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Want to stop Somali piracy? Build better roads

Imagine you are a Somali pirate captain. You have hijacked a cargo ship after four weeks out at sea, 800 nautical miles from home. It will take maybe three, perhaps six, possibly 18 months to extract a…

Economic development along the coast would mean hijacked ships have nowhere to hide. EPA

Imagine you are a Somali pirate captain. You have hijacked a cargo ship after four weeks out at sea, 800 nautical miles from home. It will take maybe three, perhaps six, possibly 18 months to extract a US$4m ransom from the owner. You cannot stay on the high seas bristling with foreign navies, and on the coast there are rival gangs and militias who may try to take your ship. But you need the land for communications, food, water and khat, the preferred drug of your crew… Where do you find safe anchorage?

Imagine you are the imam or elder of a village on the Somali coast. The pirates offer you money for safe anchorage. But do you want pirates swaggering around your town, armed to their teeth and high on drugs? They will put off trading boats from Yemen and India. This will drive up prices and deprive your fishermen of customers. Their money will undermine your authority. What if your daughter marries a pirate, your nephew is killed in a skirmish, your son is tried for piracy in Kenya? How will your friends cope with reconnaissance planes overhead, what if they shoot? Anyway, most of the ransom money will be needed for bribes further up the political chain.

Our thought experiment shows that piracy is not an attractive revenue source. Most local elites refused to protect pirates – just as mafias do not necessarily protect every kind of organised crime in their territory. So who makes the choice to protect pirates?

Our analysis of the geography of piracy shows that no port city offered anchorage to pirates: the more trade opportunities the stronger the anti-piracy stance – ranging from local anti-piracy demonstrations to punitive raids on pirates further up the coast. Instead, the pirate anchorages are all located in arid regions well off the main sea trade routes. They have no connection to inland markets for their products, limiting their economic options to subsistence fishing and herding.

And even then, not everyone in these regions accepted the pirate dollar. We find that the intensity of piracy is strongly linked to local elites needing money for territorial defence against other clans or Islamist militias, or for regional election campaigns. We find that once political objectives were achieved the pirates were sent packing. The 2008 “pirate capital” of Eyl cleared its pirate anchorage in 2009 – shortly after the local clan’s candidate moved into the presidential villa in Puntland’s capital Garowe.

From the point of view of the pirate captain above our results seem perverse. If the pirates called the shots you would expect the greatest demand for anchorage in politically stable places. Instead we often see supply in disputed territories, such as the area around Harardhere, hotly contested between local clans and Islamist militias. However, because the decision to host pirates is one born out of economic desperation, the pirates do not greatly care who is in charge of the anchorage: whoever is in power will take their dollars – it is the only option. Vessel tracks of hijacked ships show pirates do not even bother to move their ships as battles rage on land.

Sea-based deterrence in training. EPA

What is the policy implication of this research? International interventions have not solved the underlying issues making hijack for ransom piracy in Somalia possible. Sea-based deterrence is working – but we still spend in the region of US$3 billion a year on a problem that generated an annual revenue stream of just US$50m for Somalia in 2008-2012 – almost all of it on the high seas. With the reduced level of attacks since 2012 the question arises whether private sector vigilance will be relaxed and whether the current level of naval commitment is sustainable in the long run. What can we do to change the operating environment of pirates in Somalia?

Most land-based approaches have focused on “hearts and minds” and “idle hands”. But this strategy ignores the fact that the hijack-for-ransom business is not limited by labour supply, but by the long-term protection arrangement for ships. The 15 attacks and suspicious approaches in 2013 show that once the navies leave and ships ditch their armed guards, the young men will be back for another chance of transforming their life. The more promising law and order approaches await a stable political settlement for Somalia and state structures that genuinely project power in the regions, and this may take a long time.

We focus on where the pirates find protection and find that it is governed by simple economic self-interest. We would advocate a developmental solution based on infrastructure investment tying remote coastal communities into the wider Indian Ocean and regional economy. The former president of Puntland repeatedly asked for a road to his home town of Eyl. His supporters would have been more than compensated for giving up piracy revenue. We don’t need a “contract out of piracy” – with the right incentives, self-interest will solve the problem.

A road will not solve all aspects of maritime crime. Unlike piracy, most maritime crimes (smuggling, trafficking, illegal fishing) are compatible with legitimate trade. However, infrastructure investment in remote areas will help build a secure and stable state. Poor and cut-off areas in Somalia have been fertile recruitment grounds and safe havens for all types of insurgents. We see the road as complementary to state-building and the law and order agenda, not as a substitute. But it is a good place to start land-based counter-piracy.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Goodey

    Researcher

    This is all very well, but it is not our job to (re)build the road system of Somalia. It's not our colony. That's their job. We would be better off fixing the many potholes in the road in England, our own country, and bombing and sinking any of the Somali pirates that we can provisionally identify.

