It has become a conventional wisdom that the problem of piracy off Somalia cannot be solved until the anarchy ashore has been addressed.
A sentence to that effect is often found at the bottom of wire service reports notifying us of the latest pirate outrage. Wednesday`s editorial in Johannesburg`s The Star newspaper averred the same in as many words.
Conventional wisdoms tend to be widely accepted but are often, in fact, wrong. At one time our ancestors were convinced the earth was flat and that the sun and stars orbited terra firma.
The wisdom that naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden would end the lucrative and relatively low-risk hijacking of merchant ships for ransom can now also be discounted. South African journalist and author Jonny Steinberg intensely studied policing in this country some years ago and convincingly argued that anticrime measures such as CCTV and visible policing only prevented and deterred crime in the immediate vicinity of the bobby on the beat or camera.
Criminals, whether muggers or pirates, respond to carrot and stick; incentive and disincentive. By establishing and patrolling a “safe route” through the Gulf of Aden for traffic headed to-and-from the Suez Canal and Mediterranean, a form of visible policing, navies have largely displaced the sea robbers into the deep Indian Ocean where they are now threatening the sea route from the Arabian Sea to the Cape as well as the sovereignty of neighbour and fellow Southern African Development Community member The Seychelles.
In the great tradition of unintended consequences one can be sure this was not a desired result, but there you are: visible policing is a point not an area defence. It displaces crime somewhere else.
What about that first wisdom?
Somalia has been in a state of anarchy since 1991. Yet piracy only became a big issue in the last year. Why is that? Why is it a problem now? What have Somali boat-owners and crews been doing with their time the last 15 or so years?
defenceWeb this week reported that the Atlantic bluefin tuna is hovering on the edge of commercial extinction, which must be a real worry to sushi and sashimi eaters everywhere. It certainly is an existential crisis to North African fishermen. Somali fisherfolk have complained for years about industrial scale poaching in their waters and there`s a school of thought the current scourge developed from fishermen protecting their turf from these commercial cutthroats.
Addressing sea robbery may first have to involve curbing poaching.
Creating a coast guard and fisheries authority ashore – as part of the reconstruction of the Somali state will help – and Somalia has for some time now had an internationally recognised government that could do so.
But to take a look at SA again: It is a rare bird in Africa in having a constitutional state that can exert its authority over the entire national territory. In many of our neighbours state authority – whether executive or judicial – end in the outskirts of the capital, if it even extends that far. That is certainly the case in Mogadishu. Yet SA has, one is sorry to say, one of the highest crime rates around.
Solving lawlessness and insecurity ashore in Somalia is going to be a long And painful process and will not necessarily going to stop trouble at sea. SA has now had 15 years of democracy in a framework almost universally embraced by its people. Yet crime persists.
Rebuilding state authority may not be the biggest problem do-gooders face: convincing Somali boat owners and fishing crews to return to backbreaking labour for little reward. Even in Somalia life and career choices are not predestined. They are the result of the dynamic interaction of opportunity, risk, reward, industry and lifestyle.
Piracy – despite the recent arrest of some pirates and the death of others – is still very high reward with low risk and equally little exertion (industry). In addition, the ransoms can finance a fabulous lifestyle ashore. Piracy, for which opportunity abounds, thus beats fishing (low reward, high exertion) any day of the week.
My research on the military aspects of the Jameson Raid and Boer War battles in southern Gauteng entitled Johannesburg`s missing battlefields – Remhoogte, Doornkop, Gatsrand Pass, Vanwyksrust and two battles for the City of Gold is now available online.