A young journalist’s voyage into the world of Somali piracy reveals plenty of courage but few surprises
If there were a global competition to find the platonic ideal of a failed state, then bookmakers would probably stop taking bets on Somalia. The east African nation has no central, functioning polity, nor an army or police force worthy of the titles. Parts of the country are riven by civil war and simmering tribal disputes, Islamic extremists lay siege to the capital, Mogadishu, and the only flourishing sectors of the economy seem to be gun running, drug distribution and piracy.
It was into this maelstrom that the intrepid young graduate and journalistic novice Jay Bahadur inserted himself in 2009. “I had no interest in journalism school,” he writes. Instead he wanted to learn his “would-be job in places where no one else would go”. So he set out to penetrate the burgeoning piracy business along Somalia’s vast Horn of Africa coastline.
Following the retreat of American and UN troops in 1993 after the Battle of Mogadishu – or, to give it its cinematic title, Black Hawk Down – Somalia effectively disappeared from the headlines, only to return in the second half of the last decade with a spate of audacious marine hijackings and hostage-takings. Every form of shipping was under threat, from huge tankers to the small yacht of Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British tourists who were held captive by pirates for over a year.
With no little courage, Bahadur seeks to explain how and why this spectacular outbreak of maritime crime occurred. But he does so with such fair-minded attention to competing arguments that in the end the picture is not a whole lot clearer than it was at the beginning.Bahadur insists that the anarchic image of Somalia is either misplaced or misleading. There are in fact autonomous areas, like Somaliland, that are relatively well-organised, and even in the most dangerous regions systems of clan discipline and tribal law still operate.
Puntland, which sounds as if it was named by Evelyn Waugh, makes up almost one third of Somalia’s land mass and, like Somaliland, enjoys a kind of independence, although not nearly as successfully. For most of the past six years it has been the centre of pirate activity. It’s here, with the protection of the makeshift local government, that Bahadur conducted his research, which consisted largely of interviewing various pirates.
The story they tell, as Badahur notes, is suspiciously self-serving. They nearly all claim to have been ex-fisherman whose legitimate business was destroyed by aggressive international fishing fleets. However, while there is an element of truth to this justification, the fact is that Somalia’s fishing industry was never profitable enough to sustain the armies of personnel now involved in piracy. In any case, very few of the pirates’ targets are fishing ships, which tend to be well-armed and protected, and many of the assaults have taken place hundreds of miles outside Somali waters.
Bahadur chews khat, the local drug of choice, with several pirate warlords, and even gets to shoot an AK-47, but the book, despite a prologue full of derring-do promise, is curiously lacking in adventure. Rather, he settles on a succession of careful, if incomplete, appraisals that are commendable in their clear-eyed detachment, although at times the result reads less like war-zone reportage than a sober accountancy document.
In a chapter entitled “The Freakonomics of Piracy”, Bahadur breaks down the costs of running a pirate’s enterprise, including everything from gradations of salary to petrol expenses, against the benefits of landing a $2m or $3m ransom. Needless to say, there isn’t anything particularly freaky involved – the return on investment is handsome.
In fact, there are no real surprises in this tale. We learn that there is a certain amount of collusion between the pirates and the revenue-starved government; despite rumours and fears to the contrary, there seems to be little or no relationship between pirates and Islamic extremists; and pirates tend to prefer hijacking unarmed boats.
Bahadur is not going to be the next Ryszard Kapuscinski (who is?) but he has proved himself in circumstances far beyond the remit of any journalism course. This is a straightforward demystification of a necessarily shady and sometimes murderous business, and a welcome addition to the limited literature on Somalia and piracy.