Wednesday, 29 February 2012

AFRICA: Somaliland Takes On The Pirates (S. Opryszek)

The walls of Hargeisa's prison loom over the city, giving shade to the peddlars and bored soldiers who sit and chew hallucinogenic khat leaves. Opposite the prison a barber works like crazy while the mechanic next door tries to fix a bike using a rock.

"Get outta here! F**k you!", shouts one of the soldiers, brandishing his rifle. In his faded uniform and red flip-flops he cuts a rather comical figure. His colleagues do not react so he takes matters into his own hands and attempts to scare me off by himself.

He is not fooling around. The fight against pirates, who fill the prison, is a very important matter for Somaliland, which lies on the Gulf of Aden-- a piracy blackspot. Since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has never had such a good chance to make friends with Western governments.

Somaliland has still not been officially recognised by any country. 2 decades of stable Islamist government have ensured rapid economic growth-- at least by the Horn of Africa's standards.

In contrast to Somalia, Somaliland is safe and is, theoretically, a democracy although corruption is blatant and widespread. "Somaliland inherited the rule of law from its British colonial rulers. Somalia inherited the mafia from the Italians-- it is swarming with black mafiosos, an African Naples." So jokes one of the hundreds of currency dealers in Hargeisa.

The currency dealers sit in the streets with bags, and even sacks, of money. To buy 1 dollar you need a large wad of Somaliland shillings- 6,000 in all. Despite the droughts and famines which have ravaged the Horn of Afria recently, one can still eat several solid dinners with their 1 dollar / 6,000 shillings.

My 'guide' expects to be paid 600,000 shillings in return for gaining me access to the new 'pirate prison' in Hargeisa- through unoffical channels, of course. "You will have to pay another 600,000 to the prisoners if you want to talk to them." He does not hide the fact that if I do not pay, he will betray me to the authorities.


Piracy is still a hot topic on the Somali coast. They are no longer small-scale, independent bandits but instead work for 'clients' who equip them with kalashnikovs and better boats, but who also treat them as cannon-fodder. "We risk our lives but we only end up with a quarter of the ransom money" said a former pirate in an interview with the local press. His 'clients' came from Jemen and Kenya.

On the Somali coast piracy is still good business. Young boys dream of following in the footsteps of famous local pirates who live in relative luxury. Often, relatives of pirates who have been killed or arrested decide to take to the seas. The concept of revenge still plays a large role in the Somali clan society.

A decade ago, 335 attacks on shipping were reported around the world. Last year there were 895 and more than half took place in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast.

The tally is still rising: In the first half of January the Somali coast alone saw 8 pirate attacks. The pirates are not only better armed, they are also becoming more and more brutal. They are playing for significant stakes-- 12 billion dollars according to American estimates.

The government of Somaliland sees the fight against piracy as a golden opportunity. "This could be a step on the road to recognition of our country from the UN and the USA. It is high time that the world took notice of our development and efforts to achieve full sovereignty," says Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, who occupies the posts of both president and head of government.

One of his ministers, who refused an official interview, admits that as long as piracy remains a problem, Somaliland has a chance of gaining international recognition. "When the pirates have been defeated everyone will forget about us. Who is going to care about the problems of a desert country in the Horn of Africa?"

The desire for recognition is the main factor behind Somaliland's war on the pirates. In 2 years over 300 pirates have been imprisoned by the Somaliland authorities. In the long-term, however, Somaliland is not equipped to win the war. There are no laws in place which can punish pirates for attacking ships at sea.

"In Holland, Somali pirates have been sent to prison for 7 years. In the USA they have been given life sentences and in Jemen they have even been sentenced to death. We can put them in prison for 8, 10 or 20 years for illegally entering our territorial waters, for possessing a firearm or for armed robbery. We can not put them on trial for piracy." says a high-ranking offical from Somaliland's Justice Ministry.


Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa, is a compact city in the central part of the country. The sandy streets are host to a handful of government buildings, a large hotel and numerous street markets and mounds of rotting rubbish. Hargeisa throbs with life and the traffic jams start at the crack of dawn, the din of car horns falling silent only when the imans' calls to prayer issue from the Mosques.

Here and there someone rides past on a camel. Life flows to the rhythm of the hallucinogenic khat leaves. Drivers chew them behind the wheel, the police chew them and so do the guards at Hargeisa's new prison, opened last April thanks to 1.5 million dollars from the UN and EU. 87 of the most dangerous Somali pirates are incarcerated inside.

