18th October 2013 Washington DC, USA

Somali Piracy: Now you see it, now you don’t

Tom Hanks and I fell out back in the early 1990’s.  I’m not sure if he noticed.  The problem was, first, that he won the Oscar for Philadelphia when I wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to get it for In the Name of the Father.  Then, to rub salt in my movie-nerd wounds, the awful Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction the following year.  It took me a while to forgive.

Yesterday I broke my Hanks boycott and watched Captain Phillips, a film about the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates.

I was pleasantly surprised.  The film is really well directed, giving it a claustrophobic and highly tense atmosphere.  And, ok I’ll admit, Hanks is on pretty impressive form.

What about the pirates?  Well, that was more mixed. Barkhad Abdi gives a terrific performance as Abduwali Muse, the lead pirate, enabling us to get a better sense of his personality than I was expecting.  His partners are rather more the generic sneering villains.

More relevant to my day job are the few insights the film provides into the real world of Somali piracy and why young men might end up in that life.  But only a few.  One of those comes when Phillips says that there, surely, must be some better way of making money than hijacks and kidnaps.  “Maybe in America,” Muse replies, “maybe in America.”

Poverty or living in a conflict-ridden state can often explain, if not excuse, why people make bad decisions.  Bad decisions like becoming a pirate.  We know the challenges Somalia has faced but I think the fight against piracy shows how the international community, working together, can make a real difference.  In 2010 there were reportedly 151 attacks on ships off the coast of Somalia. Last week Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence, Amanda Dory, told Senators that “piracy is almost non-existent off the coast of Somalia”.  That’s pretty good progress.

I was head of our NATO policy team in London in 2008, when piracy was starting to become a real problem.  The Alliance’s Operation Ocean Shield, the EU’s NAVFOR Operation ATALANTA and the multinational Combined Task Force 151 all helped police the coast around the Horn of Africa.  But the scale of the problem required more than maritime policemen.  So we:

  • supported countries in the region to let seized pirates be prosecuted regionally – the UK has agreements in place with the Seychelles, Mauritius and Tanzania;
  • provided the shipping industry with advice on self-protection measures and government guidelines on the use of armed guards; and
  • led efforts to undermine the piracy business model, including through the opening of a Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecution and Intelligence Co-ordination Centre in the Seychelles.

Those all had genuine impact but perhaps even more important are the longer term efforts to tackle the causes of piracy.  The UK has stepped up efforts to help Somalia reduce poverty and to enhance stabilisation, peace-building and reconciliation.  DFID’s 4-year £250 million Somalia programme will play an important role in that.  And in Brussels last month donors and the Federal Government of Somalia agreed a New Deal compact that will promote security, justice and sustainable development throughout the country.

If you’ve read my blogs before you’ll know I’m optimistic about Somalia.  Some say that recent violence in the country, as well as the horrific attack in Nairobi, show that things are not improving.  I disagree.  Scourges of terrorism, corruption or sexual violence cannot be resolved overnight.  But the example of piracy shows us that things do change.  The real Abduwali Muse is currently serving 33 years in prison.  I hope that the Somalia he finds when he gets out will be a far cry from the broken place that drove him, and others, to piracy.

What of me and Mr Hanks?  Perhaps I will now give him another chance.  Perhaps with his movies you never know what you’re going to get.  Rather like a box of chocolates.

1 comment on “Somali Piracy: Now you see it, now you don’t

  1. Omar
    Terrific blog. You mention the EU role in the form of ATALANTA. But in the week when the External Action Service and the Commission launched a joint communication on the EU’s comprehensive approach, it’s worth saying that Somalia is a good example of how different EU mechanisms can work together. Apart from the naval force, the EU has also been involved in supporting the African Union peacekeepers, Somali security forces and coastguards in all the Horn of Africa countries, and providing significant development and humanitarian assistance. The EU’s chocolate box also has a lot of flavours! Ian

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About Omar Daair

Omar joined the British Embassy in Washington DC in June 2011 as First Secretary covering Africa, the UN and conflict issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office first sent him to…

Omar joined the British Embassy in Washington DC in June 2011 as First Secretary covering Africa, the UN and conflict issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office first sent him to Africa in 2004 to study Arabic in Egypt, followed by a three year posting to Sudan. In Khartoum he focused on internal politics and the Darfur crisis, as well as acting as the Embassy Spokesman. Following two years as Head of the NATO Team in London, Omar returned to Sudan but this time as Head of the UK Office in Juba, South Sudan. During that time he worked on issues relating to the Referendum on southern independence and acted as an Observer during the vote. In his current role Omar covers all of Sub-Saharan Africa but recently most of his time has been spent on Somalia, Mali, Kenya and the DRC. His interest in Africa was first stimulated by his father, who was born in Tanzania. Omar a Masters degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He wants to visit as many African countries as he can but has only got to 12 so far.

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