Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: Pirate State By Peter Eichstaedt

There's a new book out that provides insights into the rise of piracy in places like Somalia and Nigeria that is worth looking at. I recently reviewed it for The Globe & Mail in Canada, and here's what I wrote:

"Paradise - for pirates that is"

When it comes to describing Somalia, one of the few words you would expect a sane person to use would be ‘paradise’. But a few years ago, in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa, that was exactly how one man remembered for me the Somalia of the 1970s: as an economically vibrant, politically stable and culturally inviting country. Today it is better known as one of the most lawlessness places on the planet, fraught with warlords, famine, religious extremists, and, of course, pirates.

How Somalia got to this point and how piracy has come to flourish in the seas off the Horn of Africa are what drives American journalist Peter Eichstaedt’s new book, Pirate State: Inside Somalia’s Terrorism At Sea. A former senior editor with Uganda Radio Network, the author knows East Africa well (his previous book looked at child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army). In this work, he introduces us to pirates, gunmen, security officials and others trying to cope with the situation, going beyond the headlines, and the hyperbole, to investigate the root causes of piracy off Somalia, while also examining the broader implications that the situation poses to the world.

As Eichstaedt shows, the spectacular growth of piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa can be traced back to Somalia’s descent into anarchy that began almost two decades ago. In the years that followed, a variety of elements capitalized on the country’s chaos. Local warlords carved out clan-based fiefdoms on land, while foreign vessels appeared offshore to illegally harvest fish and dump toxic waste into the same seas.

The rape of the ocean by foreigners was one reason some Somalis began attacking vessels in the 1990s, and it continues to be used as a justification for piracy today. While Eichstaedt acknowledges this as a motivating factor, he also goes to lengths to dispel its lingering rationalization. The notion that today’s pirates are just simple fishermen forced to pillage ships because of foreign exploiters falls apart as the author reveals how organized the situation has become today. For behind those young men hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean lie criminal gangs tied to Somali warlords and politicians, entities intent on illegally generating tens of millions of dollars from the sea each year. In the words of a Somali negotiator for pirate gangs, “Angry fishermen [are] not the reason and cause of piracy. It is a purely selfish business.”

One of the book’s strongest sections comes when Eichstaedt travels to the sprawling Dadaab Refuge Camp in northeastern Kenya to see how those displaced by the fighting in Somalia feel about the situation in their homeland. These snapshots of refugee life reveal an overwhelming sense of despondency about the state of their nation, a place most fear returning. Many of these exiled Somalis also voice contrasting views about the international community’s responsibilities: some blame it for creating – or even fostering – the current situation, while others feel outsiders are the only solution to end the lawlessness.

The desire to reach a more hopeful, peaceful place – like America – resound within Dadaab. So, too, does a fear of how Somalia is being torn apart even further by extremist groups. The same chaos that allowed pirates to flourish has also given rise to Islamist insurgents, some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. Eichstaedt traces the growth of the largest such group, al-Shabaab, meeting with a former fighter and raising the potential of Somalia becoming a new Afghanistan.

At times the book seems rushed, condensing some of the author’s experiences into just a few pages or paragraphs. And he omits to speak personally with any of the victims of pirate incidents, relying on media reports instead. But Eichstaedt more than compensates for these moments of brevity by introducing us to those affected by Somalia’s anarchy and those perpetuating it. As he makes abundantly clear in his book, Somalia is today a paradise only for pirates, warlords, criminal gangs and extremists.

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