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June 29, 2009

In Somalia where can you hide $100 million?

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been making headlines for months.

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryPiracy off the coast of Somalia has been making headlines for months.

The story goes like this, or at least this is what we’re told: a few lightly
armed Somali pirates in small boats manage to threaten big ships, demand
ransoms in the millions of dollars, get paid, and flee. The pirates have
repeated this operation so often that the accumulated ransoms have reached
some $100 million.

It all sounds like a stock Hollywood movie: maritime hijacking, intense
negotiations, converging warships, gun battles, and a brave hero (American,
of course) to free the captured ships.

Yet, for all the media attention it has received, certain key questions
about the piracy have not been asked:

1. Where in Somalia are these pirates hiding the $100 million, which is in
cash, not bank drafts? On the one hand, they are free to do as they please
with the money because they have no fear of being arrested because there is
no government to impose law and order. On the other hand, Somalia has no
banks, so if the pirates have made deposits, in which country or
countries are the banks?

2. We are being told, and asked to believe, that NATO war brigades have not
been able to stop the pirates, but from where are these pirates getting
their light arms, and who is supporting and training them?

3. We hear about diplomatic initiatives, but by whom and for what?

4. Counter-piracy action has been sanctioned by recent UN Security Council
resolutions, and Somali officials publicly acknowledge the need for
military and intelligence assistance, but what form, precisely, should this
action take?

In contrast to this current media attention, over the past 10 years the
Western media did not give even a bit of coverage to the suffering of
desperate Somali refugees who fled the country in rusted boats. These boats
became stranded and sank in the same waters where piracy is now going on.
Ships passing the stricken vessels did not even stop to help those who
could not get to shore, as is required by international law. As for the
thousands who managed to make it to coast of Yemen, rich and powerful
countries did not respond to Yemen’s appeal for relief.

Slow human development has been a feature of Somalia ever since the
protectorate of British Somaliland and the colony of Italian Somaliland
merged to form the country in 1960. In recent years, civil war, invasion
and political unrest have made this poor nation even poorer.

The country has been without an effective central government since
President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Since then, civil war
has claimed the lives of 1 million people, and famine and illicit trade
have become widespread.

Also in 1991, the northwest part of Somalia, the former British part,
unilaterally declared itself the independent Republic of Somaliland.
Compared to the rest of Somalia, it has enjoyed relative stability. It has
its own government, capital city, army, flag and currency, but is not
recognized by the international community.

In 2006 an Islamic party gained control of much of the south, including the
capital Mogadishu, after their militias kicked out the warlords. But forces
loyal to the interim administration regained control at the end of the year
with the backing of Ethiopian troops.

By late 2008, Islamic parties-including the al-Shabaab group, which the
U.S. accuses of having links to al-Qaida-fought back and regained control
of most of the south.

In January 2009, Ethiopia pulled its troops out and Somalia’s parliament
met in neighbouring Djibouti, where it extended the transitional federal
government extended for another two years, and installed the current
president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad.

Piracy is just the latest in a series of misfortunes. A recent report by
the U.K.’s Chatham House said attacks more than doubled in 2008, and have
involved more than 60 ships. However, these attacks can be stopped by
adopting security measures such as: using convoys of ships (already done in
some cases); arming crews (the American crew of cargo ship Maersk Alabama
fought back); arming merchant ships with heavy guns; or providing military
escorts.

The French had successfully rescued hostages and captured pirates until
commandos recently stormed a yacht and in the process killed its owner.

It is up to the international community to address the causes of piracy,
not just react to its consequences. Rich and powerful nations know that
helping this African country get back on its feet is crucial to combating
piracy off its shores, so why are they doing nothing?

* Dr. Elmasry is Prof Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at 

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