Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple kidnapped by Somali pirates while sailing their yacht in the Indian Ocean, were released yesterday after just over a year in captivity. But the Chandlers’ ordeal also highlights the futility of the international anti-piracy naval taskforce, which has been in operation off the Somali coast for the past two years.
The Chandlers’ 38-foot yacht, the Lynn Rival, was hijacked in October last year as they were sailing from Seychelles to Tanzania, despite the close presence of a Royal Navy warship. More than 30 warships from the EU, US, China, Japan and even Russia have been patrolling the Gulf of Aden since 2008 (Monocle took a trip with the Danes in Issue 23) but they have made little impact. New figures from the International Maritime Bureau show that Somali pirates accounted for 44 per cent of all ship hijackings in the first nine months of this year. More than 700 hostages have been taken – and at least 400 of those are still being held.
“The root case of piracy is a land-based problem, not sea-based,” said EJ Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director for International Crisis Group. “All they are doing is pushing pirates further out into the ocean rather than suppressing the number of successful attacks.”
Somalia is the archetypal failed state, ruled by competing militias since the collapse of the last functioning central government in 1991. The current government controls little more than a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu, and is unable to organise a police force that could deal with the pirates on land, let alone a coastguard service that could tackle them at sea.
Many of the original pirates saw themselves as an informal coastguard, protecting Somalia’s fishing waters from predatory European trawlers. But by 2007, the number of ships being hijacked had dramatically increased. The World Food Programme, which had been sending cargo ships full of food and medicine from Mombasa to Mogadishu was struggling to deliver the much-needed humanitarian aid.
The French navy provided an escort for a few ships, before other EU navies stepped in to assist. Meanwhile the number of hijackings of commercial ships was on the rise. Following two high profile hijackings – an oil tanker and a ship full of weapons bound for southern Sudan – the international taskforce was born.
But its effectiveness has been stymied by a number of problems, including how to deal with pirates that are arrested – unless they have been caught in the act, are they actually pirates are just seafarers with guns? More importantly, the sheer length of the Somali coast – at 3,000km it’s the longest in Africa – means there is a very large ocean to patrol.
“Somalia is still very chaotic,” says Hogendoorn. Until progress is made on land “piracy will continue to flourish”.