News / Africa

Somali Minister Mocks International Anti-Piracy Efforts

Somalia has chided wealthy donor nations for failing to provide the resources needed to combat piracy in its coastal waters.  Our correspondent reports on comments made by a senior Somali official to an anti-piracy conference at African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Somalia's transitional government says it could halt piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa within months, if given the proper tools and international support.

Speaking to an African conference on maritime security, Somalia's Deputy Prime Minister Abdulrahman Adan Ibrahim Ibbi ridiculed international anti-piracy efforts, calling them "a waste of money."

Most of the conference was held in secret.  But Ibbi told VOA that African delegates applauded his argument that a well-equipped Somali coast guard could stamp out regional piracy for a tiny fraction of the cost of what he called the largely ineffectual international naval presence.

"The international community is paying millions of dollars for its own navy expenses in Somali sea waters," said Abdulrahman Adan Ibrahim Ibbi. "Why don't they pay one percent of that expense to the Somali government to recruit their own coast guard to eradicate this piracy, because we can do it, and we know we can do it and they know we can do it?"

Ibbi says a Somali coast guard would not need much money or a big force to patrol the high seas.  All it would need, he said, is the equipment to battle the pirates at their base of operations.   

"What we are asking is small speedboats where we can put big guns, so we can fight close to the land, not on the sea," he said. "We can go close to the land because we know the area."

The Gulf of Aden off Somalia's northern coast is a vital shipping route.  An estimated 20,000 ships travel its waters each year, most of them en route to or from the Suez Canal.  In 2008, the most recent year for which figures are complete, 110 ships were attacked - 40 of them hijacked, and $30 million in ransoms were paid.

Experts say the economic damage from piracy is considerable.  In addition to the cost of naval operations, ship owners pay hundreds of millions of dollars in piracy insurance premiums.

Somalia's Deputy Prime Minister Ibbi, who is also his country's minister for fisheries and marine resources, said piracy is also creating serious long term social problems.  In an impoverished country with few economic opportunities, he says stories of pirate's gold are luring young Somalis to the high seas.

"Every father would like to send his son to be part of the pirates because in a month, [instead of] getting a hundred dollars, you can get in a month a couple of hundred thousand dollars," said Ibbi. "So why should you stay at home when you can be a millionaire in a [short] matter of time?  So every family would like to have one person in the pirates."

Even worse, Ibbi said, is that a significant amount of the ransoms paid go to finance the Islamic extremist rebel group al-Shabab.   

"People who are paying the ransoms, they don't know they are feeding al-Shabab because al-Shabab has very good relations with the pirates," he said. "Plus every ship they kidnap, the ransom, 20 percent, they should pay to al-Shabab - 20 percent!"

But Ibbi expressed confidence that Somalia's fragile transitional government, with increasing international backing, is gaining the upper hand against al-Shabab.  Pointing to recent military successes on land, he said, "They used to attack us, now we are attacking them."

Ibbi said that as long as piracy goes unchecked, the Somali government faces an uphill battle to bring order to a society that has been virtually ungovernable for nearly two decades.   

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