JANUARY 28, 2012 12:23PM

Why There Are Pirates in Somalia

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In 1991, a memo was written. It was signed by Larry Summers, who would eventually go on to become the director of the National Economic Council for the Obama administration, where he would mostly ignore Obama's direct orders to reform banks. At the time of the memo, he was the Chief Economist of the World Bank. The memo was leaked.

While it remains a controversial little piece of paper that just about everyone has disowned, it states something that many developed countries have known for decades: the east coast of Africa is a great spot for dumping nuclear, and otherwise highly toxic, waste.

In fact, it's also a great spot for illegal fishing, even if you're actually impinging on another country's sovereignty and one of its only sources of food. After all, most countries that fish there have plenty of firepower to guard both the ships dumping chemicals into the ocean and the ships fishing out the waters on the coast.

This goes doubly for a country that hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, like Somalia. Sure, there's an "interim government" that proudly claims to control 60% of the capital city of Mogadishu, but that's not really my idea of a functioning government. 

The Real Pirates

According to columnist Johann Hari of The London Independent:

“As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.”

He writes that more than $300 million worth of seafood is being pillaged from the coastal waters each year, too. Which is fine, I guess, since those fish would probably be glowing with poisonous radiation by the time any Somali fishermen caught them. Even South Park touched on this subject, yet somehow most everyone has gotten away with deeming every Somali trying to defend their coasts or trying to make a living the only way they can (smuggling, stealing, and kidnapping), a “pirate.” A primitive term that turns the problem into a cartoon, justifiably concluded with guns each time.

All of the brutal background of Somali piracy almost crested the surface when it was revealed that one of the pirates shot down by a sniper in 2009 was 16. In the United States, he would have been given a second chance. In the United States, he would have been considered a juvenile.

I again thought about this with the most recent showdown with pirates. Oh, well... we're calling them that. Even though Reuters reports that "the U.S. military had no evidence to connect them to piracy."

 I especially couldn't help noticing the disconnect between piracy and the other problem that Somalia has become known for: nation-wide starvation that has reached “unimaginable proportions.”

As if the two aren't related. These hostage situations are complicated and there's no uncomplicated solution, but I can't help but feel a little queasy when I see papers hailing the actions of the Navy SEALs, without looking at the other side of the issue. The SEALs are undeniably heroes for risking their lives to rescue people from almost certain death.

But why did they have to do it in the first place?

I made a comic in MS Paint about the subject that can be viewed here. Please be aware: this comic will probably make you uncomfortable. 



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Thank you for making these great points. I totally get the nuclear dumping and the desperation. What a world and the US has created a mess with its mega power. We try but it is a mess.
I always root for the Somali pirates.
I think the policymakers in the US know the connection, but they don't have a workable solution. Invade Somalia and hope it works better than it did in the 90s, under UN efforts at restoring order? Hope it works better than it is working in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The world would be a lot less messy place if we knew how to solve intractable problems.
That question--Why did they have to do it in the first place?--keeps running through my head. Thanks for poking at this issue with such a sharp stick while the rest of us tend to walk around it.
So let me get this straight. A "kid" along with two others boarded an American ship, kidnapped the captain, and held him hostage. When it got to the point where one of them pointed an AK-47 at the hostage and the captains when from being in danger to the verge of losing his life the SEALs took them all out, and you think the SEALs are the problem because one of the people holding a weapon turned out to be younger than you liked? So how old do you have to be before you can't be shot before you shoot someone you have taken hostage?