Of all annual worldwide pirate attacks, Somalis account for half, totalling 237 in 2011; up from 219 in 2010. Some 77 percent of India’s trade is carried by sea. The Indian Navy has deployed 25 ships in the Gulf of Aden as anti-piracy escorts since 2008. With similar initiatives by the international community, the issue has expanded from a few hot-spots in the Gulf of Aden, to huge areas of the Indian Ocean affecting previously untouched shipping lanes.
At a meeting on February 10, on piracy in the Indian Ocean at Gateway House, Alisha Pinto discusses the situation in Somalia with Ambassador Mohammad Osman Omar, the well-regarded former Somali ambassador to New Delhi and prolific writer on Somali issues.
The world is concerned with the issue of piracy emanating from Somalia, with the UNSC even passing a resolution in 2006 calling on states to advise and guide the shipping and insurance industry. Could you help us understand the origins and causes of piracy and how it has transformed regional security in the Indian Ocean?
During the period of the civil war in Somalia, two events, detrimental to the nation, occurred in the Indian Ocean. The first was the dumping of nuclear waste in the ocean particularly in the Somali area. The second problem was that many countries started illegally fishing in our area. Since these are powerful people, they don’t need our permission to fish. Our fishermen were threatened and chased out by them. After the collapse of the government in 1991, the whole political system disintegrated so that even the Navy was not in place. Having lost their jobs and livelihood, the fishermen reacted violently. That is how, what we now call piracy, started.
Once they started getting ransom, the more money they got, the more sophisticated they became. This caused trouble not only to Somalia but also to its neighbours and outsiders. For the neighbours, their seas are filled with foreign navies, and for those who have a legal right to pass with commercial goods, they are facing trouble.
You mentioned that toxic and nuclear waste is dumped off the coast of Somalia. Has there been any measurement of the impact on the health of the people and the fishermen’s catch and also on the country’s environment? Has the UN or the IAEA taken any interest?
Yes, United Nations Environment Programme has published a full report giving even the names of the companies involved. Soon after the tsunami hit Asia, I received an email from Mogadishu telling me that people were having health problems. Then they found barrels in the coastal areas that were dug up from the seabed when the tsunami touched the Somali coast. The problem of toxic waste still exists today and was discovered only because of the tsunami.
The international community knows this as the transitional government passed on the message long back. The previous UN representative also mentioned the problem of toxic waste on several occasions. Surprisingly, nobody has been punished for it.
The internal situation in Somalia has been turbulent since the outbreak of the civil war in 1991. Despite a transitional government having the supported by the international community, there are still militias such as the Al Shabaab that control large areas of the country. The near famine situation needs to be addressed. Under these circumstances, how should the international community help the government to deal with these different issues?
The country experienced draught during the military regime. At that time, the government acted swiftly, taking the people affected in the area to other coastal and farming areas. They were trained in farming and fishing.
There are problems between the opposition, Al Shabaab, and the government everyday. For Somalis, continued fighting would be a prolongation of our agony. How did we reach this stage? During the military regime, the opposition was fighting against the government, promising the masses that if they toppled the government they would bring democracy. But where are we now? Shouldn’t we learn from the past? For me, peace cannot compare with anything else. I hope peace and reason will prevail.
Ethiopia and Somalia have a history of tension especially over the border region that led to wars in 1964 and 1977. It is believed that the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops had the support of the U.S. How do you as a Somali diplomat perceive the role of the international community?
The relations have improved now. Ethiopia is very much involved in Somalia, helping us find solutions. This is what I hoped for; if there are differences between nations, they must be solved by peaceful means, not by war. Because war is not the only solution. Peace can come if we learn from, and appreciate, each other.
Militant groups like Al Shabaab are said to have links with international militant fundamentalists like Al Qaeda. Has Somalia become a haven for militant religious fundamentalists and if so, how should that be addressed?
Whenever you have a crisis there is always someone who fuels it. I hope Al Shabaab, or the opposition, and the government will come together to solve the problem. A country is not a private affair. Bring the case to the table, let everybody say what they think, let’s solve the problem for the betterment of all of us. I believe that Al Shabaab themselves will come one day to make peace.
I don’t know about links to Al Qaeda. I have no proof to such things. To me, there is no room for judging a person by what he does. If he has a connection with anybody, I cannot judge that.
You have stated piracy is the result of distortions in socio-economic systems. Could you suggest economic incentives so that fishermen could find their livelihoods and shift their focus from piracy?
We have lost everything in Somalia now. We live under the mercy of the United Nation and the international community. I always believe that if those navies who are spending billions of dollars every year would give the money to train and help Somalis alleviate their problems, there won’t be piracy. The Somalis turn to piracy in search of a living. Why would you go so far to kill yourself, if I can give your children schooling, money to buy clothes, a clean sea and materials for fishing? The money is there but being consumed for unnecessary things. The gun never works. If you want to help a country, help to build it, not destroy it. This is how I would solve the problem.
Ambassador Mohammad Osman Omar is former Somali ambassador to New Delhi and prolific writer on Somali issues.
Alisha Pinto is a researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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