The only reason that Somalia is in the news these days is the spectacular desperation and criminality of the Somali pirates, an American sea captain held hostage by them, and Hollywood image sharp shooting by American Navy Seal commandoes to free him. This news will quickly fade but the reasons the Somali pirates exist and make news in the first place won’t fade. In the past year nearly forty ships have been hijacked off the coast of Somalia and millions have been paid out in ransom.
But the Somali pirates are not the modern day’s sea going Robin Hoods that some have tried to portray them as who rob from the rich, booty laden European and Asian ships and turn their riches over to their impoverished kin and villagers on the shore. They aren’t motivated as some Somali pirate mouthpieces have hinted, and backed up by some writers, as a kind of unofficial Coast Guard protecting their sea waters from plundering fisherman, and trying to halt illegal chemical and radioactive waste dumping off their coast.
A Somali pirate leader candidly told interviewers in Kenya last October after hijacking a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition that their sole motivation was to grab the ransom money.
It’s more than a money grab though that drives the pirates. It’s the never ending Somali crisis. The UN has described the security situation in Somalia as the worst the country has experienced since the early 1990s, while the UN's Food Security and Analysis Unit (FSAU) has described the level of human suffering and deprivation in Somalia as "shocking".
There is good reason for the urgent appeal. More than 3 million Somalis, or about half the country’s population, are in desperate need of emergency aid. This is a near one hundred percent increase in the aid stricken numbers from the start of 2008. The reasons for the desperation are well known; a devastating drought, record-high food prices, and a horrific and expanding war by gangster militia bands. The fighting in 2008 drove hundreds of thousands from their homes in the cities. The war fleeing refugees pushed the total of displaced persons to a staggering 1.1 million. The greatest impact of the suffering as always has fallen on the children. One in six children under five, or approximately 180,000 children, is acutely malnourished in South and Central Somalia.
Somalis are not the only ones who are in mortal danger from the raging violence. In 2008, 24 aid workers were killed and scores of others were kidnapped while carrying out their work. There were more than 100 reported security incidents directly targeting aid agencies. The majority of the aid workers are Somali nationals, but European workers have also been the victims.The non government organizations did not simply beg the UN to intervene in the country’s crisis. They also lambasted international agencies for not doing more to protect civilians and aid workers alike.
The piracy escapades have made things worse in a couple of other ways. They have taken the glare off the dire conditions in the country since much of the Western press has fixated on the sensationalism of the piracy acts and President Obama’s response to it. Worse, the sea violence and the threat posed to shipping could disrupt the always precarious flow of food and medical supplies to the 1 million and daily increasing displaced persons in the country.
Several international donor groups have appealed to European and American donor groups to increase pressure on governments to formulate a plan to insure that the piracy doesn’t stop the flow of the aid.
A year ago, the Navy announced plans to build dozens of new smaller, more mobile combat ships to better chase down the pirates near the shore and maybe even hit their on shore bases. However the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, of defense budget cuts, puts that up in the air. Even if the ships are built that wouldn’t do much to stop the piracy. There are always hundreds more desperate, impoverished and violence scarred young men who would happily take the place of the pirates who American combat forces knock out.Meanwhile, President Obama’s tough talk to frontally combat piracy is welcome and applauded by all. But the far bigger problem remains the never ending crisis of a broken, war torn nation that pushes thousands of men to high sea gangsterism. Navy Seal sharpshooters can’t do much to end that crisis. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on blogtalkradio.com