Last September Somaliland set up a dedicated anti-piracy task force. Funds have been ring-fenced for the Coast Guard in order to purchase more boats, guns and GPS systems. It is still not enough. About 600 guards have to patrol over 850 km of coastline. Mission impossible 24 / 7.

Admiral Ahmed Osman, head of the Coast Guard, recieves visitors in a small dark office in the centre of Hargeisa. "99% of the pirates are from Puntland. They are young men who are looking for one big payday to set them up for life. Most of the pirates we catch are just beginners. The ones who give the orders stay well away from trouble but they are the ones causing the trouble," he says.

Some of the Admiral's men have been trained by US Marines in Texas and Virginia but there is little they can do when the older boats break down, or when jeep patrols have to be cancelled due to petrol shortgaes at the end of each month. Still, they are faster and better-equipped than the pirates.

"If one looks at all the pirates attacks last year, one will see that not a single attack took place in Somaliland's waters-- that is down to our success. We have a great intelligence network, people inform us whenever the pirates come ashore to buy supplies. Often, when they cannot flee, they throw their weapons overboard and tell us that they are fishermen. That is when I ask them 'What are you fishing with? Your bare hands!'" The Admiral's laugh reverberates off the walls, which are covered in diplomas and maritime maps.


Somewhere on the asphalt road between Hargeisa and Berbera there stands the wreck of a tank, a relic of the days of the dictator Siad Barre. Under a blazing sun a tired-looking woman hangs up laundry from the gun barrel. This sad picture does not mean war is a thing of the past. A border dispute with neighbouring Puntland (another Somali region which has de facto independence) is still ongoing.

Undefined borders, which prevent Somaliland being recognised by the African Union, are just one of the country's  problems. Another problem is the fact that several key politicians have been accused of channelling funds to Al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist organisation which wields power in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab is currently under attack from Kenya, which has the support of the Obama administration.

Somaliland's window to the world has always been Berbera, the prinicpal seaport of the region. For years the city was awash with pirates who came to town to spend their loot-- mostly on cars, electronics and camels. Today, according to the admiral, the pirates only come into port when the Coast Guard tow them in. "Once 2 desperate pirates stole a camel and escaped inland. Idiots! They are only fast at sea" says Mohamad, a fisherman from Berbera. He has not become a pirate himself. Yet. "Who knows? If I start to run out of money, maybe I will risk it. But don't write that!" he laughs.

For every pirate from Somaliland there are 99 from Puntland, another self-declared republic albeit one which is far less successful in terms of stability, democracy and prosperity. In Berbera one can hear stories of a Coast Guard officer who, frustrated by meagre pay (32 dollars a month), become a pirate himself. His former colleagues now keep him under lock and key in the capital. In an linguistic irony, badaadinta badah-- 'pirate' in the local language-- literally means 'guard of the coast.'

It is in Berbera, a small city blasted by 40 degree heat, that one finds the second 'pirate prison'. Built in 1884 by the Ottomans, it does not give an impression of impregnability and sports craked walls and terrible sanitary conditions.

Admiral Ahmed Osman says, "We should catch the pirates and the world should help us incarcerate them. We can catch a hundred but a thousand will take their place. Only a strong and efficient justice system can deter them from piracy."


On of the Hargeisa prison gaurds, his teeth green from khat, is prepared to talk about life for the pirates behind bars in exchange for a few dollars. "If someone once lived as free as a fish in the sea then it must be difficult to be cooped up. Some of them never see their families, there is no real procedure for visiting." The he tells me the story of a certain Ahmed who spoke to a foreign journalist during the prison's opening ceremony. "He told the journalist with a smile that he planned to go back to piracy as soon as he got out. Now he'll have to wait for a second life" laughs the guard.

A few months previously 2 pirates escaped from the prison in Berbera-- Farah Ismail Idle and Abdirashid Ismail Haji who are both known on the coast for their audacity. The prison guards had been bribed with over 100,000 dollars in cash. Government radio and TV did not dwell too much on the story. After this incident, only a miracle can gain one access to the prisons via offical channels. One needs permission from several Ministries-- Information, Foreign, Justice and Interior.. In total, 7 permits, dozens of offices, hundreds of wasted hours, one passport confiscated by a civil servant fishing for a bribe and in the end.... Nothing.

No Minister wants to talk any more about fighting piracy and full independence. The nervous chewing of khat, the wind above the desert..."The sand always brings change" smiles the prison guard. The hardest fight, not only against piracy, still awaits Somaliland. For now, all there is to do is chew khat and wait.

Author: Szymon Opryszek  Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine nr.7 (633) 19/02/12  

The original Polish article can be read here.


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