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Why Somalis seize ships

Published Apr 13, 2009 9:42 PM

After the execution of three Somalis and the wounding and capturing of another in the Indian Ocean on April 12, a leader of the so-called pirates vowed to avenge the deaths of these youth who held the U.S. captain of a cargo vessel known as the Maersk Alabama for five days. Captain Richard Phillips was released while the U.S. military and the corporate media hailed the killings of the Somalis, saying the actions were justified.

The Maersk Alabama was never taken over by the Somalis, even though the captain remained in the custody of the pirates for five days. The captain was not harmed during the five-day standoff, and the ship was later docked at the port of Mombasa in the East African nation of Kenya.

Abdi Garad, a spokesperson for the group of Somalis that attempted to seize the Danish-owned 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama about 450 kilometers off the coast, told the French Press Agency (AFP) on April 13 from the eastern coastal town of Eyl, “The American liars have killed our friends after they agreed to free the hostage without ransom. But I tell you that this matter will lead to retaliation, and we will hunt down particularly American citizens travelling our waters.”

Garad went on to say, “We will intensify our attacks even reaching very far away from Somalia waters and next time we get American citizens ... they [should] expect no mercy from us.” Garad claimed that after dropping the ransom demand, the Somalis had asked that Captain Phillips be moved to a Greek ship held by the group.

Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old Somali from the town of Eyl, stated in Inside Somalia on April 13, “From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them. U.S. forces have become our number one enemy.”

Another Somali, Abdulahi Lami said , in the same article that the pirates would not be intimidated by U.S. military actions in the Indian Ocean. “Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate for the killings of our men.”

According to the official reports issued by the U.S. military, snipers positioned on the Naval warship the USS Bainbridge shot and killed three Somalis after monitoring their movements for several days. The plan to kill the Somalis was reportedly approved by President Barack Obama.

U.S. Navy spokespeople claimed that the snipers fired on the Somalis when Phillip’s life was endangered. “They were pointing AK-47s at the captain,” said Vice Admiral William Gortney, who heads the U.S. Naval Central Command. His statement was made in a Pentagon briefing from Bahrain and reported by Al Jazeera on April 13.

However, this version of events has been disputed by the Somalis who support the vessel seizures. They contend that the three young men were killed after they agreed to end the standoff and release Phillips. This operation took place only two days after similar actions were carried out by French military commandos who stormed a yacht held by Somalis, which resulted in the death of one of the French nationals being held.

Mohammed Adow, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, said in the same report, “U.S. forces are reported to have attacked the lifeboat when the pirates were expecting a diplomatic exchange ... [and] have taken the remaining pirate to one of their ships in these waters.”

In another development that further escalated tensions in the region, two low-flying U.S. military helicopters flew over areas at the port city of Harardhere in the northeast of Somalia on April 12. The U.S. military claims that this area is a base for pirate operations against vessels traveling in the Gulf of Aden.

Local residents of the area believed that the U.S. helicopters were planning an air raid on the port. According to a Somali journalist, “The fishermen decided not to fish in the morning because of the helicopters; they are scared.” (Inside Somalia, April 13)

Behind the escalation in ‘piracy’

Over the last several months Somali pirates have alleged that European corporations are unloading toxic waste off the coast of this Horn of Africa nation. A Ukrainian ship which was held and released by the Somalis garnered a multimillion-dollar payment by the owners, which is reportedly being utilized to clean up the waste being dumped in the area.

In a statement reported by Al Jazeera on Oct. 11, Januna Ali Jama, a spokesperson for the Somali pirates, said that the ransom acquired serves as a means of “reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years.”

Jama, who is based in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, continued, “The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas.”

Further evidence of toxic waste dumping came from the United Nations envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who told Al Jazeera in the same article that the international body has “reliable information” that both European and Asian corporations are unloading toxic chemicals, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline. “I must stress, however, that no government has endorsed this act and that private companies and individuals acting alone are responsible.”

In the aftermath of the tsunami in late 2004, evidence began to appear confirming such illegal dumping activity in the region. The United Nations Environment Program reported that the tsunmai washed up old, rusting containers of waste on the shores of Puntland, which was formerly part of Somalia prior to the collapse of the Western-backed government of Mohammad Siad Barre in 1991.

A UNEP spokesman, Nick Nuttall, told Al Jazeera in the same article that when the rusting barrels were opened by the force of the waves, dumping that had been occurring for many years were revealed. “Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war there. European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a ton, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1,000 a ton,” said Nuttall.

