SHIPS navigating the lawless seas of the Gulf of Aden must keep a constant lookout for Somali pirates. The roots of Somalia’s maritime banditry lie in its desperately poor coastal villages, where the choice between fishing and piracy is an easy one for many. But whereas plenty of attention has been given to pirates’ own economic motives, less has been paid to the question of why influential local clans put up with the marauders in their midst. New research by an economist at King’s College London and a sociologist at the University of Oxford sheds some light on that issue—and suggests a way in which the pirates could be run aground for good.
Anja Shortland and Federico Varese mapped the locations of hijacked ships between 2005 and 2012. They found that hijacked vessels were always anchored far away from regional trading routes, and that big ports were not prone to piracy. There is a reason for that. Somali clans control local trade by issuing licences and charging informal taxes. The researchers reckon that communities which can tax imports and exports refuse to protect pirates because trade is a safer and more lucrative source of revenue than pirate earnings. Only clans that have no other income offer the pirates protection, in return for a share of their loot.
The theory seemed to hold up during a ban on Somali livestock imports imposed by Saudi Arabia between 2000 and 2009. Most Somalis are farmers and Saudi Arabia is their main livestock market, so the embargo hammered the economy. Clan leaders in heavily hit cities such as Bosaso, in the coastal state of Puntland, began offering refuge to pirates instead. After the ban was lifted and customs duties began flowing again, the pirates were promptly locked up.
The study’s authors think their findings offer a new way to scuttle Somalia’s pirates. Hijackings off the Horn of Africa have fallen sharply since shipping companies beefed up their security and international navies upped their patrols. Only 15 incidents were reported off Somalia’s coast last year, down from 75 in 2012 and 237 in 2011. But those security measures are expensive, and do not tackle the underlying causes of the problem. A more lasting solution would be to build new roads and ports, which would allow remote areas to start trading. With alternative sources of income, fewer communities would be willing to harbour pirates.
Donors keen to advance shaky security gains pledged around $1.5 billion to Somali reconstruction last year. Part of that could be allocated to remote coastal areas, rather than big cities like Mogadishu, which get the lion’s share. “The demand is there,” says Ms Shortland. A former president of Puntland repeatedly requested a road be built to Eyl, a rough-and-ready coastal town, as a quid pro quo for giving up piracy. His request was turned down, and piracy continued. Time for donors to rethink where they spend their pieces of eight.