failed line of suffocated thinking that has been the mark of Western foreign policy for ages. They feel that they need Faroole today; he is a powerful warlord and the West likes powerful warlords, especially if they make the right noises as keynote speakers and are willing have dirty work outsourced to them. To hell with their record. To hell with their crimes. To hell with Third World seamen hostages.

Faroole- or other powerful men in Puntland- is playing both sides against the middle, and the West is lapping it up. It continues, for its own reasons, to refuse to acknowledge the links between the Shabaab and the pirates- even as, just last Friday, Reuters reported that the "head of the United Nations counter-piracy unit believes that cooperation between pirate gangs and the militant Islamic al Shabaab group is growing, as the militants grow increasingly desperate for funding".

In exchange for Faroole's support, say some Africa observers, he and his pirate gangs are immune from US drone attacks that are increasingly targeting terrorists in Somalia. Stories circulate of how pirates go directly to the Ethiopian army barracks in Puntland with a share of ransom money extorted from shipowners. The US backed Ethiopians then guarantee that there will be no attacks on pirates or their lairs in Somalia, critics say. I presume that the United States of America - as drone controller- is involved vicariously in these guarantees, if they indeed exist.  The US is expanding its predator operations in Eastern Africa (see The Moor's Next sigh published two weeks ago) but so far not a single Somali pirate has been killed on the ground in the pirate state of Puntland.

Under these circumstances, Faroole's London trip may be brazen, but the only thing I find surprising about it is that the British no longer feel the need to be circumspect about doing business with warlords. Of course, the UK is a country that is benefitting tremendously from the spread of piracy, what with a large chunk of the anti-pirate bandwagon located there. They have other reasons to jump into bed with pirate warlords.

This security scenario will get worse now that Somalia’s deadly chaos is spreading to Kenya. Rattled by the kidnapping and killing from its resorts by Somali pirate gangs (or Al Shabaab, or both), Kenyan troops invaded Somali territory last week.  They have threatened more attacks after it became known that one of the hostages, a handicapped cancer stricken French woman, had died in pirate/terrorist custody in Somalia. They are going after Shabaab sympathisers at home in Nairobi. Kenyan airstrikes on Al Shabaab enclaves in Somalia have been reported as I write this piece- expect an escalation by the time this is published. Expect the ' war on terror' to spread South from Somalia. Expect the expected.

 Agreed that Puntland is far away from the southern action, but I believe that Western countries will continue to strike deals with any warlord in Somalia in pursuit of their perceived interests that seem to fulcrum on fighting the Shabaab, even if it means protecting the pirate cartel that is sometimes hand in glove with the terrorists. The scene is very similar to that in AfPak, and the result will be identical too. The war on piracy will continue to be a losing battle; it is not surprising that no drone attacks, smart bombs or commando operations have been carried out against pirates in Puntland by the US; after all, few seamen come from NATO countries.

The West's double standards stand exposed today because they cannot answer this question satisfactorily: Why are there no attacks on pirates in Somalia even when proven links exist between them and the Shabaab? You are conducting drone attacks against Shabaab targets, aren't you? Are we back to the failed 'Good Taliban, Bad Taliban' AFPak policy days again?

There is no progress in fighting piracy is not just because some Western nations are protecting the perpetrators, but also because the same nations- members of the old boy's club that is the UN Security Council- control the international response to it. The UN, IMO and other international bodies are compromised; their officials are happy chasing their tails while this dance of death goes on in Somalia and at sea. The issue of piracy is just a junket for these international bureaucrats. Meanwhile, ships are taken. Crew are tortured. Some die. Some are taken ashore when their ships are released. Who cares?

Another final surreal report before I leave. The International Maritime Bureau is all over the news again with its usual suspect version of events. This organisation now credits the reduction in ship hijackings this year to better policing and intervention by international naval forces, the correct application of the industry's latest Best Management Practices and other onboard security measures. “Somali pirates are finding it harder to hijack ships and get the ransom they ask for. The navies deserve to be complimented on their excellent work: they are a vital force in deterring and disrupting pirate activity,” Captain Mukundan, head honcho of the IMB, is quoted as saying. “The number of anti-piracy naval units must be maintained or increased,” he adds.

Mukundan does not deem it fit to mention that the only reason pirates have been unsuccessful in recent times is that more and more ships are using armed guards for protection- a course of action some of us have been recommending for years.  Besides the monsoons, the lack of success that pirates have had in recent times is not because of BMPs or XYZs and not because of the actions of the navies of the same countries that felicitate Faroole and his kin. Fewer ships are being taken only because of the mercenaries that are being hired by owners to protect their assets, cargo and crew (in that order). These armed guards cost up to 1500 dollars a day (they each make more every week, probably, than the Captain of the ship they protect makes in a month) and are the only reason more ships are not being taken.

This may change in future. Escalating violence may well bring its own problems, and there may well come a time when a ship is hijacked in spite of its armed escort. Does not matter; we can then chase our tails some more, bring out revised BMPs, bask in hugely exaggerated self-importance  and hold some more anti-piracy conferences in London. Where, for a change, we can invite the ghost of Genghis Khan as keynote speaker.


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