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

Saturday May 11 2013

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

“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.

It concludes that the “long-term solution to piracy off the Horn of Africa cannot be dissociated from the construction of a Somali state that is viable at both central and local levels.”

Afweyne agrees that the solution to piracy is political. He acknowledges that investments in piracy-afflicted areas alone will not work, despite his repeated pleas for financial support from the Somali government and the international community.

Least likely to bring change would be to continue the cycle of paying ransoms for hostage release: “The pirates cannot be bought. They are too hungry.”

According to Afweyne, the key sponsors of pirates in Puntland are members of the administration there, which suggests localised corruption, but the business has a much more problematic stakeholder in central Somalia: The local Al Shabaab militia, based in Xarardheere.

Little hope exists for eradicating piracy in central Somalia as long as Al Shabaab remains powerful and invested, providing political and military protection and access to the sea for pirate operations.

However, if there is a silver lining to this predicament, it is that Al Shabaab in these areas shares only a name with the hardline factions battling Amisom in much of the country’s south.

Even though there have been increasing reports of southern jihadists moving north as they cede territory to Amisom, “They come through, yes, but why stop them? Why fight them? We don’t know where they are going and we don’t care,” said Afweyne.

Politics of amnesty

Afweyne is particularly incensed by recent media coverage of his “retirement,” which he insists actually took place in 2006.

“They misquoted me; I retired from piracy during the time of the Islamic Courts Union. I have been working with the Federal Government since April 2012, and joined this specific anti-piracy initiative in November.”

Sure enough, 20 minutes into the interview another former pirate leader, who gives his name only as Abdullahi, shows up with a copy of Afweyne’s appointment letter as an “Anti Piracy Officer,” signed in April 2012 by Dr Mohamed Moallim Hassan, director-general of the Presidency for the Transitional Federal Government.

Afweyne’s efforts to reinvent himself as an anti-piracy envoy have been met with an understandable degree of scepticism by members of the international community.

Particularly piqued by his rebirth is the US government, which opposes amnesty for pirate leadership — it has gone to great lengths to prosecute even relatively low-level pirates such as Mohammad Saaili Shibin, the opportunistic negotiator for the S/V Quest hijacking in which four Americans were killed.

Even President Hassan Sheikh Mohammed has scaled back his support for the amnesty plan, clarifying that it would be extended to low-level pirates only. For now.

Nobody interviewed for this story in Somalia is under any illusions about the palatability to the international community of granting former pirate leaders political appointments.

Here is where the political reality of Somalia again rears its head: The Somali political class, including the new government, is peppered with “reformed” warlords, militia commanders, and generally unsavoury characters, including former Al Shabaab and other Islamist militants.

Still, Western donors are racing to infuse the new federal government with cash.

Kenya, another bastion of Western support in East Africa, is hedging its political future in Somalia on a former Islamist militia commander who was at one time allied with current leaders of Al Shabaab and hails from a small southern Somali town where Al Qaeda members in East Africa found sanctuary after US embassy bombings in Nairobi 15 years ago.

Further, the rumour mill in Mogadishu is rife with stories that the new government is negotiating a behind-the-scenes political settlement with some of the more moderate leaders of Al Shabaab (a widely popular strategy).

A senior Amisom official even acknowledged, on condition of anonymity, that the international mission is open to reconciliation with all moderate members of the Al Shabaab who renounce violence, “especially senior leadership.”

Within this political context, many feel that amnesty for pirates is a solution with promise; why should it be derailed because of the chequered past of the protagonists, in Somalia of all places?

Whichever way the policy debate shakes out between Washington and Mogadishu, Afweyne is on the hook to 900 pirates for investment and jobs, an unenviable position from any perspective.

Even staying in Mogadishu is a calculated risk: In an effort to placate Western supporters, the new government may decide at any minute that he’s overstayed his welcome. After all, the last transitional government, not the new permanent government, signed his appointment letter.

But he could end up even worse off if he returns to central Somalia empty-handed, too many more times. Either way, the larger policy question of amnesty for pirate leaders remains.

Not a single high-ranking pirate has been captured or prosecuted by the international community, and only recently have countries in the region developed the capability and will to incarcerate pirates, instead of just returning them to Somalia or Somali waters.

So for now, even with the support of the new federal government in Mogadishu, the “window of opportunity” to sustainably eradicate piracy through land-based political approaches remains complicated by two realities: The power dynamics on the ground in central Somalia, where Al Shabaab remains powerful and invested, and the diplomatic wrangling over amnesty for senior pirate leaders.

Outside Mogadishu, the goal of the new government and its international sponsors is to build inclusive local governance institutions, capable of providing law and order and basic services, a plan that maps neatly to the Bank’s finding that sustainably eradicating piracy requires a Somali state that is also viable at local levels.

In such a scheme, local powerbrokers like Afweyne can either be included in the reconciliation and rehabilitation process, regardless of their chequered pasts, or isolated and left to emerge as eventual spoilers.

This is the essence of a political contract: To be successful, all relevant stakeholders must be included in the process in return for condemning and working to eradicate piracy.

More importantly, it is also a model rooted in the spirit of reconciliation and political rebirth that has helped Somalia achieve the modicum of peace and stability it enjoys today.