With Somali pirates having made the waters off the Horn of Africa so dangerous, it’s a wonder anyone in the shipping business would even consider sending vessels to the region. Indeed, you might think that someone like Karim Kudrati, co-owner of a Mombasa-based firm that has been forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to pirates, would avoid dealing with Somalia altogether. But you would be wrong.
In reality, his ships continue to trade up and down the coast regularly, but carrying commercials cargos, not humanitarian aid. A few kilometers away from Kudrati’s office, past the armed guards at the main gate of the Port of Mombasa, two of his vessels are tied up not far from the warehouses where the World Food Programme stores its supplies. The MV Semlow and the MV Miltzow are small freighters just under 58 metres long, rusty and ragged from years tramping the East African coast. Both been hijacked in the past – you can still see bullet holes in the wheelhouse of the Semlow from her hundred-day ordeal at the hands of pirates – and both will be returning to Somalia shortly.
Standing in the Semlow’s bridge, Chief Engineer Juma Mvita watches as a gang of Kenyan longshoremen manhandle sacks of sugar into the holds, cargo that is bound for Somalia. The Tanzanian-born mariner remembers being held captive by the pirates back in 2005, especially the frustration of being hijacked while on a mission of mercy.
“When the pirates first came aboard, they said they were ‘Somali Marines’ and that we were carrying illegal arms in our holds. So we told them, go look, it is just rice, there are no weapons here. And we tried to explain that this is food for Somali people, but they did not care. They had no interest in that, they only wanted to get the money from the owners. They were just thieves.” Mvita shakes his head in disgust, saying that Somalia is a place where human life has no value. “Everyone has a gun and they are not afraid to use it. They will kill a friend, kill a family [member] – boom! – that easy. No, it is not my favourite place to go.”
Still, Mvita will be returning to Somalia in less than forty-eight hours, as soon as the cargo is loaded. With jobs for mariners scarce in this part of Africa, he really doesn’t have much choice if he wants to support his family. “I have been to Somalia many times since [the kidnapping], but never again with the food aid. We have few problems now. I think this trip will be okay.”
So why will shipping companies and local mariners risk carrying commercial cargoes to Somalia, but not humanitarian aid? Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers Assistance Programme joins me on the pier beside the Semlow with a clear assessment of things. An intense and dedicated young man in his early thirties, Mwangura grew up in Mombasa, is well connected to the shipping community here and understands the way things work when dealing with Somalia.
“It is all about money isn’t it? Everything in Africa involves money – bribes – especially in a place like Somalia. Nothing can move in or around without someone being bribed: the gangs, the officials, everyone. That is the system, that is how things work. Whenever we hear of a commercial ship being hijacked by pirates, we usually assume that not enough money was paid to the right people.”
He gestures at the sacks of sugar being loaded and continues, “This is a valuable commodity in Somalia. Someone will sell it in his shop, making money. To get the sugar to the shop means that, all along the way, people are bribed from the moment this ship leaves Mombasa. It is in their interest to assure it is delivered so everyone can make something when goods for sale are shipped, and everyone is content.”
But as Mwangura goes on to explain, food aid is much less valuable because, “Fewer people make money from the United Nations [aid]. It is given away for free. The gunmen are smart, too. They know they cannot steal the food and sell it themselves. That would be dangerous.” By this, Mwangura means that the Somali warlords understand the international community would not stand by as its donated assistance is stolen by armed gangs. The intervention of foreign troops safeguarding humanitarian aid could threaten the ability of the warlords to extort money from other parts of the economy. “So the one way Somalis can make money [from the aid deliveries],” continues Mwangura, “Is to hijack the ships and the crews and hold them for ransom. The vessel and the seafarers become more important than the cargo, you see? This is why no one wants to work for WFP.”
To be continued.