My following book review appears in today’s Weekend Australian newspaper:
Imperialism still casts a dark shadow over modern Africa. Former colonial powers France, Britain, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Germany largely spend their aid dollars in nations they used to rule. Oxfam France’s Christian Reboul told The Guardian this makes sense for Paris “because the former French colonies in Africa are de facto the poorest countries in the world”.
The other European states are equally complicit in African disadvantage. African success stories, such as Kenya and Ghana, have developed despite foreign meddling, not because of it.
Somalia is one of the most troubled countries in Africa. Blighted by decades of civil war, an al-Shabab insurgency and perennial insecurity, its presence on the news is due to terrorist attacks or failed US military involvement, such as the incident that became the book and film Black Hawk Down.
Filmmaker and journalist John Boyle shows in this revealing book that Somalia was the bastard child of Italy and Britain. It was granted independence in 1960, and the result was “a poor, underdeveloped, divided, fledgling country with little real chance of success”. As in the case of many borders in the Middle East now being destroyed by Islamic State, “the boundaries drawn by former colonial powers had little bearing on the true situation”.
Boyle wants to understand why so many Somali men are becoming pirates and causing havoc along the Somali coastline and Indian Ocean. The reason is twofold. Massive ships from Asia and Europe started pillaging fish stocks in the 2000s in areas that used to sustain Somali fishermen. Resentment grew.
Compounding this was the role of Italy, Somalia’s former ruler, in dumping huge amounts of contaminated waste at sea because it was far cheaper than trying to dispose of it cleanly in Europe. A Mafia syndicate controlled the trade; the UN issued reports that were mostly ignored.
“No one knows how many more [toxic] canisters still lie off the Somali shores,” Boyle explains, “slowly seeping their poison into the sea and the food chain. The planet’s most unfortunate nation, ungoverned, devastated by civil war, drought and famine, its oceans pillaged, now also had to suffer toxic and radioactive waste causing sickness, deformity and death.”
Somali piracy was born with a legitimate grievance, a demand for global fishing ships in their waters to pay a fine for taking stock. What started as a small operation soon became a hugely profitable enterprise. Opportunism soared as savvy businessmen realised hijacking large ships and demanding million-dollar ransoms was an easy way to make money.
Boyle argues that “most pirates today are no longer themselves displaced fishermen but members of nomadic land-based clans who generally have little or no knowledge of the sea. Rather than poor fishermen seeking redress, today’s pirates are more akin to drug dealers.”
This industry is utterly foreign to Westerners. When actor Tom Hanks starred in the 2013 film Captain Phillips, the story of the container ship Maersk Alabama, which was overwhelmed by Somali pirates, the motivation of the Somalis themselves was almost invisible.
Boyle does much better, though his writing sometimes veers into sensationalism. This is redeemed by his interviews with Somalis who are alleged pirates and end up in jail in the Seychelles. Mohamed Hassan Ali, 39, says he had no education and wanted to be a mechanic from a young age. “Before the pirates scared them away, the foreign ships were always taking our nets,” he explains. It was soon impossible to make a living selling fish and Mohamed found himself accused of attacking an Iranian ship. He denies the charges and says that because of the strong anti-Somali sentiment in the Seychelles, the venue for many court cases against piracy, he never received a fair trial.
The cost of piracy to the global economy was estimated in 2012 to be $US12 billion. Boyle shows how insurance companies are some of the biggest winners from the surge in piracy. But another, less discussed reason for piracy’s popularity is the exclusion of Somalia and similar failed states from the global economy.
Boyle only briefly touches on this issue, his focus is mostly on human stories, but it’s an integral factor in the relative success of kidnapping by militant groups worldwide. Easy money breeds greater demand for further violence when no alternatives are offered in Mogadishu and beyond.
Sustainability is not a word usually associated with Somalia. Global fish stocks are depleting fast and a report in Science in 2006 predicted that at the current commercial rate of fishing the oceans could be almost empty by 2050. Boyle concludes with a plea that Somalia’s fishing industry be managed and protected because otherwise “there will always be young men willing to risk their lives in small boats”.
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author. His forthcoming book is Disaster Capitalism.
Blood Ransom: Stories from the Front Line in the War Against Piracy
By John Boyle
Bloomsbury, 304pp, $29.99