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    1. Vern Wall

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      A typical high-handed approach. "It is not an economic problem, it is a moral deficiency. It is their problem, not ours. The only thing we should do is to beat them into submission."

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    2. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      No, it doesn't, Mrs. Jellyby! Somalia is absolutely nothing to do with us, except that sometimes the Somalis steal our ships and/or kidnap and torture our nationals, for which we should inflict condign punishment on them.

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    3. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Vern Wall

      You have summed up my attitude exactly. Congratulations! Your heart is obviously in the right place.

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    4. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Humanity doesn't suddenly end at any particular boundary, but it naturally fades away with distance, both spatial distance and relationship distance. It's certainly going much too far to say that we are morally obliged to build a decent road system in Somalia; that's ridiculous. In fact, it is the Somali people who are morally obliged to take care of themselves, which they have not been doing very well. We have absolutely no obligation moral, legal, or patriotic to take up their slack.

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    5. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Maybe in theory all people on the planet have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that doesn't mean that each of us should drop his daily concerns and go off to the other side of the Earth with all his worldly goods and help them, either individually or collectively. Such an action would be the act of a lunatic. Have you not read 'Bleak House', in which Dickens gives us the caricature of the "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects in faraway…

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    6. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Yes, a very common response: peoples' wealth is a reflection of their moral worth. But it is simply inconsistent with the facts.

      Somalia was decolonised in the mid 20th century. That may be 'a long time ago' in some perspectives, but it still shapes those peoples' destinies. Ireland was partitioned even longer ago in 1922 but that still shapes Northern Ireland's present along with all the previous history back to the middle of the 16th century.

      Somalia is mainly desert with only 1.7% arable land, compared to the UK which has a temperate climate with 24.9% arable land. That has got nothing to do with Somalia's 'fault'.

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    7. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Whatever amount of arable land they may have, that is no reason for us to go over there and build a road system for them. (Probably while they shoot at us.) Or, more likely, give them a lot of money on the promise that they will build a road system with it.

      Why don't we build a road system for Congo, or Mauritania, or Australia, or Antarctica, while we are about it?

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    8. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Yes, all those countries aside from Antarctica and Australia. Antarctica is uninhabited. Australia is even wealthier than the UK with a gdp of $43,000 per capita. Incidentally, this is not because Australians work harder or better than Brits, but because they have the good fortune to have invaded a land full of minerals close to Japan and China.

      The whole point of tax-transfer systems within economies and of foreign aid is to redistribute wealth from the more to the less fortunate, mixed in with a sizeable part of self interest.

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    9. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Australia is close to Japan???

      Hey, let's go! Dig into your pockets to rebuild Africa from one end to the other, boys... you know it'll be good for your souls and will make you a fortune as well!

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  2. Anja Shortland

    Reader in Political Economy at King's College London

    The point is that billions of dollars are already being spent on managing - but not resolving - the problems caused by state weakness / failure in Somalia. We do not think it is efficient to deploy multi-million dollar weaponry against basic skiffs and rusty pick-up trucks. We spent millions on trying and incarcerating pirates and still they keep coming back. If we want this issue resolved politically, we will wait a very long time. Our paper makes the point that if we change the incentives of the coastal communities harbouring pirates, they will do the counter-piracy for us - at a fraction of the cost.

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    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Anja Shortland

      Yes, but it's morally wrong to reward them (by building up their infrastructure) for misbehavior (tolerating and encouraging piracy).

      What do you mean by, billions of dollars is being spent? If you are referring to foreign aid to Somalia, of course that should be cut off until they drop the piracy thing.

      The days of the Barbary pirates were put a stop to by concerted punitive action by the civilized maritime powers.

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    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      I think the authors mean the billions spent on the naval warships, as they wrote: 'Sea-based deterrence is working – but we still spend in the region of US$3 billion a year . . . '.

      While 85% Somalis may be black, they are not otherwise the same people. Cutting foreign aid would be collective punishment of millions of people who have nothing to do with piracy and would be as morally repugnant as many other of the comments posted on this site.

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    3. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      But we need to run navies anyway, and using them for (trying to) deter piracy is excellent practice for the sailors.

      Of course collective punishment is the only way to cope with this hydra-headed monster. It worked against the Barbary States in the nineteenth century, and it's working (somewhat less well) for the Israelis today as we speak.

      The whole idea is to punish evil, not to reward it.

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