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Is there life after piracy in Somalia? The headache of Al Shabaab, politics

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A former powerbroker is turning the business model of piracy on its head: Using a blend of political connections, social clout, and star power not to secure protection for operations, but rather to peacefully wind them down. FILE|TEA Graphic

A former powerbroker is turning the business model of piracy on its head: Using a blend of political connections, social clout, and star power not to secure protection for operations, but rather to peacefully wind them down. FILE|TEA Graphic  Nation Media Group

By FARLEY MESKO Special Correspondent

Posted  Saturday, May 11  2013 at  16:23

In Summary

  • The business of piracy is fundamentally about local politics and protection, and in the messy political reality of Somalia, any sustainable anti-piracy solution will need a sizeable infusion of personal clout and social capital to be successful.
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“We have them in camps,” Afweyne says, speaking through a translator, “Like snakes in a cage.”

He is talking about the more than 900 pirates — from rank-and-file guards to top financiers — in the central Somali state of Ximan iyo Xeeb, being rehabilitated by the local administration.

Assuming this figure is accurate, it would represent nearly all pirates thought to operate in central Somalia, one of the country’s two pirate centres of gravity — the other being the region of Puntland to the north.

In both regions, pirate bosses and their financial backers have been able to obtain protection through personal connections — through bribery and payoffs to local powerbrokers — and by playing on traditional systems of patronage.

Mohamed Abdi Hassan “Afweyne” knows this system better than most, being one of the first and most prolific Somali pirate kingpins.

His organisation was by all objective accounts sophisticated and successful, so much so that it laid the groundwork for the modern hijack-for-ransom business model of Somali piracy that has seen skyrocketing ransom payments. In every sense, he is an unlikely counter-piracy official.

But the business of piracy is fundamentally about local politics and protection, and in the messy political reality of Somalia, any sustainable anti-piracy solution will need a sizeable infusion of personal clout and social capital to be successful. In other words, it may in fact need the Afweynes of this world.

Politics of piracy

According to a recent World Bank study on Somali piracy, between 70 and 86 per cent of pirate ransoms go to rewarding powerbrokers, who help protect the operations politically. The rewards could be bribes to local businessmen and politicians, or above-market wages and prices paid to local militia and shopkeepers to help secure the local clan’s support.

The patronage and protection pirates receive from these local powerbrokers, a by-product of the pirate leaders’ own political and social capital, remain the key obstacles to counter-piracy.

As unsavoury as Afweyne may be, his anti-piracy model is one grounded in the political reality of Somalia.

By investing his own money and leveraging his own connections to convince kinsmen, former business associates, and local youth that piracy is a physically and financially risky investment, Afweyne is effectively turning the business model of piracy on its head: Using a blend of political connections, social clout, and star power not to secure protection for operations, but rather to peacefully wind them down.

The World Bank report describes 2013 as a “window of opportunity” to sustainably eradicate piracy, what with attacks at a five-year low and a new government in Mogadishu enjoying widespread legitimacy and support from the citizenry and the international community.

The report recommends that future efforts to eradicate piracy should be directed at the “enablers rather than the perpetrators of piracy,” addressing issues like corruption and the provision of law and order.

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