Somali pirates began as volunteer coast guard

Today's charging of Somali pirate Abduhl Wali-i-Musi along with the rescue of US ship captain, Richard Phillips, from Somali pirates has brought the world’s attention to Somalia once again, but the story of why Somali fishermen became pirates nearly 18 years ago is seldom told.



Somalis initially banded together to protect the more than 1,000 miles of their country’s coastal waters from illegal fishing vessels and the dumping of toxic waste. When Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, Somalia disintegrated into warring clans, each with its own militia. Fourteen different national governments followed but have failed to unite the country. Ethiopia, inspired and supported by the US, invaded Somalia in December 2006 to remove the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) from power, accusing it of ties with Al Qaeda. UIC had controlled and stabilized southern and central Somalia during 2006. A Transitional National Government was installed.

Without a central government in control, foreign ships from Europe and Asia headed for the unprotected coastal waters of Somalia, intimidating and harassing the smaller Somali fishing boats and even stealing their nets. When Somali fishermen complained to the United Nations, foreign ship owners hired rival clan militias for protection. Ships would dump trash and garbage into the waters before leaving. By 2005 an estimated 700 foreign-owned vessels were engaged in unlicensed fishing in Somali waters, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “They are not only taking and robbing us of our fish, but they are keeping us from fishing,” said fisherman Jeylani Shaykh Abdi, “They have rammed our boats and cut our nets.”

An even more threatening and disastrous practice was exposed in 1996 in the northern region of Puntland in Somalia on the Gulf of Aden. It was reported then that a ship, the Red Jolly, had dumped toxic waste in Somali waters. Proof came when the 2004 tsunami washed ashore several leaking containers. Radioactive waste and toxic chemicals drifted onto beaches. As a result, tens of thousands of Somalis became seriously ill.

A wide range of medical problems were reported - abdominal bleeding, skin disorders, breathing disorders and cancer-like symptoms. Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program, said the containers had many different kinds of waste including uranium, lead, cadmium, mercury and other chemicals. It is believed that 300 people died from the toxic chemicals. The UN Environmental Program called for a full investigation of illegal dumping off the shores of Somalia. It never happened. The UN refused to act. Despite the evidence there was no compensation paid and no clean-up. A Swiss firm, Achair Partners, and an Italian firm, Progresso, admit they made a deal with warlord Ali Madi, which allowed them to dispose of certain wastes for $3 a ton. To properly dispose of these wastes in Europe would have cost $1,000 a ton.

In late 2005 Somali fishermen armed themselves and began seizing ships and demanding ransom from the owners. They promised the money would be used to clean up the coastal areas. The fishermen transformed themselves into a new wave of pirates and unemployed young men in every coastal village wanted to join them. Professionals and business people offered ideas and planning skills. The clan leaders demanded their cut as did every local political official. Commercial ships are forbidden by international law to use arms or to be armed, making it easy for the “pirates” to capture their vessels. By 2008 Somali pirates had developed a sophisticated operation using speed boats rather than row boats or canoes. Satellite phones have improved their communication. Ransoms ranged from $500 to $2 million for each of the 42 ships captured in 2008. “We never hurt anyone or steal their cargo” said Januna Ali Jama, a pirate leader. “The Somali coastline has been destroyed. We believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation we have seen on the seas.”

UN special envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould Abdallah has sounded the alarm as European and Asian companies continue to dump toxic wastes in the region. When Ambassador Ripert of France, president of the European Union, was asked what the EU planned to do about the waste issue, he answered, “I have no comment on this issue.” The warships of the most powerful global powers patrol the Gulf of Aden, since it is the gateway to the Red Sea, Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. Yet not once has any of these ships stopped or seized any of the ships dumping toxic waste.

Republicans are calling for a US invasion of Somalia to remove Al-Shabab, the former militia of the Union of Islamic Courts. It is accused of firing on a plane carrying US Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) out of Mogadishu on April 13. As of yet, no country is calling for an end to illegal dumping in the coastal waters of Somalia.