Combat piracy in Somalia through local investment, says study

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EU Naval Force intercepting suspected pirates (Credit: EU Naval Force)

Somali communities protect pirates only as a last resort or when there is no alternative source of income, a new study has found. Published in the British Journal of Criminology, the study calls for investment in local infrastructure and boosting of trade opportunities for clans in remote parts of Somalia to combat piracy. 

The collaborative study from King’s College London and the University of Oxford, argues that policy makers have focused too much on the motives of the pirates without looking at why they are receiving protection from local elites (clan leaders). 

The researchers mapped the locations of pirates’ moorings across the whole of Somalia, using World Bank data of moorings for hijacked ships between 2005 and 2012 which was based on local interviews about which coastal villages sheltered the pirates. They found that the pirate anchorages were in areas cut off from regional trading routes and harbours - chiefly in areas of disputed territory on the coast of Puntland and Central Somalia. 

Somali clans protect legitimate interests, such as trade through their territory and ports, by issuing licenses to traders and charging ‘taxes’ at road-blocks and harbours. This can provide them with a steady flow of income. Researchers found that clans switch to taxing the criminal activities of pirates (thus providing pirates with protection) if it provides them with a better source of revenue than the taxation of legitimate business. 

Clans with a steady stream of income from taxing imports and exports in their markets and ports did not offer protection to pirates. Major trading ports such as Berbera, Mogadishu or Kismayo have not featured in reports of ships hijacked for ransom, says the study. 

Researchers called into question current strategies to combat piracy. 

The international community relies on a costly, heavy military presence around Somalia in order to keep shipping lanes safe. But, researchers found that when legitimate trade is encouraged then local protection of piracy declines, as clans regard piracy as a riskier revenue source than legitimate trade. 

Researchers cite the case of Bosasso within Puntland, a city commonly associated with piracy from 2005 to 2008, as an example of how boosted trade alters the local view on piracy. After the lifting of a livestock export ban in 2009, customs duties in Bosasso became a significant part of local government revenue. As the city regained its importance as a major trading port for livestock and an import centre for the wider region, pirates were no longer tolerated: pirate hostages were freed and pirates were imprisoned by the local clan leaders. 

The paper calls for investment in local infrastructure, such as new roads and harbours so clans in more remote parts of Somalia are not obstructed from legitimate trading opportunities. 

Ransom negotiations associated with piracy can drag on for years and the distribution of spoils sometimes involves infighting between pirates. Figures from the UN Monitoring Group (2011) show that the annual income of Al Shabab in Southern Somalia was around US$70-100 million in taxation and extortion, while the World Bank (2013) calculated average total pirate ransoms of around US$50 million per year (2008-2012). About 65% of employment in Somalia is linked to the livestock sector with livestock exports making up 80% of Somalia’s export earnings.

Researchers also found that in the poorer areas prone to privacy, the changing face of local politics determined the intensity of piracy activity. Surges in pirate attacks were observed both in the run up to local elections and when territory was actively contested, suggesting the behaviour of clan leaders in Somalia is similar to that of politicians in Italy and Taiwan, who extend protection to criminals when they need extra funds to further political ambitions.

Co-author Dr Anja Shortland, Political Economy, King’s College London, said: ‘Most commentators agree that a permanent solution to Somali piracy lies on land. The World Bank suggested offering a "contract out of piracy" to local communities. This requires a political settlement as a precondition for further progress. Our research indicates that given the right economic incentives, local elites spontaneously chose not to support piracy and even engaged in counter-piracy. A developmental solution to piracy could therefore be attempted even if the Somali state remains fragile.’

Co-author Federico Varese, Professor of Criminology, University of Oxford, said: ‘A puzzle that has long been neglected in the study of the hijacking of foreign vessels off the coasts of Somalia is why only certain parts of the country’s coastline seem susceptible to harbouring pirates. The relative size of the income for protectors of trade or piracy can be likened to an on/off switch. Local communities support pirates when there isn’t a better alternative income stream. By improving the infrastructure of Somalia, building new harbours and roads to link the remote areas to trade routes, our research concludes that poorer communities would be less likely to resort to piracy.’

Notes to Editors 

For further information please contact Katya Nasim, International Press Officer at King’s College London, on 0207 848 3840 or email katya.nasim@kcl.ac.uk   

The paper, ‘The Protector’s Choice: An Application of Protection Theory to Somali Piracy’, will be published by the British Journal of Criminology on Thursday,10 July 2014.

As well as pinpointing where pirates received protection, the researchers analysed International Maritime Bureau piracy reports to distinguish between vessel types targeted. Piracy’ is defined as when pirates targeted international shipping, mainly tankers and container ships, while ‘maritime crime’ covered incidents involving local shipping traffic, such as informal coast

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