Mohamed Haji (Ingiriis)

Somalia: The New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa by Martin N. Murphy, London: Hurst Publishers, 2011. 

The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World by Jay Bahadur, London: Profile Brooks, 2011.

The scourge of piracy in the Somali littoral – in the clan-anchored breakaway region of Puntland, in particular – is widely depicted in the media as international organized crime with both intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions. The intrinsic aspects reflect the impact that piracy has on local Somalis, while the extrinsic issues center around the maritime security concerns of the international community. It is equally represented as a great threat to the global economy, providing justification for western naval forces patrolling the coast of Somalia to control the strategic basin of the Gulf of Aden.

Virtually every nation in the world has been affected by the predation of Puntland pirates. In a sense, Somali piracy remains a sui generis in the media compared to its global counterparts, primarily due to “the access to sanctuary” on the ground, in reference to the pirates’ reliance on the local clan-based population in providing them with a permissive “hotspot” environment in which to base their activities (it should be noted that stopping piracy altogether at sea, on land or in courtrooms has constituted several legal challenges, while using military force to counter this criminal clan enterprise has been contended to be itself a “criminal offence,” not to mention ineffectual).

The recent scholarship on Somali piracy is astoundingly ahistorical, however, with analysts limiting themselves to the period from the collapse of Somalia’s brutal military dictatorship onwards. These writings lack the early historical background of piracy, failing, perhaps inadvertently, to probe its actual origins in the Somali context, specifically its etymology in the nineteenth century piracy of shipwrecked booty off the coast of Cape Guardafui. Owing to this important gap, there appears to be an acute need for an historical study in explaining the Somali concept of “burcad-badeed” (maritime bandits or sea robbers). Such a study would add new perspectives on the roots of Somali piracy, tracing back to two hundred years ago when sea robbery was common practice in the coastal villages of what is now Puntland (then known either by a clan name, Northeast Somalia or Nugaal Valley in existing literature). 

Regrettably, the two most recent books about Somali piracy offer nothing new regarding the early historical background of piracy. Consisting of twenty eight chapters and a conclusion, Martin N. Murphy’s Somalia, the New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa considers piracy as a new phenomenon beginning in 1989. Though impressive in its academic examination, albeit with an overreliance on media news reports, it provides no intellectual history of piracy, but instead describes well-known recent pirate activities – mostly ship hijacking incidents. Though Murphy attempts, somewhat shrewdly, to equate contemporary Somali piracy with that of Barbary pirates, he leaps into the seventeenth century Mediterranean piracy without even discerning the nineteenth century burcad-badeed in Puntland. Acknowledging that the parallels are “pale at best,” he analyses the British bombardment of Algiers in 1816, but apparently fails to detect an earlier British bombardment of Puntland in 1802 as retaliation for the murder of British seafarers.

Murphy argues that, similar to Barbary piracy, “Somali piracy constitutes a significant part of society. It has a human and geographic hinterland. Like Barbary it displays the ‘features of a commercial system that shows signs of turning into a way of life’” (178) and recommends a need to “deal with the leadership of Puntland in full recognition with due care” (161) if piracy is to be defeated totally. He relates that a “twelve-year-old interviewed in Garowe told his interviewer that when he finished high school he would become ‘a pirate man’ working to bring home more money for his family.” (111) This becomes a testament to the fact that piracy has morphed into a goal for many young teenagers who would otherwise have opted to pursue another profession. What are the connections, if any, to these dynamics historically?

Murphy’s book, however, is not limited to the sphere of piracy. He attempts to explain the “rise and fall” of the TNG [Transitional National Government] and the rise of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government], as well as the growth of political Islam. For him, piracy has links to the desolation that has bedevilled Somalia for over two decades and crippled every attempt by the international community to tackle the phenomenon. In short, he astutely describes that the image of the United States among Somalis “was compromised by its association with Siad Barre and various warlords over many years, and its more recently conducted air raids.” (168) He may be right on that account, but due to the “mess of the Somalis own making,” (164) he also suggests, somewhat heavy-handedly, that a land campaign against piracy has to be avoided at almost all costs due to the possibility that any inhabitant in Puntland who owns a gun would come to pirates’ defence, as is commonly believed to have happened in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down fiasco in 1993. 

In The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, Jay Bahadur writes mainly of his personal experiences during several weeks observing Puntland pirates and allowing himself to rub shoulders with the highest echelons of Puntland authority, whose chauvinistic prevarications he seems to accept uncritically. His work intends to examine pirates’ social interactions with the local society as he promises to uncover “the hidden world” of pirates, yet no hidden realm is discovered at all, other than that which has been circulated by mainstream media over the years. Contra Murphy, he concedes that the “history of Somali piracy is still clouded in obscurity,” but continues to liken Puntland piracy to that of western storybooks. In an allusion to Richard Burton, who had visited Somalia in 1854 and observed a country teeming with poets, Bahadur claims that “Puntland teems with pirates.” (46) 

Nevertheless, Bahadur’s accounts of Puntland pirates follows a peculiar pattern. In the course of two visits to the area, he is a guest of Puntland “President” Abdirahman Farole. Bahadur’s host, Mohamed, and translator, Omar, are Farole’s sons, while his bodyguard, “Colonel” Omar Abdulahi Farole, is a nephew of Farole. (98-99) Bahadur would later realise that Colonel Farole is not a real colonel, but rather a local militiaman who promoted himself to colonel and is now waiting for Abdirahman Farole to promote him to General. The family interaction makes him empathize, at times, with some of the alleged players of the pirate enterprise as the Farole sons attempt to direct his mission, particularly when he researches how Puntland authorities deal with pirates. In truth, Bahadur possesses no inkling about what is really going on in the inner circle.  

