Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | March 18, 2013

Somalia Update: Amnesty and Historical Echoes


Masked pirate by a beached Taiwanese vessel, Hobyo, Somalia

Masked pirate by a beached Taiwanese vessel, Hobyo, Somalia

Piracy will never really end, for crime and the sea are equally timeless.  Yet piracy can be measured in eras:  Buccaneer, Golden Age.  Long-time readers of the Journal know that I have attempted from afar to follow the latest era of piracy, centered on Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.  Now it seems that this era may be coming to a close.  Interestingly, the potential end of Somali piracy echoes a previous time and tells how piracy does not end, only evolves.

The press has been documenting the decline of Somali piracy for several months now.  Abdi Guled and Jason Straziuso, reporting for the Associated Press from Hobyo, one of Somalia’s most famous pirates havens, vividly describe the end of the party:  “The empty whiskey bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs littering this once-bustling shoreline are signs the heyday of Somali piracy may be over.  Most of the prostitutes are gone and the luxury cars repossessed.  Pirates while away their hours playing cards or catching lobsters.”  By the end of 2012, the number of attacks had fallen to a five year low.  According to the International Maritime Bureau, only 14 vessels were hijacked in 2012, half the number of previous year.  As of the beginning of March, there have been NO hijackings this year.

MV Smyrni and ESPS Méndez Núñez

MV Smyrni and ESPS Méndez Núñez

Credit has largely gone to coordinated naval action and armed security guards hired by shipping companies.  The European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) made the news again recently, as the Spanish warship, and Force flagship, Méndez Núñez helped with the release first of the chemical tanker MV Royal Grace and then the supertanker MV Smyrni.  It has also been reported that Somali pirates are now only holding five vessels and 65 hostages, a far cry from the 28 ships and 576 mariners being held by pirates when I first started writing about Somalia back in March 2011.  Meanwhile, according to Jay Bahadur, I would argue the best journalist covering Somali piracy, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of commercial vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden employ private security.  This has not been without controversy.  In January, The Guardian reported on unregulated “floating armories” in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean.  A legal problem with armed ships is that carrying weapons into another country can be considered, among other crimes, arms smuggling or breaching of arms embargoes.  Security companies have cut through the red tape by storing their weapons and ammunition offshore in international waters, dropping guns off at the end of a voyage and picking them up at the start of the next job.  Armories off of Sri Lanka are at the forefront, run jointly by the Sri Lankan Navy and private security companies, but there are also “cowboy” operators whose armories, according to some, are not only death traps for their own employees but also at risk of being attacked by the pirates themselves.  Others argue that the means are clearly justified by the ends.

The fact of the matter is that the risks of piracy now outweigh its rewards.  Brad Plumer of the Washington Post describes piracy as “an extremely inefficient form of wealth transfer.  (Not to mention deadly.).”  While thinking of piracy in terms of economics may run contrary to even the remotest romantic notion of swashbuckling, we must remember that, perhaps especially in the modern day, one turns pirate because they HAVE to, even if there is bad-boy prestige.  Somalis became pirates because of poverty.  Now they are leaving piracy because the backers essential to a pirate endeavor are seeing no profit in the sweet trade.  Somali piracy is not just sailors, it’s financiers and intermediaries.  The men who fund pirate attacks have to consider the overhead: arms, ammo, food for both hijackers and captors, and the essential qat.  With navies and armed guards decreasing the odds of a successful attack, fewer and fewer are willing to front expeditions.  The pirates themselves become essentially unemployed…again.  What’s an out of work freebooter to do?  The answer is reminiscent of how a different era of piracy ended almost three hundred years ago.

A depiction of Governor Woodes Rogers

A depiction of Governor Woodes Rogers

1718:  New Providence, Bahamas, is the capitol of the pirate world, hosting such legends as Benjamin Hornigold, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Charles Vane, and “Calico” Jack Rackham.  King George I responds to the threat to maritime commerce by sending three warships to the Caribbean, issuing a proclamation of amnesty for any pirate willing to accept, and proclaiming one Woodes Rogers as the new governor of the Bahamas.  Rogers was a former privateer who, among other claims to fame, pulled a man named Alexender Selkirk off the South American island of Mas a Tierra in 1709 after five years of being marooned…the direct inspiration to a character named Robinson Crusoe.  On July 26, 1718, Rogers sailed into New Providence with six ships and the following offer:  surrender to the Crown for a full pardon, or in three months, have a bounty on your head.  As a privateer, Rogers’ name was well known among the pirates.  Only Vane resisted, sailing a fire ship towards Rogers’ arriving fleet.  The rest lined up for the pardon.  For some this was a ruse:  Rackham, for example, went right back on the account, accompanied by a few women you might have heard of, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.  Others, under the advice of the elder Hornigold–and under Rogers’ ruse that New Providence was at risk of attack by the Spanish–accepted the pardon and became privateers, hunting down their own brethren.  The Golden Age of piracy was no longer about the Caribbean:  Its last act, played by characters such as Howell Davis and Bartholomew Roberts, took place off Africa.

2013:  As reported by Jay Bahadur, Somalia’s federal government offers amnesty to “junior pirates.”  This amnesty, at present, has not been extended to the pirate kingpins who have profited the most.  Yet one of the most infamous, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, better known as “Afweyne” (“Big Mouth”), responsible for the famous captures of the MV Sirius Star in 2008 and the MV Faina in 2009, seems to be playing Hornigold:  He “retired” with much publicity in January, has met personally with the Somali Prime Minister, and is now an official “counterpiracy” officer.  Like the King’s pardon of old, the current amnesty may mean little in reality.  One, the amnesty comes from Somalia’s central government, which not only is precarious but also has little jurisdiction over semi-autonomous Puntland, where most of the pirates are.  Two, the amnesty does not give the unemployed pirates any economic alternative, no plan for reeducation.  Piracy is likely simply to shift.  The situation continues to worsen off Nigeria.  Some have even said that the Somalis are just waiting for better weather.

Regardless of floating armories, EUNAVFOR, or paper-thin amnesty, piracy is not over.  Whether Somalia will remain its center is in reasonable doubt.  But there will always be another desperate man and a crew that will follow him, and another prize over the horizon.

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