Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The other side of Somali piracy - and the Melbourne connection

Fascinating story last night on ABC1's Foreign Correspondent program about the phenomenon of piracy emanating out of Somalia. Alongside the global financial crisis and the Swine Flu, the Somali pirates are one of the main stories dominating world headlines at the moment.

Yet in case you are all too ready to see the piracy as merely another example of Africa's unending strife, reporter Andrew Fowler exposed the developed world's key role in giving birth to the piracy epidemic.

See, with Somalia a virtual failed state following years of bitter internal fighting, the country's long coastline was undefended. Opportunistic trawlers from Europe, East Asia and the Middle East soon descended on Somali waters, illegally draining the seas of fish and lobster. In addition, other ships used Somali waters as a convenient dumping ground for toxic waste.

The combined effect was the destruction of the marine ecosystem. Somali coastal settlements, which relied so much on the fishing industry, were economically devastated in a country already battered by grinding poverty. Pushed to the brink, Somali fishermen hit back. Initially, they attacked the foreign trawlers which were operating illegally and threatening their livelihoods. But as you might expect from a country riven by banditry and violence, an increased criminal element became involved, leading to the organised pirate gangs which are grabbing headlines today.

Yet for those Somalis still trying to eke out a legal living by fishing, the increased US naval presence in their waters is an extra burden, as they are constantly hassled by the navy under suspicion of being pirates.

You can read a detailed account of this whole sordid business by Somali/Kenyan analyst Mohamed Abshir Waldo in his piece “The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other?”

One hopes that the West's promised get-tough approach to piracy involves dealing with root causes, rather than just blowing dudes away.

Another interesting aspect of Andrew Fowler's report was the government of Puntland, an self-declared autonomous state north-east Somalia which he describes as "pirate central". Its main port Bosaso has experienced an economic upsurge recently, largely due to pirate activity.

Puntland's new president, Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, was until recently a history PhD student at Melbourne's Latrobe University and refugee settlement worker in Heidelberg. But was lured back by entreaties from many factions and was elected to the top office in January this year.

But the Melbourne connections don't end there. Issa Farah, another former Latrobe student, is now the region's petroleum director, while Farah Ali Jama flew back from Melbourne straight into the job of Finance Minister.

While there were concerns recently about US-raised Somali refugees returning to train as terrorists, here is the other side of the coin. With hundreds of thousands of Somalis having fled to safer lives in Western countries, many are returning to using their new wealth and education to try and rebuild this shattered country. It's a massive ask.

Abdirahman Farole is a great advertisement for Latrobe University - graduate and become a world leader!

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