The author seem to be onto something interesting when recounting an incident wherein the “two Omars had accompanied me, and I took a seat between them across the desk, the Colonel on my right, Kalashnikov slung over a shoulder, and Omar Farole to my left, serving as my interpreter.” (112) He writes that his interpreter frequently intervenes, sometimes even interrupts, during the course of his interviews. He appears to be engaging with politically conscious informants who cynically attempt to exploit foreigners bereft of the knowledge of political context and cultural gradation. 

Bahadur eventually recognises that he was “made conscious of being under the wing of the Farole family.” (112) Nevertheless, he continues to treat his host, Abdirahman Farole, passively, eventually conceding that the family is attempting to use him. He recalls that he was once taken to meet the Mayor of Garowe (Puntland’s capital) just to make a panegyric toward the President of Puntland, discerning that “with Omars [the interpreter and the bodyguard] seated on either side of me,” it was apparent that much of the (Mayor’s) monologue was being tailored for the ears of the President’s son and his cousin. Not only is this typical family propaganda, but the worst of it is that Bahadur agrees with the sycophancy, claiming that “security had improved since the days of the previous administration.” (112) Perhaps due to his excessive admiration of the Farole family, the author repetitively reminds us of his naïve observation that, with a “paltry $20 million annual budget of Puntland,” the government cannot afford to tackle piracy. This statement sounds more like advocacy for international aid to Puntland than a researcher’s unbiased observation of social dynamics in the field.

Bahadur tries to rewrite Somali history by re-inscribing what Liisa Malkki would call a “mythico-history.” (1) Without locating truth or separating rhetoric from reality, he wholeheartedly accepts the gospel recounted to him by Farole’s sons, particularly that their father is the only the “third Somali civilian leader since 1969.” (270) It does not occur to the author to challenge the specious and conflicting versions that Farole is the only civilian that assumed Somali leadership. It seems as if Bahadur is yet to learn the difference between a “Somali leader” and a clan-ordained warlord, who in reality is nothing more than local clan warlord, fairly similar to other warlords emerging from the Somali civil war. In fact, Farole’s peers in Somalia include the many notorious warlords that are now members of the Somali Transitional Parliament based in Mogadishu. Apparently, what Bahadur overlooked is the fact that Farole’s political career begam within the limited brackets of the Puntland territory, and presumably may end there. 

Having resided in the “presidential” compound in Garowe, Bahadur seems unable to extricate himself from the Farole family; a trap certain unsuspecting researchers in Somalia have had fallen into before, becoming intellectual victims of their hosts. Nonetheless, his deep ignorance of Somali socio-political history, combined with a “naïve thinking” (to borrow the words of radical thinker Paulo Freire), may have cost him his impartiality and infarcted any insight into the intricate and sensitive Somali politics of the past and present. As such, he is becomes a mere mouthpiece for warlords. Rather than rigorously engaging with the enduring conundrums of piracy objectively, he follows the advice of one pirate who “admonished me to tell the story of him and his men exactly as they had given it to me.” (107) That pirate insists that “something good has to come back to us from all of this.” Surely, this “something good” has come back in the form of Bahadur’s praise for local war profiteers making blood money and promoting themselves to army colonels. However, Bahadur eagerly shares with the readers that he was, “struck by the chilling realisation that I had shared tea with murderers.” It is thus obvious that Bahadur is not oblivious to his own consumption of pirate booty, then, since the income of his host is based on it. 

Both Bahadur and Murphy seem to agree that tackling piracy necessitates a glance at history, but they do not offer this in the local context, but rather only through the generalized frameworks of Africa, Arabia and Islam. While they explore some of the politics of modern Somalia, they seem to argue that the concept of a failed state should not be applied to the whole of Somalia, but merely to the southern part of the country. This assertion undermines the interconnectedness between all the different regions. The future of the whole region is at stake here, and success depends upon how all Somalis aboard the ship of state might be saved from the foundering wreck.

(1) Liisa H. Malkki, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1995).

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is an academic, critic and essayist specializing in Somalia. He started his career as a writer for some of the leading Somalia newspapers after the end of the authoritative rule of Siad Barre. He briefly worked as publisher and editor of Muuqaal, a periodical and at various radio stations inside and outside Somalia, covering the news of the largest Somali reconciliation conference held in Kenya. His column regularly appears on Hiiraan Online and Mogadishu Times. He is a currently working on his post-graduate studies at the faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of London Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. Author of numerous articles and studies on Somali conflict, politics, history and gender issues, he is working on a book about the state of Somali society.