How Somalia's coastal communities called time on the pirates

How diaspora uncles, clan elders and ‘fathers against pirates’ put an end to the scourge of Somali piracy. Hazel Healy speaks to Jamal Osman, who has reported on piracy since 2008.

HAZEL HEALY: Tell me about how Somali attitudes to pirates have evolved.

JAMAL OSMAN: I was in Garowe [administrative capital of Puntland] in 2008, doing vox pops, and people said: ‘pirates are brilliant’, ‘heroes’, ‘good guys’. I returned in 2010, to the exact same place, and attitudes had changed. Now they were ‘bad guys’. Some houses that belonged to pirates had been burned down.

The pirates got rich too quickly. They would approach men with beautiful wives and try to buy them. They would drive drunk, very fast, crazily through the towns, and kill people

Somalia may have a civil war, but it is a very conservative place. At first, pirates were hijacking outside, making money out of foreigners. But then the impacts started to be felt locally. The pirates got rich too quickly. They bought alcohol from Ethiopia, young boys and girls were getting drunk. There was an increase in prostitution. Pirates would approach men with beautiful wives and try to buy them, no matter how many children they had. They would drive drunk, very fast, crazily through the towns, and kill people. They’d say: ‘All they need is blood money – it’s only 100 camels, I can give them 200. I don’t care.’

How did locals react to pirates’ bad behaviour?

Locals began to reject them, and stand up to them, from about 2009. People said: ‘We can’t accept this.’ Clan elders got involved, and religious leaders who felt pirates were going against Islam. There was one group, ‘Fathers Against Pirates’, whose wives or daughters had become pirate mistresses. They were very determined to end it.

And then there were individual parents whose children had died. I interviewed one father who had lost three sons on pirate missions, and was a big campaigner against it.

Now all parents are watching their sons carefully. If they suspect something they keep them in, or have them arrested. Pirates can’t get the young men any more.

Pirates did the international community a big favour by falling out with the locals – that’s one of the main reasons piracy has almost disappeared. They can’t function without their main base.

Are there any cases of strong-man rule where pirates have terrorized communities?

No. Clans can work for good or ill. And, in this case, the way Somali society works means that pirates set up business within their clan areas, among their own people. Clan members are like brothers. They may disagree, but everything has a limit. You would not go as far as killing or raping someone or something like that, no.

The pirates were guilty of anti-social behaviour – they used money to corrupt and bribe local officials or elders to shut them up, or win their support, but not violence. Even al-Shabab [Islamist militants who control areas of southern Somalia] have a limit. As tough and extreme as they are, they do not want to turn the locals against them.

Somalia appears to be the toast of the town after years of neglect from the international community. Would you say piracy has helped revive interest?

I have heard Somalis saying that pirates have inadvertently brought attention and made the international community take an interest in stabilizing Somalia. And if that works, then that will have a positive effect for Somalis.

When it was a Somali problem, the British government didn’t care. But when the fire reached them, they came in to deal with it. They are getting involved because, as they say so often, ‘it’s in our interests’.

I heard that the Somali diaspora was key to assuring the release of the Chandlers [the retired British couple kidnapped in 2009 and held hostage for over a year]...

I’d say that the British Somali community put pressure on the pirates. In this case, it came down to the clan elders in Britain – pirates’ uncles or what have you – who called the kidnappers and were able to lower the pirates’ expectation of the ransom amount. The pirates came close to killing the Chandlers, but the community stopped it. They didn’t really get credit for that.

What measures has the new Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud introduced to tackle piracy?

The short answer is ‘none’. To be fair to him, piracy is not his problem. He has a lot more important issues to deal with first. He has to say something about it because he’s dealing with the West, but I don’t think he is dealing with it and I don’t think he can. Even in Mogadishu he doesn’t have much power. That’s the sad reality.

Jamal Osman is a Somali reporter/producer for Britain's Channel 4 TV.