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Turning the Page on Piracy in Eyl

The Eyl town of Daawad

Tucked within a rocky valley on the eastern shore of Somalia, approximately 220 kilometers from Puntland’s capitol, Garowe, the sister towns of Bedey and Daawad — together part of Eyl District — are two of the more underdeveloped areas in Puntland State. The coastal community of roughly 200 households has experienced little economic growth over the past two decades, having endured the consequences of remote and rugged geography, poor infrastructure, limited access to education, and instability caused by the local piracy movement that not only drained the town of a large number of young men, but scuttled its reputation among the international community.

The Eyl District Council, which governs Bedey and Daawad as well as the surrounding district of 100,000 people, has taken steps to address some of these challenges in recent years. Council members have solicited international support to modernize the unpaved road leading from Eyl to other population centers to the west and north. Construction will begin in the next few months. The current single-lane road — a mix of dirt, sand, and rock — compounds Eyl’s relative isolation by dramatically increasing travel time and limiting opportunities for trade and commerce. The fishing industry, Eyl’s largest source of livelihood, is particularly dependent upon reliable and expedient access to outside markets, without which opportunities for sector growth are slim. International trade to Gulf countries via the Indian Ocean is often the most viable alternative market for Eyl fishermen, although rough water conditions and the threat of off-shore piracy have made this route hazardous as well — not only due to armed criminals, but also anti-piracy vessels that may mistake innocent fishermen for Somalis with more nefarious intentions.

Yet the impact of the piracy movement extends well beyond the fishing sector. Starting over a decade ago, outside actors offering financial reward for criminal behavior — in the form of seizing boats and taking hostages — attracted many young Eyl men away from productive trades and toward dangerous and unstable lifestyles. Some were subsequently killed, leaving behind families with few means of financial support. Others were imprisoned. Many incurred large debts with local businesses around town, using piracy as both leverage and collateral, then often defaulting due to imprisonment, death, or simple bad luck on the open seas. These businesses suffered financial hardship as a result.

Piracy has a complicated history in Somalia. What began as a homegrown movement to protect off-shore resources (particularly fish populations within Somalia’s territorial waters) from excessive exploitation by other countries and international corporations, metastasized into a lucrative criminal enterprise that shirked its founding purpose for expedient economic gain. Pirates quickly discovered that they could collect large sums of money for their trade. The movement thus became less about economic justice and more about simple financial benefit, with many young Somalis preferring the high-risk, high-reward lifestyle to the stagnant grind of daily life in Eyl.

In recent years, however, piracy has waned in both influence and its level of community support. The Puntland government, with international backing, successfully engaged the Eyl community in an anti-piracy campaign designed to wield the influence of religious leaders, elders, businesses, and families to provide a united front against the piracy movement. Traditional and religious leaders used their moral authority to convince businesses to reject money of pirate origin, whether from the individual pirate himself or his family. And these families, under the strain of financial blacklists and weary of the violence and instability wrought by piracy, began to withdraw their support for the movement as well. Slowly, as the town became increasingly inhospitable to this form of criminal enterprise, pirates and their leaders began moving their operations elsewhere.

Small fishing boats along the beach in Bedey

Today, despite these mild successes, Eyl continues to stand in a vulnerable position. Although piracy has decreased through the community’s coordinated campaign, the region has not yet seen a corresponding rise in economic growth or opportunity. Fishermen lack the resources to construct durable boats to withstand the rough seas, and the community does not have sufficient refrigeration capacity to preserve the fish for shipment along the long route inland toward Garowe and other population centers. The town continues to need modernized infrastructure, primarily in the form of a permanent and paved road to facilitate a more cost-effective commute to and from the town. Farmers require metal wire to fence in land for a more productive use of livestock. Female small-shop owners, eager to expand their enterprises but lacking the wherewithal to do so, are in need of additional capital and business training. And youth, often with limited education and few employment opportunities, require enterprise skill training to improve their economic prospects and stimulate a broader entrepreneurial spirit. With few resources and little support from either the Puntland government or the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, the district government does not have the capacity to address these issues on its own.

