The hijacking of the super-tanker Sirius Star, carrying 2 million barrels of oil, has dramatically highlighted the problem of piracy along the Somali coast. This was the biggest of over 100 attacks on shipping in the region this year.
The practice of hijacking shipping vessels has proven very lucrative for the pirates with up to $30 million paid over in ransoms so far.
For capitalism, this poses a serious threat to the world economy as the cost of transporting goods through one of the world’s main supply routes has rocketed up to $400 million a year. This is at time when the global economy is acutely vulnerable to outside shocks.
While the official press and commentators have swung between fulminating against threats to their system’s profits and conjuring up nostalgic images of buccaneering pirates, the real significance of what is happening off the coast of Somalia is often missed.
The growth of Somalian piracy is a consequence of years of intervention and exploitation by western powers and also the signal for the development of a new big power rivalry in one of the world’s hot spots.
The source of these attacks are Somali ex-fishermen who organised themselves to prevent poaching by fishing companies from the countries of the big capitalist powers. The Guardian has reported that $300 million worth of fish is poached annually from Somalian waters by trawlers from around the world.
However the problem of poaching is bound up with the fact that Somalia has splintered into a myriad of warring factions and clans. This has laid the basis for fishermen being forced to organise themselves in defence of their livelihoods but also providing them with the means to do so in the form of weapons and ex-militiamen.
David Cockcroft, general secretary of the International Transport Federation comments: “There appears to be steady growth in the numbers of pirates coming from Somalia as local warlords see their neighbours’ power and influence growing after expanding into this area of criminal activity. So you now have not just criminals working close to the coast in fast inflatables, but fishing boats getting into piracy as freelancers, and now organised gangs working far out in international waters using bigger fishing vessels and mother ships.”
The breakdown in Somali society can be directly traced back to imperialist interference. The overthrow of the Said Barre dictatorship in 1991 meant that Somalia had no effective government until 2006, when the forces of the Islamic Courts Union, backed by Somalian businessmen, succeeded in ousting warlords from Mogadishu and the outlines of a stable government began to appear.
They even began to tackle the problem of piracy at the time but were interrupted in this when western governments, aghast at the idea of an Islamic government controlling the coastline so close to major supply routes, lined up behind a US-sponsored invasion from Ethiopia.
Like much of US foreign policy in recent years they have now managed to bring about exactly the situation they have sought to prevent, namely a threat to supply lines. And the problem is getting worse.
In response to the hijacking of the Sirius Star, an unseemly scramble among the world’s big powers has broken out to decide who will control this vital shipping lane. Russia has talked about reopening the Soviet-era base of Aden and even putting ground forces into Somalia. The EU has sent a joint naval command into waters outside the EU for the first time ever.
Japan, with the world’s second largest navy, is debating a bill in the Diet that would authorise the use of force in the region. India has sent a warship, the INS Tabar, into the area which was reported to have clashed with pirates three weeks ago. However, it later emerged that the supposed pirate ship was in fact a Thai vessel that had just been a victim of piracy! The US has just recently set up a separate Africa Command as part of its reorganisation of its military. Fighting piracy is seen as one of its main priorities.
However these measures alone will not effectively combat piracy. At the moment, there are 14 Nato warships off the coast of Somalia trying to cover an area 2.5 million square kilometres in size with over 20,000 ships passing through it annually. This illustrates the extent of the problem.
In reality, a lasting solution can only be reached when the poverty of the local people is addressed through real development of their economies and the waters are policed by the countries of the area with stable, legitimate governments. Capitalism has completely failed to provide either of these things in the region.
Only when foreign interference in these countries ends and the enormous potential wealth and resources are controlled by the working people of the region in a socialist confederation, can the problems of poverty, war and piracy truly be overcome.
Decades of civil strife
In 1960, Somalia gained independence from Britain and Italy. In October 1969 General Said Barre seized power. His dictatorship was backed by the Soviet Union.
Instead of developing the country, Barre launched military offensives against Ethiopia, attempting to annex the Ogaden plateau region in 1976.
Backed by Cuban troops, Ethiopia repelled the incursions. The Soviet Union withdrew its support of Barre’s regime.
In the aftermath, Somalia’s economy was shattered and a weakened president Barre assumed more dictatorial powers. These factors led to internal factionalism.
In 1991, following a brief civil war, Barre was overthrown. Factional fighting between clans split the country, with general Mohammad Farah Aidid controlling the capital Mogadishu.
Bloody inter-clan fighting ensued, while the mass of the population starved. An estimated 300,000 people died and 1.5 million were forced to flee to neighbouring areas.
In response to this crisis, the United Nations sent a humanitarian mission and a ‘peacekeeping’ force in 1992.
The militias clashed with UN ‘peacekeepers’ and US troops initiated operations to capture Aidid and his lieutenants. This led to the ‘black hawk down’ incident in which 18 US soldiers were killed and the subsequent humiliating withdrawal of US forces. UN forces withdrew completely by 1995.
In June 2006, militias of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) ousted the warlords. But after six months of relative stability the country was again thrown into chaos when US-backed Ethiopian troops supporting the weak Somali ‘transitional federal government’ invaded and pushed aside the UIC.
Islamist insurgents have been fighting back against the government and Ethiopian forces, regaining control of areas of southern Somalia.