Book Review from the August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates. By Jay Bahadur. (Profile £12.99.)
Somalia is often referred to as a ‘failed state’, one with no effective central authority. Instead there are a number of autonomous enclaves, owing little if any allegiance to the official capital, Mogadishu. One of these is Puntland in the north-east, which, with a long coastline on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, has become a centre for piracy (over forty hijackings in 2008, for instance, with ships, crew and cargo held for ransom of several million US dollars).
Fishing (especially for lobsters) used to be one of the main occupations in Puntland, but from the 1990s fishing fleets from other countries (mainly China, Taiwan, South Korea) began using dragnets and so destroyed much of the marine life, leaving locals with no reliable source of income. The effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami aggravated the situation. Many Puntlanders retaliated by capturing the fishing vessels and keeping their catches, but then graduated to full-scale piracy.
Some pirates benefit far more financially than others. The ‘holders’, who guard the crew once a ship has been captured, earn about US$10 an hour, while those who carry out the attack get a fair bit more (but have a much greater chance of being killed or arrested). The controller of a pirate gang might receive a million dollars per hijacking, so they are in effect rather like capitalist bosses.
And indeed the pirate industry has a number of similarities to other capitalist enterprises. There are investors who expect a return, both single investors and those who operate on a private equity model. As Bahadur says, “Piracy is not so much organized crime as it is a business, characterized by extremely efficient capital flows, low start-up costs, and few entry barriers.”
The Puntland pirates benefit from the area being not quite ungoverned but not completely stable either. There is no out-and-out civil war, unlike other parts of Somalia, but neither is there an effective coastguard operation. The Puntland government officially has a clampdown on piracy, but cannot afford to implement this properly. Instead, private security companies place staff on some ships, and international navy patrols are another deterrent. But there is an awful lot of ocean to cover, and a comprehensive naval force would cost far more than is paid out in ransoms.
Bahadur bases a lot of his discussion on interviews with pirates and members of Puntland’s government. His suggested solutions (such as enlarging the local prisons and stopping illegal fishing) can hardly be taken seriously, though. And it is, to say the least, unfortunate that he refers to Said Barre, who ruled Somalia in the 1970s and 80s, as a “Marxist dictator”.