More to Somalia than pirates, famine and al-Shabab

English: Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Ha...

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The next book in the African Arguments series is Getting Somalia Wrong by BBC journalist Mary Harper. It is a complex account of a country too often stereotyped by one or two of its most notorious characteristics – recently these being the Islamist insurgency of Al-Shabaab, piracy off its Indian Ocean coast and terrible famine.

Harper’s book has grown out of 20 years working on and in the country, and functions not as a conventional history of Somalia, but rather as a discussion of several key themes central to its present state. Pleasantly surprising was the thread of black humour that runs throughout, created by the description of several historical events that exemplify an admirable, and slightly crazed, Somali independence of spirit. First is the story of the ‘Mad Mullah’ – warrior poet Seyyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan – who fought the British to a standstill in the early 20th century and described himself as ‘a stubborn he-camel’ from whom the British would get ‘war and nothing else.’ When his troops killed a British commander sent to pursue him, he penned ‘a brutal celebratory poem’ detailing how his dead body would be ‘left to the carrion eaters.’

In a neat historical parallel, eighty years later, warlord General Mohamed Farah Aideed had a $20,000 bounty placed on his head by Admiral Jonathan Howe – commander of the US ‘humanitarian’ mission Restore Hope. Aideed responded by promising to pay $20,000 to anyone who brought him the actual head of Admiral Howe. Whilst such violent reactions might seem anathema to us, they underscore a fundamental self-confidence that Harper clearly respects. Long-time scholar of Somalia, Ioan Lewis, puts it another way – Somalis have ‘an open contempt for other people.’

What Harper is trying to do is to resurrect a basic level of respect in discussions about Somalia. From its portrayal as a lawless place, riven with fundamentalist Islam, and latterly suffering the effects of a terrible famine, she argues that these aren’t the only things that happen in the country. Her real interest, I think, was in profiling modern-day Somalia where ‘more than two decades of conflict and crisis have forced Somalis to invent alternative political and economic systems.’ These innovations in the economy, the livestock trade, money transfers and telecommunications reveal something that will be new to many readers – successful Somalis making money. She also clearly admires the political developments in Somaliland – the northern territory that seceded from the Somalia after the collapse of the country’s central government in 1991. Still unrecognised by the international community, Somaliland has slowly developed its own hybrid democratic system with some traditional structures still in place, and is generally peaceful and heading in the right direction.

In conversation Harper refers to Somalia as being “like a complex mathematical equation” – the moving parts being the country’s bewildering clan system, and although some Somalis reportedly deny its modern-day importance, Harper “would take any Somali on who said the clan system was not relevant.” Whilst clans were suppressed under Siad Barre’s pseudo-socialist regime, and their resurgence in the 1990s is sometimes seen as the cause of the civil war, they remain the shifting bedrock upon which Somali society is built. I ask what she thinks defeat of the Islamist group Al-Shabaab would do for the country. The answer is perhaps surprising – far from ending the violence, Harper predicts that Somalia might, at least initially, take a step backwards, as the more ingrained divisions would resurface and regional clan-based groups take up arms again against each other. Whilst she deals harshly with the violent and reactionary Islam of Al-Shabaab, she states that their presence has softened the influence of the clan in Somalia. Whilst this has been achieved “largely through fear,” she also argues that there might be some things to learn from this about the way Somali society works.

This desire to develop a new ‘take’ on almost all facets of Somalia’s poorly reported public profile is nowhere more in evidence than in her chapter on the pirates. Harper is blunt in her statements to me that Somali pirates are “common criminals”, and does not accept the fashionable counter-narrative that they are coastguards or fishermen driven to piracy through foreign exploitation of their fishing grounds. She seeks to write about Somalia’s most notorious product “on their own terms”, and includes several interviews with people who have been pirates. Piracy is clearly a profitable business, and is a product of both the Somali entrepreneurial élan, and the lack of economic opportunities on land due to chronic political instability, banal as this explanation may sound.

