STOPPING PIRACY; IS THE MEDIA INFLUENCING THE OUTCOME?

In this opinion piece Nirmal Shah, Nature Seychelles CEO asks whether we need to make a mental Zen shift away from the media stories on piracy to see the problem as it really is.

Nirmal Shah-Seychelles 8/6/2009

“They look so young” whispered a woman in the excited crowd that had gathered in Victoria, capital of the Seychelles to watch Somali pirates being arraigned in court. The last time pirates had been seen here was probably more than two hundred and fifty years ago when some Corsair or other arrived in Victoria harbor.

And this is the point. At that time great powers were warring for power and resources in the Indian Ocean, and pirates, whether independent or working for King or Queen, were wreaking havoc on trading ships. I think the same has been happening now but our opinions are being swayed by media reports. We need to make a mental Zen shift away from the media stories to see the problem as it really is.

 The exploits of the Somali pirates as far as the Seychelles have struck fear across the board and slammed the region’s economy. The Western Indian Ocean tuna fishery fell by 30% last year owing to pirate attacks on tuna vessels. As national and international military forces scale up their responses, and national and international press give us almost blow by blow reports, we need to ask ourselves whether a purely military response will solve the problem.

The piracy problem in Somalia has its roots in the instability of the country after the civil war but also in another form of piracy practiced by foreign nations in Somali waters. This is a dirty little secret that is not talked about in the media but lies at the core of the problem.

Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers Assistance Programme in Nairobi says that since the civil war began in Somalia around 1991, illegal fishing trawlers started to trespass and fish in Somali waters even within the 12 mile territorial waters. These vessels encroached on local fishing grounds. A struggle then began between local fishers and the illegal fishing vessels. The foreign trawlers used strong arm tactics against the local fishers, even pouring boiling water on them and crushing the smaller boats and killing fishers. Mwangura says that it is little wonder that the locals began to arm themselves.

The cycle of warfare has been escalating ever since. At one time there were up to 800 illegal fishing vessels in Somali waters. Most of these vessels are owned by EU and Asian companies. Once the Somalis started to seize the foreign illegal vessels to make them stop they were approached to ransom them back. Thus, their appetite for bigger and better targets started to grow.

The problem is exacerbated by the extreme poverty in the country. According to Oxfam over three million Somalis need desperate assistance and one million have fled their homes in the past two years. Oxfam policy advisor Robert Maletta says, "The piracy issue that has grabbed international headlines is a symptom of deeper issues that have gone unaddressed since the collapse of the national government."

Brett Schaefer, Jay Kingham fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation writes that only ground and sea based military action will not be successful at stopping the piracy but that other matters have to be taken in hand including a recognition of the failure of trying to impose a  Centralized State Authority, helping local Somali authorities to improve their governance structures and mature politically, increasing international cooperation to dissuade Somali pirates, and improving the lives of poor and destitute Somalis .

I think a game change is needed in the way such issues are addressed. And many of us remain disappointed that regional bodies like the Indian Ocean Commission, SADC and others as well as large, donor funded development and environmental projects ongoing in our region are not taking this multifaceted problem on board as a development issue. Is this because the media is still reporting on the piracy as purely a law and order problem? (END).

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