The recent hijacking of a US ship by Somali pirates off the coast of Kenya is a perfect example of the bizarre relationship the world entertains with Africa. First, where the hell is it? Most people hardly know. Then, why are these people bothering us? Could we not simply blow them off the water? Third, why are they targeting the US, it seems vaguely reminiscent of the post 9/11 syndrome. Fourth, why should we even bother? At this point, readers who are a bit conversant with the situation will point out that the Maersk ship which got hijacked was bringing relief food for Kenya, now in the thralls of a punishing famine brought by drought (and to some extent, by civil strife). There goes another groan. They have to hit us when we are just trying to help them. Yet, most people miss the point: the pirates are Somali and the victims of famine are Kenyans.
Okay, Africa is not in very good shape. But it might be a good idea to try to understand why. Oh, not simply those vast questions of colonialism, economic backwardness, the usefulness (or lack thereof) of aid and the impact of the world economic crisis. No, that is a bit too big. Could we not be a bit more simple and specific? Simply look at one situation at a time?
Take Somalia. For reasons having to do with its clanic social structure, Somalia has been unable to muster a working government for the past eighteen years. The main victims of that situation are, of course, the Somali themselves, who in many ways have caused their own misery. Many Somali are now starving and some of the younger ones, bold and born into a world where they have known nothing but civil war, have taken to the seas to survive. During the past ten years the rich world has: a.) dumped thousands of tons of toxic waste along Somalia’s unguarded coastline, and b.) taken hundreds of millions of dollars of fish from it’s unpatrolled national waters. It was not very nice but as long as the Somali took it lying down, everybody was happy with ignoring it. Now, they are coming out like hornets from a nest and bothering the ships laden with rich cargo that are sailing past their coast. As long as those ships were Saudi oil tankers, French yachts, or Yemeni tugboats, the anger was moderate. But a US cargo ship! God forbid!
The last interaction the US had with Somalia was three years ago when the CIA brought together a bunch of criminal warlords into a bogus political alliance in the hope that those warlords could crush the growing Islamist movement in Somalia. The gamble failed and gave the Islamists a popularity they never had before. As a result, they took power (some kind of power, anyway) and the US backed an Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia which only heightened the civil strife. Now the Ethiopians have left, but the situation is more confusing than ever and the popularity of the US is not high. Are the pirates connected with the Islamists? Not really. They exchange some services and swap information, but the pirates don’t like the kind of religious Puritanism the Islamists pride themselves in. Do they kill people? Not if they can avoid it. They are in business. They have lost more men to the high seas and to the virtuous international guardians of law and order than they have killed. Would they do something else if they had the opportunity? Most likely. Could they? Don’t be joking!
Okay, Somalia is sick and its misery is oozing out. But what we hate is not the sickness but rather its unpleasant consequences. Of course they are not of our own making; but we both tolerated them for a long time and even made them worse through perfect stupidity. Well the chickens – or perhaps in this case, the sea gulls – have come home to roost. A commentator recently said that the shipping that has fallen victim to the pirates is one quarter of one percent of all that goes through the Bab-el-Mandeb. Any thought on discussing the massive rise in insurance costs and how justified it is?
Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe focuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.