Monday, May 25, 2009

Rehabilitating pirates

There's a BBC report from earlier today that says a somewhat extraordinary meeting occurred recently in the Somali coastal town of Eyl, during which some 200 gunmen are said to have renounced piracy. The idea as put forward by 'pirate representative' Abshir Abdullah is that in return for halting their attacks on vessels, former gang members would be given an amnesty by local Somali leaders, who have become increasingly concerned about the impact of the criminal activities on the community.

Perhaps pirates like Abdullah have come to realize that the happy times are coming to a close and that it's better to call it a day while ahead of the game. From my own experience talking with pirates and others familiar with things, most who become involved with maritime crime enter this world with decidedly short-term visions. They want to make some money, preferably fast, and rarely think of it as a lifetime profession. Get in, get out, go home.

Take a look at a great report posted yesterday by McClatchy Newspapers' African correspondent Shashank Bengali for The Seattle Times. Bengali interviewed a 26-year-old former Somali pirate now living in the Eastleigh slum in the Kenyan capital, a guy who "cashed out", took his earnings - apparently about $116,000 - and is wondering how to start a new life in Nairobi or elsewhere. As Bengali notes, this man is far from the first Somali to decide on taking money garnered from various activities back home and invest it outside the country. The journalist found that one money broker in Eastleigh (aka 'Little Mogadishu') had transferred more than $10 million out of Somalia in just the past few months.

But what do you do with former pirates? What other options are available to entice them to cease their attacks? Well as German outlet Spiegel Online notes, the French put forth an idea last week at a gathering of European Union foreign and defence ministers in Brussels, one in which nations would help train Somalis to create more effective security forces, some of which would, presumably, be used in anti-piracy and related coast guarding operations. This wouldn't be the first time that former criminal elements were coerced into becoming legitimate parts of a governing structure, however shaky the current Somali versions may be.

The Germans have some concerns about the French idea, not the least of which is that giving Western security/military training and arming the Somalis could result in a blow-back should the trainees opt to defect to local gangs, something we've unfortunately seen before in places like Afghanistan.

One has to wonder whether this is the right time to be thinking of rehabilitation options like this, just as one has to wonder about the sincerity of those Somalis willing to renounce pirate now. In a manner of weeks, the 2008-2009 piracy will come to a close as the summer monsoon winds begin to blow (see EagleSpeak's detailed look at this here). Pirates will either be deciding what to spend their earnings on or perhaps return to a little fishing in the seas off the Horn of Africa. And as for those 200-odd pirates claiming to be ready to renounce things? Will they continue to be so willing when the monsoon ends in Autumn, or will they renounce their renouncements? These are, after all, opportunists.

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