All of these factors, when considered together, demand an increased level of engagement by development organizations to avoid a situation where piracy and organized criminal groups once again take root, exploiting and preying upon an economically vulnerable and geographically isolated community. Road construction is a good start, but needs to be accompanied by investment in the fishing sector to improve capacity for trade and build economic relationships with towns inland from the coast. Without creating expanded markets for Eyl products, it is difficult to envision sustainable growth. These goods, for example, could be connected to new commercial markets that are being developed in Garowe and neighboring towns, which would create new opportunities for profit within the supply chain to go along with added consumer demand.

Although Puntland is undergoing a democratic transition, sometimes the biggest challenges remain the most basic: creating sustainable livelihoods, and buffering insecure communities against organized crime and those who prey upon societies with weak governance. Long-term, Eyl’s economic prospects might rely somewhat upon the Puntland government’s ability to develop better policies for resource-sharing and inclusive political representation. But one hopes that Eyl might be able to find some solutions in the short-term as well, for a higher order of living and a further reduction in a pirate movement that continues to harm both Somalis and the international community.

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Posted by on July 30, 2012.

Categories: Africa, Development, Economics, Foreign Aid

4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure how much Mozambique and Puntland have in common, but it sounds like the problems driving crime in both countries stem from the same source: it’s the easiest way to make money. I certainly don’t want to say that we need to view the benefits of economic development through a security lens, but it does strike me that creating jobs, rather than better law enforcement seems like a more humane way of dealing with the issue. However, as I said in response to Andrea’s post, perhaps I am naive here.

    by Barak on Aug 5, 2012 at 3:44 am

  2. It seems that almost all piracy today comes from a place of economic need. There’s no discernable ideology there, and to the extent that they partner with Al Shabaab, it’s mostly opportunistic and for financial gain. But when it comes to the radical Islamist movements that challenge the government, it may be a bit more tricky. Their recruitment strategies certainly target vulnerable communities as well, but the pitch is often just as much about identity/religion/justice as it is about money.

    Overall, I think it’s true that creating economic opportunity will decrease the number of young men that join violent groups that destabilize the country — especially since law enforcement is particularly difficult in remote and rugged environments. Much like places in Afghanistan, there have been numerous examples of a small group rebuffing a larger police or military force in the rocky valleys of eastern Somalia. A single mullah kept British and Italian forces at bay for many years in the early 20th century. And police efforts to subdue piracy in Eyl largely failed until the community itself turned on the movement. But I guess the question remains, how do we create better livelihoods in areas that are so remote and underdeveloped, with governments that have such little capacity?

    by Josh Linden on Aug 8, 2012 at 4:23 am

  3. Let me turn the question around: why should we try to develop remote rural areas? Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage migration to places where there is more opportunity?

    by Barak on Aug 10, 2012 at 4:04 am

  4. That’s a fair question. But I think we can also see the danger of this, in places where urbanization outpaces the capacity of those centers or governments to support the new populations. On a much smaller scale, a version of this is happening in Garowe. There is a large IDP camp on the outskirts of the city populated mostly by people from South/Central. They initially left their homes for reasons other than economic opportunity, and some come from different clans than main one in Puntland. But many have been there for years, some over a decade, and the conditions of the camp remain terrible because Garowe both doesn’t have the resources and doesn’t want to use what they do have on the IDPs. Granted, this is a little different than typical migration. But it’s still difficult.

    I do agree that, in the end, new opportunities need to be created in order for Somalia to really move forward. Most Somalis still do jobs that have existed for hundreds of years. Pastoralism, fishing, simple trading, etc. Making these trades marginally more profitable doesn’t change the fundamental problems of the economy. And this again is where we might be able to bring it back to security. Investment remains incredibly low because no one trusts that the investment will remain safe. I don’t even think that there are any official banks in Puntland, though I may be wrong about that. Technological advancement has been slow, although Somalis were actually on the forefront of the movement to use cell phones for financial transactions. That definitely seems like a positive step. But I’m interested to hear your take on the situation as well.

    by Josh Linden on Aug 11, 2012 at 10:02 am

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