Pirates and Emperors

Pirates and Emperors

It was the maxim of the Greek historian Thucydides that “large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must.” This is how international affairs work today. A striking case right now is the piracy off the coast of Somalia.

 Throughout the last few weeks the mainstream media has been informing us that a Somali teenage pirate named Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse has been put on trial for piracy charges in the United States. But it has almost entirely neglected the causes behind the surge in piracy. This piracy is simply portrayed to be a result of Somalia’s “anarchic political situation spilling out into the sea.” (From the guardian) Let us forget this gross misrepresentation of anarchism and focus on the surge in piracy.

 Johann Hari of the Independent is the only mainstream journalist to present some background to the situation. He describes how, “In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.”

 This collapse came as a result of American policy towards Somalia. In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan’s America supplied the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre with arms and about $100 million a year. As is common with dictators, this money didn’t trickle down to the people of Somalia and the country became increasingly poor. The money was used, however, to repress the population. So it did trickle down in one way. Barre’s brutal policies led to an uprising against him, which quickly turned into a full-scale civil war after he was ousted, and a famine ensued.

 America, then under George Bush I, withheld aid for 2 months, during which about 100,000 Somalis died of starvation. Now that Somalia was in a huge crisis, Bush took the opportunity to declare, just before the election, that he was dedicated to helping the starving people of Somalia and ordered a “humanitarian” invasion. These policies led to the political collapse of Somalia. European powers saw this as a great opportunity for exploitation.

 Somalia has continued to be damaged by American foreign policy.  In recent times the Bush II administration destroyed the charity that provided the main support for Somalia on the grounds that it was involved in terrorism. They later conceded that it wasn’t.

 After Somalia’s political collapse mysterious ships started to show up off the coast. These ships are owned by private companies, often the Italian mafia, who have been paid by European governments to dispose of their nuclear waste. They have been dumping this waste off the coast of Somalia. So far more than 300 Somalis have died of radiation poisoning.

 This is not the only way that European ships have raped the coast of Somalia.  According to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, “Over $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers off Somalia’s coast.”

 Because of this, many of the local fishermen are starving and Somalia has been pushed further into the abyss of political instability that starvation brings.

 It was the combination of fish theft and nuclear dumping that led the “pirates” to take to the seas. Somali fishermen started taking speedboats out to sea to try and stop, or at least tax, boats that were stealing their fish or dumping the toxic waste. They call themselves the volunteer coastguard of Somalia and they have the support of the majority of Somalis – 70 percent according to WardheerNews (an independent news site in Somalia).

 Unfortunately, some of the volunteer coastguards have turned into gangsters and have begun to take hostages, go beyond Somali waters and capture innocent ships like the one carrying world food program supplies. Trying to justify himself, one of the leaders of the pirates, Sugule Ali, has said that, "We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.”

 In “The City of God”, St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great, who asked him “how dare he molest the sea?” “How dare you molest the whole world” the pirate replied. “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor”.

 The governments of the United States and of many of the European countries, including Britain, did not care when Somalis were starving to death in the hundreds of thousands. They took this opportunity to dispose of their nuclear waste and to steal fish to make up for the overfishing that has taken place off their own coasts. But now that Somalis have got desperate and have started disrupting one of the world’s most important oil ways, these governments – the emperors of our world – are suddenly keenly interested in Somalia.

 Abdiwali is currently on trial for piracy. But surely, the European governments and the companies who have been stealing the Somalis’ fish and dumping nuclear waste in their seas should stand trial with him. As should the American politicians who supported Siad Barre against the wishes of the people of Somalia, withheld aid for 2 months during a famine and destroyed a charity giving aid to the desperate Somalis. Unless this happens we will continue to live in a corrupt world of pirates and emperors. 

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