With southern Somalia in the midst of its worst drought in six decades, the world is once again faced with an abominable humanitarian crisis, the most dire since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. But the international community's sympathy for Somalis should not be extended to the pirates plying their waters, a cohort of avaricious and often barbaric criminals who hold no compunction about turning on their own countrymen to make a buck.
Piracy has never been directly correlated to hunger and poverty in Somalia; within the country itself, relatively worse-off regions have not spawned greater numbers of pirates, nor has piracy tended to escalate during times of greater hardship. Somalis have lived in crippling penury ever since the central state collapsed in 1991. Why, then, was there a waiting period of 17 years before piracy exploded into the current epidemic? The 2008 Somali piracy outbreak was the result of the deteriorating security situation in northern Somalia – which created a climate ideal for pirate businesses to flourish.
For most young pirates, entering the trade is more opportunism than desperation; more pull than push. Like inner-city youth who turn to drug dealing, the "game" offers young Somali men a chance to taste the respect and status that the circumstances of their birth have denied them.
In Somalia, I spoke with Hussein Hersi, whose cousins had been involved in the May, 2009, hijacking of the German-owned cargo ship MV Victoria. Sitting on a veranda one windy day in June, Mr. Hersi described his cousins' motivations: "They're suicidal," he said. "As they are heading into the ocean, they say to themselves, 'Either I capture a ship, or I die.' They say, 'If I don't get a Land Cruiser, it's better to be dead.' "
Ironically, the pirates' vehicular obsessions often turn out to be more deadly than their occupation. Most lack even a high-schooler's ability to drive, a fact attested by the broken-down four-wheeler chassis that routinely line the embankment of Puntland's sole paved highway. One pirate in the Victoria gang, drunk for the first time, came within a few tire spins of driving off a cliff, his demise averted only by his passenger reaching across and jamming his foot on the brake.
Pirate proclivities have not changed much since I was last in Somalia, as was made evident in a recent exposé by the local news site SomaliaReport, whose correspondent visited the pirate hot spot of Hobyo to investigate how the brigands spent their cash. He discovered scores of Land Cruisers abandoned along the beach owing to various problems – in some cases, nothing more than scratches of paint or a cracked windshield, which the pirates considered beneath their dignity to repair.
One local pirate headman, Hayle Mohamed, had burned through six Land Cruisers in four years. "Whenever one breaks down, I leave it behind and order a new one, more expensive than the one before it," he said.
If this was desperation, then it was the desperation of a suburban teenager coveting the latest iPhone model, not a man caught up in the clutches of terminal poverty.
There is a widespread notion, propagated by media coverage, that piracy developed exclusively as a response by poor local fishermen to foreign encroachment into their waters. The reality is much more complex.
The Somali pirates' current "business model" – the hostage-taking approach that has proved so lucrative – was not popularized by erstwhile fishermen, but by an astute civil servant-turned-entrepreneur named Mohamed Abdi Hassan, known by the handle "Afweyne" ("Big Mouth").
Even in the early days, pirate attacks were not confined to illegal fishing vessels; in 1991, in the first recorded act of modern piracy in Somalia, three boatloads of brigands boarded the cargo vessel Naviluck, executing three Filipino crew members before setting her ablaze. Today, it is estimated that no more than 6.5 per cent of Somali pirate attacks are directed at foreign vessels fishing illegally.
Far from fuelling piracy, the famine may in fact be fuelled by piracy. With an estimated 80 to 90 per cent of food aid to Somalia arriving by sea, some have speculated that the piracy threat has exacerbated the famine's effects.
"It hampers the delivery of food aid. Some has to be flown in, which has an impact on cost, or it has to go to ports like Mombasa, Kenya, and then be driven overland, which takes time," Mthuli Ncube, chief economist at the African Development Bank, told The Guardian newspaper.
If true, such behaviour is nothing new; in the past, pirates have not hesitated to target relief shipments destined for Somalia. Many of Afweyne's early strikes occurred against World Food Program transports carrying aid to his own people.
Pirates were once branded by the ancient Romans as hostis humani generis, "enemies of all mankind," and the modern-day buccaneers of Somalia have done little to prove themselves anything but.
Jay Bahadur is a Canadian journalist and the author of the recently released book The Pirates of Somalia.