UK: Somalia: Clan Rivalry, Military Conflict, And The Financial And Human Cost Of Piracy

Last Updated: 17 March 2009
Article by John Knott

This article looks briefly at the tasks faced by Somalia's new government and at the cost in human and financial terms of the acts of piracy occurring off the coast of Somalia.

The troubles in Somalia

The causes of the troubles of the 8-9 million inhabitants of Somalia are numerous and complex. They have included rivalries between clans; the encroachment of armed insurgents; political divisions; an ineffective and largely corrupt administration; shortages of food and other essential supplies; pillaging of fish stocks by foreign trawlers; and latterly the diversion of manpower and resources into piracy. As the year 2008 came to a close, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative for Somalia, identified the key factor in Somalia's troubles not as the lack of security in the country, but as the absence of accountable and committed national leadership. Since then, the Djibouti peace process led, on 31 January 2009, to the appointment of a new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. On 13 February, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke was sworn in as the new prime minister, and on 20 February he announced his 36-member cabinet.

The Somali clans

The four main clans of Somalia are the Hawiye (in the coastal area running north from Mogadishu); the Darod (in Puntland—in the north-east corner of Somalia—and also in the area north of the border with Kenya); the Ishaak (in Somaliland, bordering the Gulf of Aden, west of Puntland); and the Rahanwein (west of the Hawiye, up to the border with Ethiopia). These clans, with their numerous sub-clans, are generally reckoned to account for between 80 and 85 per cent of the indigenous population of Somalia. The new president (a former head of the Islamic Courts Union, when he was regarded as a moderate chairman), is from the Hawiye clan; and the new prime minister (who is the son of the Somali president assassinated in 1969 before General Siad Barre assumed power, and whose family lives in the United States), is from the Darod clan.

Military conflict

The hope for future stability in Somalia depends largely upon the ability of the new president and prime minister to work together effectively and to gain support throughout the clans, and that the president will have influence with the hard-line Islamists. The alternative will be a return to inter-clan warfare, leaving a power vacuum ready to be filled by militant Islamic insurgents. The president's first major action has been to initiate the introduction of Islamic Sharia law in Somalia, in the belief that only in this way will there be a realistic prospect of neutralising the militant Islamists. But the early indications are that the conflict is continuing, suggesting that this act of appeasement—which is not welcomed by all Somalis—may merely encourage the militants.

The militant Islamists have already gained a strong foot-hold in the southern areas of Somalia and around Mogadishu, and their further advance—in the absence of united resistance by the Somali people—has been made easier by the withdrawal in January 2009 of 3,000 Ethiopian troops which for two years had been supporting the then Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The withdrawal of the Ethiopian force, which had been operating with United Nations approval under the African Union Mission to Somalia ("AMISOM"), has left 3,200 Ugandan and Burundian troops out of the 8,000 African Union troops envisaged when the operation began in January 2007. There will need to be a massive recruitment and training programme for the establishment of adequate Somali police and defence forces, to replace the existing organisations, which are ineffective and largely corrupt. One of the first steps of the new administrations' Banadir Regional Security Committee was to order police and military units out of the capital Mogadishu, where unruly members of the security forces had been robbing civilians. Meanwhile, there were numerous reports in early February that some Ethiopian troops had illegally re-entered Somalia and were extorting payments from civilian vehicles in the central Hiran region. Activity such as this provides an excuse for militant Islamists to continue fighting.

The financial cost of piracy

Having regard to necessary direct and indirect expenditure, and in light of figures provided by some foreign defence ministries, it seems not unreasonable to assume that the cost of deploying a typical frigate off Somalia approaches £1 million a month. So with a total deployment at any one time of between a dozen and twenty or more warships from nations contributing to Combined Task Force 151 and EU NAVFOR Somalia (Operation Atalanta), or operating independently, the total annual cost of fighting piracy with naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean may be at least £150-250 million, without considering the expense of commissioning and decommissioning, and the cost of shore-based support and reconnaissance aircraft. And those figures could easily be doubled by taking account of capital depreciation. Even so, the sums are probably at least matched by the additional cost to the shipping and insurance industry of hijackings and disruption caused by the Somali pirates. During 2008 the International Maritime Bureau reported 42 hijackings by Somali pirates. In virtually all of those incidents where vessels have subsequently been released, a ransom payment has been made. Taking account of ransom payments made where ships have already been released, and the costs of negotiation, legal expenses (which, however, have been hugely exaggerated in the press), and the heavy expenses incurred in delivering ransom money, it is likely that the direct cost of releasing the freed vessels is in the order of US$100-150 million, or say £70-100 million. But the loss of revenue for shipowners whose vessels are hijacked, and out of service for two months or more, will be an additional burden. And further costs to the shipping industry include increased insurance premiums; increased payments to crews asked to navigate through a war risks area; the cost of delays waiting for naval escorts; and, for some, the extra cost in terms of bunkers, crew wages, and other expenses of diverting vessels around the Cape of Good Hope.

During 2008 there were 21,420 transits of the Suez Canal, which gives an approximate (but obviously not precise) indication of the number of vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden. For diverted vessels there will be a saving in Suez Canal dues, but a main factor will be the additional time needed for such a voyage. Using the Canal saves about 3,500 miles on a voyage from Tokyo or Singapore to Rotterdam, and over 4,700 miles from Ras Tanura to Rotterdam. A significant number of shipping companies are already diverting their most vulnerable vessels around the Cape of Good Hope.

The human cost

While, in this sort of way, it may be possible to make a broad estimate of the immediately-linked additional costs caused by pirate attacks and efforts to curtail them, the full financial effect on the world-wide community is beyond calculation. And whatever is the cost in terms of money, there are other intangible consequences in terms of the suffering caused to the captured crews and their families and friends. The International Maritime Bureau reports that during 2008 there were a total of 111 attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia's east coast. World-wide, during 2008 there were 293 reported piracy incidents including 49 hijackings. These resulted in 889 crew being taken hostage. There were 11 reported deaths of crew members; a further 21 persons are missing, presumed dead; and 32 were injured. It is known that not all incidents were reported.

© Copyright, Holman Fenwick Willan, 2009

John Knott is a consultant with Holman Fenwick Willan, who were instructed in 23 of the 42 hijackings that occurred off Somalia during 2008.

This article is not exhaustive and is not intended to form a legal opinion. Specific advice should be sought on any matter falling within the scope of the article.

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