Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Captain, the Pirates, and the Collapsed State

Captain Richard Philips has been rescued by the U.S. Navy seals after being held hostage for five days by a handful of Somali pirates. Beyond the cheers and tears of joy for the safe return of Capt Philips and his crewmates, there is an overlaying drama unfolding before our eyes for a number of years while the international community failed to act in this very strategic region for the global trade and international peace.
This daring rescue by the U.S navy puts an end to several days of high stakes confrontation between the most efficient weaponry in the history of humankind and a few Somali fishermen carrying what has become the weapon of choice in the Global South armed conflicts: RPGs and AK 47. However, it seems to me that it will lead to an escalation of the piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden in a climate of heated up hostilities between the Americans and the Somalis. The plan of a U.S congressman came under fire in Mogadishu a few hours after Captain Philips’ ordeal and the Somalis pirates attacked another American ship the following day.
One could discuss about the consequences of the insecurity in the Gulf of Aden and what it entails in regards to the global trade. We could also argue about the fate of the pirate captured by the U.S. navy and study the legal technicalities of bringing him to justice, and under whose law and jurisdiction. But that is not the point of my argument. I want to rather think of the issue from the Somali perspective and what this crisis means to the African nations.
It needn’t be repeated that the lawless Golf of Aden is just a collateral damage of the crumbled nation of Somalia that ceased to exist for almost two decades. However, Somali misfortune started long before the civil war erupted in 1991.
In “Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Consequences” (1993), Robert I. Rotberg argues that currently failed states are Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan, and that Somalia is in fact a “collapsed state”. On this list, all but one country are located in Africa. Although Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone have since been on the path of nation-building, Somalia has just kept its disintegration.
“How could Somalia, a nation-state of about 9 million people with a strongly cohesive cultural tradition, a common language, a common religion, and a shared history of nationalism, fail and then, collapse?” wonders Rotberg. Well, the fact of the matter is that General Siad Barre usurped the power in 1969 and suspended the constitution and banned political parties in order to fight corruption. Twenty years of misadventures later, with the support of the Soviet Union first, then backed the U.S, he ruined any chance of keeping Somalia as one piece of land with a single nationality. By the onset of the civil war in 1991, the Somali state has long since failed. The civil war destroyed what was left, and Somalia collapsed onto itself…
In the absence of multiple ethnic groups, the line of fracture of the Somali society became the clans and sub-clans. The second decade of the Somali civil war saw the entry in force of the Islamist war factions that occupied Mogadishu at some point, before being overthrown by the Ethiopian army.
It didn’t take long for the Somali fishermen to find out that millions of dollars could be made off the waters of the Indian Ocean if they were willing to “get rich or die trying”. According to some reports, they currently control about 30 ships and up to 300 hostages. The issue now is: where do we go from here?
My opinion is that only a well planned peacekeeping and nation-building program can help Somalia move forward and bring peace and the rule of law to the region. Then the question becomes: who is willing to take that initiative?
The U.S government has a traumatized past in the streets of Mogadishu. Ever since the Black Hawk went down in 1993, it is unrealistic to expect any western government to send troops in Somalia. The African Union is the entity that must step up in these circumstances. Liberia and Sierra Leone emerged from decades of civil war. So, why can’t Somalia?
I think putting an African peacekeeping force on the ground is feasible and carries less animosity form the Somalis as compared to a hypothetic western force. With a U.N mandate and financial support from the international community, a transitional government can be implemented and national infrastructures can be built. Because the security in the territorial waters of Somalia is crucial to the western countries economy, they certainly will be eager to participate in the nation-building efforts in Somalia. If after free and fair elections, the Somalis choose to be governed by an Islamist government, so be it.
Another issue related to the need to act quickly is the fear of the spreading of the piracy in other African coastal regions. That is why now is the time for the international community to help Somalia emerge from this nightmare. Otherwise, the cost will be much higher for us all.

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