Turning the Page on Piracy in Eyl
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.
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.