How Somalia ended piracy

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How Somalia’s coastal communities ended piracy

Hazel Healy speaks to Jamal Osman, who has reported on piracy since 2008.

HAZEL HEALY: Tell me about how Somalis have changed what they think about pirates.

JAMAL OSMAN: I was in Garowe in 2008. I was asking people what they thought, and people said: ‘pirates are brilliant’, ‘heroes’, ‘good guys’. I returned in 2010, to the same place, and attitudes had changed. Now they were ‘bad guys’. People had burned down some of the pirates’ houses.

Somalia has a civil war, but it is a very conservative place. At first, pirates were working outside the country, making money from foreigners. But then there were local effects. The pirates got rich too quickly. They bought alcohol from Ethiopia, young boys and girls were getting drunk. There was more prostitution. Pirates went to men with beautiful wives and tried to buy them, even if they had many children. They drove cars very fast, drunk, and killed people. They said: ‘All they need is blood money – it’s only 100 camels, I can give them 200. I don’t care.’

What did local people say about the pirates’ bad behaviour?

Locals began to turn away from them, and fight against them, from about 2009. People said: ‘We can’t accept this.’ Important people got involved, and religious leaders. They thought pirates were going against Islam. There was one group, ‘Fathers Against Pirates’ – their wives or daughters had become the mistresses of pirates. They really wanted to end it.

And there were parents whose children had died. I interviewed one father who had lost three sons on pirate missions, and he was a big campaigner against it.

Now all parents are watching their sons carefully. If they think their sons are going with pirates, they keep them in, or get the police to arrest them. Pirates can’t get the young men any more.

Pirates helped the international community by separating from the local people – that’s one of the main reasons piracy has almost disappeared. They can’t do anything without their main base.

Are there cases of where pirates control and terrorize communities?

No. Family groups can be good or bad. And Somali society works in a way that pirates set up businesses in their family areas, with their own people. The wider family, or clan, are like brothers. They disagree sometimes, but everything has a limit. They would never kill or rape someone.

The pirates were very anti-social – they gave money to local officials or important people so they would be silent, or to get their support, but they were not violent. Even al-Shabab [Islamist militants who control areas of southern Somalia] have a limit. They are tough and extreme, but they do not want the local people to be against them.

Somalia is now very popular after years of neglect from the international community. Do you think piracy has helped get people’s interest?

I have heard Somalis saying that pirates have got attention and made the international community take an interest in helping to make Somalia stable. And if that works, then that will have a positive effect for Somalis.

When it was a Somali problem, the British government didn’t care. But when it had an effect on them, they got involved. They say ‘it will be good for us’.

I heard that the Somali “diaspora” (when many Somalis went to live in other countries) was very important to free the Chandlers [the retired British couple kidnapped in 2009 and held hostage for over a year]…

I think the British Somali community put pressure on the pirates. It was the important older people in Britain – pirates’ uncles, maybe – who called the kidnappers and told them to accept less money. The pirates almost killed the Chandlers, but the Somali community stopped it. Not many people thanked them for that.

What has the new Somali president (Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud) done to fight against piracy?

The short answer is ‘nothing’. But piracy is not his problem. He has a lot more important things to do first. He has to say something about piracy because he’s talking to the West, but I don’t think he is doing much about it and I don’t think he can. Even in Mogadishu he doesn’t have much power. That’s the sad reality.

Jamal Osman is a Somali reporter/producer for Britain's Channel 4 TV

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