As the first pirate attack of a U.S. ship in 200 years comes to a climax, I'm re-posting an essay I solicited and received several weeks ago from K'naan, a Somali-Canadian singer and activist. A video of a performance by K'naan that I filmed at the All Points West music festival last summer appears below. -- Michael Vazquez
Why We Don't Condemn Our Pirates
Can anyone ever really be for piracy? Outside of sea bandits, and young girls fantasizing of Johnny Depp, would anyone with an honest regard for good human conduct really say that they are in support of Sea Robbery?
Well, in Somalia, the answer is: it's complicated.
The news media these days has been covering piracy in the Somali coast with such
lop-sided journalism, that it's lucky they're not on a ship themselves. It's true that the constant hijacking of vessels in the Gulf of Aden is a major threat to the vibrant trade route between Asia and Europe. It is also true that for most of the pirates operating in this vast shoreline, money is the primary objective.
But according to so many Somalis, the disruption of Europe's darling of a trade route, is just Karma biting a perpetrator in the butt. And if you don't believe in Karma, maybe you believe in recent history. Here is why we Somalis find ourselves slightly shy of condemning our pirates.
Somalia has been without any form of a functioning government since 1991. And although its failures, like many other toddler governments in Africa, sprung from the wells of post-colonial independence, bad governance and development loan sharks, the specific problem of piracy was put in motion in 1992.
After the overthrow of Siyad Barre, our charmless dictator of twenty-some-odd years, two major forces of the Hawiye Clan came to power. At the time, Ali Mahdi, and General Mohamed Farah Aidid, the two leaders of the Hawiye rebels, were largely considered liberators. But the unity of the two men and their respective sub-clans was very short-lived. It's as if they were dumbstruck at the advent of ousting the dictator, or that they just forgot to discuss who will be the leader of the country once they defeated their common foe.
A disagreement of who will upgrade from militia leader to Mr. President broke up their honeymoon. It's because of this disagreement that we've seen one of the most decomposing wars in Somalia's history, leading to millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead.
But war is expensive and militias need food for their families, and Jaad (an amphetamine-based stimulant) to stay awake for the fighting. Therefore, a good clan -based Warlord must look out for his own fighters. Aidid's men turned to robbing aid trucks carrying food to the starving masses, and re-selling it to continue their war. But Ali Mahdi had his sights set on a larger and more unexploited resource, namely: the Indian Ocean.
Already by this time, local fishermen in the coastline of Somalia have been complaining of illegal vessels coming to Somali waters and stealing all the fish. And since there was no government to report it to, and since the severity of the violence clumsily overshadowed every other problem, the fishermen went completely unheard.
But it was around this same time that a more sinister, a more patronizing practice was being put in motion. A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company called Achair Parterns, made a deal with Ali Mahdi, that they were to dump containers of waste material in Somali waters. These European companies were said to be paying Warlords about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe costs about $1000 a ton.
In 2004, after a tsunami washed ashore several leaking containers, thousand of locals in the Puntland region of Somalia started to complain of severe and previously unreported ailments, such as abdominal bleeding, skin melting off and a lot of immediate cancer-like symptoms. Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program, says that the containers had many different kinds of waste, including "Uranium, radioactive waste, lead, Cadmium, Mercury and chemical waste." But this wasn't just a passing evil from one or two groups taking advantage of our unprotected waters. The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that the practice still continues to this day. It was months after those initial reports that local fishermen mobilized themselves, along with street militias, to go into the waters and deter the Westerners from having a free pass at completely destroying Somalia's aquatic life. Now years later, the deterring has become less noble, and the ex-fishermen with their militias have begun to develop a taste for ransom at sea. This form of piracy is now a major contributor to the Somali economy, especially in the very region that private toxic waste companies first began to burry our nation's death trap.
Now Somalia has upped the world's pirate attacks by over 21 percent in one year, and while NATO and the EU are both sending forces to the Somali coast to try and slow down the attacks, Blackwater and all kinds of private security firms are intent on cashing in. But while Europeans are well in their right to protect their trade interest in the region, our pirates were the only deterrent we had from an externally imposed environmental disaster. No one can say for sure that some of the ships they are now holding for ransom were not involved in illegal activity in our waters. The truth is, if you ask any Somali, if getting rid of the pirates only means the continuous rape of our coast by unmonitored Western Vessels, and the producing of a new cancerous generation, we would all fly our pirate flags high.
It is time that the world gave the Somali people some assurance that these Western illegal activities will end, if our pirates are to seize their operations. We do not want the EU and NATO serving as a shield for these nuclear waste-dumping hoodlums. It seems to me that this new modern crisis is truly a question of justice, but also a question of whose justice.
As is apparent these days, one man's pirate is another man's coast guard.