Rethinking the Cure: Towards a Land-Based Solution for Somali Piracy
Rethinking the Cure: Towards a Land-Based Solution for Somali Piracy
Climate Change and Conflict in Somalia
Climate Change and Conflict in Somalia
Op-Ed / Africa

Rethinking the Cure: Towards a Land-Based Solution for Somali Piracy

The problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean appears nowhere near resolution, at least not in the foreseeable short term. Somalia-based pirate gangs have honed their skills, extended their reach and operate at will, seemingly undeterred by the aggressive naval patrols mounted by a flotilla of warships that have been deployed in these waters. A various and growing array of counter-piracy and deterrence measures — from violent armed attacks on suspected pirate skiffs and motherships to arrests, trials and imprisonment of suspects in Kenya and other non-Somali jurisdictions — have proven less effective than hoped.

It is clear that the strategy so strenuously pushed by the Western naval alliance over the past two years is not meeting expectations. The reason for this ineffectiveness is obvious: The response has remained a predominantly military one, albeit increasingly tempered by legal, political and diplomatic efforts. Since 2009, there has been a discernible shift in international thinking about the problem. The official policy lexicon has changed and, rhetorically at least, everyone now subscribes to the idea of a “multi-pronged” strategy based on “land-based” interventions, consciously targeted at tackling the root causes instead of the symptoms.

Sadly, however, evidence on the ground suggests that not much has changed, and the heavy emphasis on military and security responses remains intact. Despite the rhetoric and the subtle variations in nuance and detail, the dominant tendency has been to militarize the problem. Contrary to claims, the counter-piracy strategy is dominated by a militarist mindset, impervious to mounting evidence that the military response is failing to effectively deal with a problem that is complex and inextricably tied to the prolonged crisis of Somalia.

Military might has demonstrably failed to deter piracy. Extensive and robust patrols, and aggressive pursuits of suspect vessels, have inadvertently displaced the problem. Pirate gangs have simply shifted to less tightly patrolled waters farther from the Somali coast. More troubling, military pressure is unintentionally improving the adaptability, versatility and resilience of the pirate gangs. With ransom payments now at an all-time high, they are using the financial windfall to upgrade and modernize — investing in faster skiffs, high-tech navigation and communications gear, better weapons, etc. In this seemingly uneven contest with some of the world’s best and most advanced navies, a motley collection of Somali pirates is waging a low-tech guerilla campaign on the high seas, their momentum and initiative undiminished, crucially aware time is on their side.

The pirates' greatest tactical advantage over the enemy is time. They know very well that the naval deployment is time-bound and at some point there will be a drawdown, whether because of an adverse shift in domestic public opinion or, as is most likely, budgetary constraints, not to mention the outbreak of another global crisis. Rather than challenge the navies, they can simply opt to outwait them — disbanding temporarily and retreating to their land bases to lie low. Indeed, credible evidence suggests some may have already taken this route, or are in the process of branching off into other, less lucrative, criminal rackets like people smuggling and kidnap-for-ransom. The prospect of such a tactical retreat is, of course, only plausible if military operations do not extend to the land — as some fear — and if the clan-based pirate support networks survive.

If a temporary, tactical retreat is a viable possibility, we should be skeptical of some of the positive statistics routinely churned out by military officials to prove that pirate attacks are on a downward trend, by implication demonstrating the efficacy of the naval operations. To put it differently, to what extent is such a reduction, if true, attributable to a lull induced by a tactical retreat rather than a decisive defeat? Whatever the case, suggestions of a tipping point in the struggle against piracy are premature, as long as military pressure is not consciously combined with and consistently augmented by more crucial, non-military, land-based interventions aimed at bringing about a sustainable long-term solution.

Since 2008, the UN has adopted a flurry of UN resolutions; meanwhile, a number of special task forces, agencies and envoys have been created as part of the fight against piracy. Yet, it is neither evident that overall global coordination has improved, nor that are we anywhere near a discernible strategy and action plan that all the concerned parties are prepared to support. In a way, the piracy problem has become abstracted, much like the problem of terrorism. It is being slowly de-contextualized and overly internationalized, to a point where the concrete drivers of the crisis inside Somalia hardly feature in the debate. This is not accidental. It is deliberate and a function of conflict fatigue, largely brought about by the dismal experiences of state building in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be precise, a jaded, conflict-weary Western policy establishment has little appetite for the heavy lifting needed to tackle the problem at its roots. Yet, the reality is that this what a comprehensive sustainable solution precisely entails.

The prospect of a neat solution achieved with ease and at minimal cost on the high seas is tantalizing, but simply unachievable: There are no shortcuts to dealing with the piracy problem emanating from Somalia. The global community must either embark on the messy, arduous and complicated work of fixing a failed state, or remain stuck in a rut, simply tinkering at the edges of a problem that now risks getting out of hand.
To be fair to the international community, many are sympathetic to the argument that ambitious and sustained efforts are needed to effectively enable Somalis themselves to tackle the problem at the source. There have been modest proposals to train and equip small coastguard units in Puntland, Somaliland and Mogadishu, besides other forms of technical assistance to rebuild and revamp local security infrastructures, the judiciary and prison facilities. Progress has been slow, however, because of numerous and well known challenges. Because of the disappointing history of foreign intervention and state building in Somalia, and the perceived intractability and complexity of the conflict, many in the international community are understandably wary of becoming deeply involved.

But this pessimism is valid only up to a point. Beyond Mogadishu, where a weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is hemmed in by a powerful insurgency and — with the help of some 8,000 African troops — is desperately attempting to recreate a central state, the picture is not so bleak. Besides Somaliland and Puntland, which are relatively stable and have functional governments, a number of tiny self-governing clan-based polities have emerged. Despite their fragility and numerous political, economic and security problems, these polities — such as Galmudug, Ximan and Xeeb in central Somalia — are making tentative attempts to restore stability and overcome the legacy of war and anarchy. The disproportionate amount of international media attention focused on Mogadishu and the grim stories of violence and TFG dysfunction detracts from the positive developments and remarkable peacebuilding and state formation processes now under way in central and northern Somalia.

Because the TFG has struggled to steer the process of devolution, impatient local communities in the periphery have, over the last four years, been busy rebuilding the rudiments of regional state institutions, improving inter-communal harmony, and experimenting with a quasi-democratic and consensual style of governance. In this, they are mimicking similar processes in Somaliland and Puntland. It is true, however, that some of these emerging self-governing regional polities are far from stable, and the gains they have made remain highly tenuous and reversible.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the “revolt against the centre,” and attempts to create viable local administrations, are genuine, organic and underpinned by a remarkable degree of popular support — a political development that stands in stark contrast with the hopeless situation in Mogadishu, where a weak and discredited TFG appears out of sync with the wishes and aspirations of its people. While it may not appear immediately obvious, international support for these fragile entities and “recovery” pockets in central and northern Somalia is the best means to banish the piracy menace from Somalia.

Video / Africa

Climate Change and Conflict in Somalia

In this video, Crisis Group staff speak about the complex relationship between climate change and violent conflict in Somalia.

In this video, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for Climate & Security in Africa, Nazanine Moshiri, and our Senior Analyst for Eastern Africa, Omar Mahmood, speak about the complex relationship between climate change and violent conflict in Somalia, and how important it is to be aware of this and address it at COP27.

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