Sunday, September 30, 2007

Somali piracy: A closer look at the problem

As I said in my previous post, piracy off Somalia is proving a serious problem for humanitarian organizations trying to deliver food aid to that failed state of a country. From Kenya, I wrote a report on this situation for The Globe & Mail newspaper in Canada that was published yesterday and can be seen online. Here is the first part of a lengthier look at what I saw while in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Under an overcast sky in central Nairobi, Peter Smerdon takes a sip of Tusker beer while gathering his thoughts. “The pirate situation in Somalia is extremely worrying to us,” says Smerdon, who works with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at their regional base in the Kenyan capital. A wiry ex-pat Brit with a youthful complexion that hides his experiences as a foreign journalist covering such events as the Rwandan genocide, Smerdon's job is to get the word out about what WFP is doing in Africa. It's not an easy job, especially where Somalia is concerned.

“Yeah, there is a certain ‘fatigue’ about Somalia, an exhaustion of sorts,” he admits, ticking off the symptoms: “You know, since 1991 there’s been civil war and civil conflict ongoing in the country, there’s been famine, malnutrition, starvation, displaced people, and it can seem like a place where things never change. Plus you have Iraq, Afghanistan and any number of other places vying for attention, from the media, from governments and from aid groups. And because there aren’t any good photo ops in Somalia – no foreign soldiers handing out food, no dying children, no celebrities – the situation there has slipped off the radar of most people. That’s a cold, hard assessment of things, but I know that’s how it works.”

As Smerdon explains, Somalia is a place just barely surviving, with little in the way of a functioning government, an economy in shambles and healthcare essentially non-existent. Having recently returned from the country, he says that, “The people there are feeling ground down. You may get by in the city – though in Mogadishu these days you might get killed – but in the countryside they’ve been weakened and ground down like you can’t imagine. Just across the border from Kenya you have places where in a ‘normal’ year you get acute malnutrition rates of twenty to thirty percent. Fifteen percent is the emergency level. In Somalia, life expectancy is about 46 years and a quarter of all children die before they reach the age of five.”

WFP has traditionally delivered the bulk of its humanitarian assistance, about eighty percent, by freighters sailing from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Somalia. Until now, those freighters have proven the most efficient way to get suitable quantities of food into the country, but the threat of renewed attacks by pirates has made shipping companies nervous about taking on the task of ferrying WFP cargoes.

“They’ve attacked over a dozen ships in the first six months of this year, two of which were working for us. In fact, Somali pirates have attacked five vessels contracted by WFP since 2005, hijacking three and holding them for ransom. Things have been quiet the last couple of months, mainly because of the monsoon which has prevented the pirates from venturing out. But what is worrying us now is that as the monsoon season comes to a close, the pirates will return. So as the monsoon season ends the pirate season begins.”

Piracy off Somalia has been growing in recent times as instability in the country allows armed gangs to run rampant. Pirate gangs have targeted general cargo ships, container vessels, gas tankers, dhows, fishing boats and, in November 2005, they even made a brazen assault on a luxury cruise liner sailing 160 kilometres off the coastline. Pirates have been particularly attracted to the unarmed ships arriving in Somalia laden with food aid: In the first instance, in June of 2005, they captured the freighter MV Semlow and held the ship and her crew for a hundred days before a ransom was paid. An attempt earlier this year to protect the vessels by hiring local guards failed when pirates shot and wounded two of the Somalis, one of whom later died.

Trying to send aid overland into Somalia by truck has never been a viable option for groups like WFP as the routes are often little more than rutted tracks and the convoys are invariably held up at roadblocks by armed militia groups, or even the TFG itself. “They don’t care if you’re carrying humanitarian assistance or not,” says Smerdon. “Everyone makes money out of checkpoints. It can be $50 a truck, which doesn’t sound like much but on one route we’ve used, from the Kenyan border to Wajid in the south, a distance of 125 kilometres, there were 29 checkpoints the last time I was there. So delivering aid by truck is not very reliable.” And flying assistance in by plane is simply out of the question for the time being, he explains, owing to the extremely high costs entailed.

All of this has left groups like WFP scrambling to solve a logistical nightmare. With malnutrition rates soaring in Somalia – exceeding twenty to thirty percent in some parts of the country – the organization must deliver 35,000 metric tons of food by the end of the year to avoid things getting even worse. Their only hope is to convince somebody to take on the dangerous job of ferrying their supplies through pirate waters, something that has proven difficult.

“Shipping companies would rather do something else than carry our cargoes,” says Smerdon. “Recently we thought had found a vessel available, then heard it was off in Saudi Arabia – we’re hoping it’ll still become available – but that’s all we have right now. It appears that no one wants to work with us.”

In East Africa’s principal port of Mombasa, an hour by plane southeast of Nairobi, Smerdon’s assessment proves only partially correct. Karim Kudrati is co-owner of a shipping firm that has worked with the UN for well over a decade, and it was his vessels that were hijacked by Somali pirates. From his office in the Kundalini part of town, Kudrati says, “Would we work with them [WFP] again? Yes. But there must be more protection for our ships and our crews. Those charters are too costly to consider, the way they have been organized in the past.”

For Kudrati, the financial costs of ferrying aid to Somalia have not been cheap: “Whenever one of my vessels has been hijacked, it is our firm that has to pay the ransom, sometimes over $100,000. When the pirates steal the money from the ship’s safe, that comes out of my pocket. Yes, this is a business, whether we are delivering WFP cargo or commercial cargo. But, frankly, if I can find other charters, why would I bother with the UN?”

To be continued.

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