Harper evidently has a love and fascination for Somali people. She tells me that “Somalis give me massive freedom as both a journalist and human being.” Whilst she inhabits a position somewhat elevated from the average Somali women, whose opportunities are limited in what is a conservative, male-dominated society; she doesn’t recognise the real bitterness against this culture characterised in the writings of Ayan Hirsi Ali, and a string of western commentators on the ‘Islamic world’.

In this, and many other topics, Harper isn’t necessarily positive about the country’s future, and is wary of making fashionable predictions, she is however keen to show that not everything about the place is broken.

Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor, African Argumeents Online.

Getting Somalia Wrong is being launched by the Royal African Society at SOAS on the evening of 7th February – click here for more information.

Getting Somalia Wrong: faith, war and hope in a shattered state – By Magnus Taylor | African Arguments.

$4million ransom paid to #Somalia pirates | List of seized vessels

English: somali pirates at large

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Somali pirates have freed the 18-man crew of a Maltese-flagged chemical tanker after the payment of a $4 million ransom, the maritime editor of the Somalia Report said on Monday.

Andrew Mwangura, an authoritative source on piracy, said the crew – three Turks and 15 Georgians – sailed to the Kenyan port of Mombasa in a tugboat after their release last week, while the tanker, the MV Olib G, was abandoned off the Somali coast.

The Greek-owned and -operated chemical tanker was seized in the Gulf of Aden while on its last trip before the scrapyard, according to Mwangura, a former regional maritime official.

The seas off Somalia have been plagued by piracy in recent years as Somali gangs have exploited 20 years of lawlessness in their Horn of Africa country by seizing vessels and demanding huge ransoms for them and their crews.

Kenya’s military says piracy has become less frequent since it sent forces into neighbouring Somalia last October to fight al Shabaab rebels and stationed its navy off its southern coast.

The empty tanker with its 21 crew was seized south of Salalah port in the Gulf of Oman. The 52,455 dwt Marshall Islands-flagged tanker is managed by Mumbai-based Anglo-Eastern Ship Management.
The Olip G merchant vessel was also released this month. It was seized in September 2010 with a crew of 18.

Here are details of ships held by Somali pirates:

  • SOCOTRA 1: Seized on Dec. 25, 2009, in the Gulf of Aden.

The Yemeni-owned ship had six Yemeni crew.

  • ICEBERG 1: Seized on March 29, 2010. Roll-on roll-off

vessel captured 10 miles from Aden. Crew of 24.

  • CHOIZIL: Seized on Oct. 26, 2010. South African-owned

yacht hijacked after leaving Dar es Salaam. One crew member was
rescued by an EU anti-piracy task force but two others were
taken ashore as hostages and have not been heard from since.

  • ALBEDO: Seized on Nov. 26, 2010. Malaysian-owned cargo

vessel taken 900 miles off Somalia as it headed for Mombasa from
UAE. Crew of 23 from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran.

  • ORNA: Seized on Dec. 20, 2010. The Panama-flagged bulk

cargo vessel, 27,915 dwt, owned by the United Arab Emirates, was
seized 400 miles northeast of the Seychelles. Somali pirates
rescued 19 crew members of the Orna after their hijacked ship
caught fire last June.

  • LIQUID VELVET: Seized on Oct. 31, 2011. The Marshall

Islands-flagged Greek-owned chemical tanker was sailing from
Suez and heading to India when it was seized in the Gulf of
Aden. The 11,599 dwt, owned by the Greek firm Elmira Tankers,
was carrying 22 people on board.

  • ARIDE: Seized November 2011. The fishing vessel was captured 65 miles west of Mahe. The two Seychelles crew are

being held hostage by Somali pirates.

  • ENRList of seized vesselsICO IEVOLI: Seized on Dec. 27, 2011 .

Ship-owner Marnavi said that the 16,631-tonne chemical tanker had been seized by pirates off the coast of Oman in the Arabian sea. The tanker had 18 people on board including six Italians, five Ukranians and seven Indians. The vessel is carrying a cargo of caustic soda and had left the United Arab Emirates bound for the Mediterranean.

Laaska News


Reuters/Ecoterra International/International

Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre/Lloyds

List/ here