Nuttall went on to say that there are “many different kinds” of waste. “There is a uranium radioactive waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes—you name it.”

Since the containers have come to shore, there has been a sharp increase in various illnesses among the population, including such symptoms as oral and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments.

“We [the UNEP] had planned to do a proper, in-depth scientific assessment on the magnitude of the problem. But because of the high levels of insecurity onshore and off the Somali coast, we are unable to carry out an accurate assessment of the extent of the problem,” Nuttall continued.

Nonetheless, Ould-Abdallah said that the practice of illegal dumping of toxic waste continues in the region. “What is most alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive uranium waste is potentially killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean.”

Mohammed Gure, chair of the Somalia Concerned Group, said in the same Al Jazeera article that the social and environmental impact of this toxic waste dumping will be felt for decades. “The Somali coastline used to sustain hundreds of thousands of people, as a source of food and livelihoods. Now much of it is almost destroyed, primarily at the hands of these so-called ministers that have sold their nation to fill their own pockets.”

Other factors involved in the exploitation of Somalia are that the Gulf of Aden shipping lane transports billions of dollars of goods through the region every week. Almost none of these funds are utilized for the benefit of the Somali people, who are still suffering from underdevelopment resulting from U.S. interference in their internal affairs.

The U.S. administration under George W. Bush financed and engineered an invasion and occupation of the country by the Western-allied state of Ethiopia in December 2006. As a result of fierce resistance, the Ethiopian military withdrew from the country in January 2009. The formation of a new coalition government has failed to bring all the various political groupings into the regime.

Consequently, Ugandan and Burundian troops remain in the capital of Mogadishu under the auspices of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The leading resistance group, Al-Shabab, is continuing to demand the withdrawal of the AU forces before it agrees to enter the coalition government headed by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

The fledging government in Mogadishu, which has been endorsed by the U.S., applauded the attack on the Somali pirates on April 12. “We are very happy at this action and the outcome,” said Foreign Minister Mohamad Abdullahi Omaar. “I am not surprised, nor will anyone by surprised, at the actions of the American government to save its citizens and ensure the security of its people,” Omaar told Reuters. (April 13)

Increased U.S. military presence must be opposed

Recent reports coming out of the White House indicate that the Obama administration is divided over how to carry out its foreign policy in the Horn of Africa. Some elements want a more diplomatic approach to the problem of piracy as well as a concerted effort to bring more European and Asian nations into patrolling the waters in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

However, other advisers within the White House want to see a more direct U.S. military involvement on land and off the coast of Somalia. The recent incident involving the Maersk Alabama prompted the dispatching of additional warships to the Indian Ocean region. (Washington Post, April 12)

According to the figures issued by the International Maritime Bureau, at least a dozen cargo ships and more than 200 crew members are being held by Somali pirates in the region. At the same time, fighting inside of Somalia is continuing between the Al-Shabab resistance fighters and the AMISOM forces, which are working in conjunction with the troops loyal to the new coalition government in Mogadishu.

On April 13, Garowe Radio reported that three people had been killed over a two-day period resulting from mortar fire in the capital of Mogadishu. “Suspected insurgents launched at least ten mortars at the main port in the Somali capital Mogadishu on April 11.”

The report noted: “Islamist rebels vowed war against the Horn of Africa country’s interim government. Witnesses and workers at Mogadishu’s main seaport said AMISOM peacekeepers closed off roads near the port and entered nearby neighborhoods as a ship docked.”

The report continued: “There were many AMISOM soldiers in our area ...on top of buildings and they refused to allow us to leave our homes, a witness said. Port workers said the ship unloaded military hardware, including vehicles, which were transported to AMISOM bases in Mogadishu.”

Based on these reports and the U.S. administration’s framing of the killing of the three Somalis, it is vital that anti-war and anti-imperialist forces in the United States emphasize that greater U.S. military involvement in the region will not create a more stable political situation in Somalia and throughout the Horn of Africa.

In fact, as history has proven, the role of U.S. imperialism in the Horn of Africa has created greater instability and underdevelopment in the region. As a result of the Bush administration policy toward Somalia, the worst humanitarian crisis on the continent of Africa came into existence.

During the present period, progressive forces must demand a shift away from militarism in the Horn of Africa and insist on the right of self-determination including reparations for the people of Somalia and the Horn of Africa as a whole.