The only reasons that Somalia is in the news these days are the spectacular desperation and criminality of the Somali pirates, the fact that they held an American sea captain hostage, and Hollywood-image sharpshooting by American Navy SEAL commandoes to free him.
This news will quickly fade, but the reasons why the Somali pirates exist and make news in the first place won’t fade. In the past year, nearly 40 ships have been hijacked off the coast of Somalia, with millions paid out in ransom.
But the Somali pirates are not, as some have tried to portray them, modern-day seafaring Robin Hoods who rob from rich, booty-laden European and Asian ships, and then turn the spoils over to their impoverished kin and villagers on the shore. They aren’t, as some Somali pirate mouthpieces have hinted, a kind of unofficial Coast Guard protecting their waters from plundering fisherman and trying to halt illegal waste-dumping off their coast.
A Somali pirate leader candidly told interviewers in Kenya last October, after hijacking a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition, that their sole motivation was to get ransom money.
But it’s more than a money grab that drives the pirates — it’s the never-ending Somali crisis. The U.N. has described the present security situation in Somalia as the worst the country has experienced since the early 1990s, while the U.N.’s Food Security and Analysis Unit has described the level of human suffering and deprivation in Somalia as “shocking.”
In the best of economic days, Somalia still ranked near rock-bottom on every economic and social scale of the world’s poorest countries. The same month that the Ukrainian ship was hijacked, 52 nongovernmental organizations performing relief and humanitarian work in the country implored the U.N. to intervene in the crisis.
There is good reason for the urgent appeal. More than 3 million Somalis, or about half the country’s population, are in desperate need of aid — an increase of nearly 100 percent in the number of deprived people from the start of 2008. The reasons for the desperation are well-known: a devastating drought, record-high food prices and a horrific — and expanding — war waged by gangster militia bands. In 2008, the fighting drove hundreds of thousands from their homes in the cities, pushing the total number of displaced persons in the nation to a staggering 1.1 million.
The greatest impact of the suffering, as it always does, has fallen on the children. One in six children under the age of 5 is acutely malnourished in south and central Somalia. That’s about 180,000 kids.
Somalis are not the only ones in mortal danger from the raging violence. In 2008, 24 aid workers were killed and scores of others were kidnapped while carrying out their work. There were more than 100 reported security incidents directly targeting aid agencies. The majority of the aid workers are Somali nationals, but European workers have also been victims.
The nongovernmental organizations not only begged the U.N. to intervene in the country’s crisis. They also lambasted international agencies for not doing more to protect civilians and aid workers alike.
The piracy escapades have made things worse in a couple of other ways, too. They have taken the focus off of the dire conditions in the country, since much of the Western press has fixated on the sensationalism of the pirates’ acts and President Obama’s response.
Worse, the sea violence and the threat posed to shipping could disrupt the always precarious flow of food and medical supplies to the country’s more than 1 million displaced persons, a total that increases daily. Several international donor groups have appealed to their European and American counterparts to increase pressure on governments to formulate a plan that would ensure piracy doesn’t stop the flow of the aid.
A year ago, the Navy announced plans to build dozens of smaller, more mobile combat ships to better chase down pirates near the shore, and maybe even hit their on shore bases. However, the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates of defense budget cuts puts that plan in doubt.
And even if the ships are built, that wouldn’t do much to stop the piracy. There are always hundreds more desperate, impoverished and violence-scarred young men who would happily take the place of those pirates that American forces knock out.
Meanwhile, Obama’s tough talk to combat piracy is welcome and applauded by all. But the far-larger problem remains the ceaseless crisis of a broken, war-torn nation that pushes thousands of men to high-sea gangsterism. Sharpshooters can’t do much to end that.