14 August 2011

East Africa: Somali's Pirate Money Funding of Property Boom Disputed

A Canadian journalist's daring on-the-scene account of Somali pirates' operations challenges several presumptions, including conjecture that booty from the marauders' hostage-takings is being used to fuel a property boom in Nairobi.

Irrespective of whether pirates are hiding out in Eastleigh, writes Jay Bahadur, author of The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, a rough calculation is sufficient to dismiss the notion that piracy has had anything to do with the skyrocketing demand for Nairobi land.

At the time he was researching his newly published book, pirate ransoms had not totalled more than $125 million, Bahadur points out.

Given how much pirate booty is blown on cars and khat (mira'a), it would be a miracle if as much as a tenth had made its way from Somalia into the Nairobi property market. And $12.5 million in over two years could not noticeably affect average property prices in even the smallest slum of a global city like Nairobi.

Islamist insurgency

Escalating land prices in the Kenyan capital should instead be attributed to the Kibaki administration's investor-friendly policies, Bahadur suggests.

Based on his sometimes-harrowing visits to pirate lairs in Somalia in 2009, the 27-year-old freelancer also takes issue with claims that the pirates' treasure is helping finance Somalia's Islamist insurgency.

Links between pirates and terrorists undoubtedly exist, but they are isolated and incidental opportunistic individuals with Islamist ties who happen to dabble in piracy investments on the side, Bahadur finds. Al-Shabaab, as an organisation, does not yet have conclusive systematic links to the pirates....

And the reason for that is simple, Bahadur speculates. Pirates fear they will be targeted by US air strikes inside Somalia if they are identified as Shabaab bankrollers. In any event, Bahadur adds, few Somalis involved in piracy are reaping riches from their roles.

Computer, the nom de guerre for the commander of the 2009 high-seas hijacking of the German-owned MV Victoria, may have pocketed close to $1 million, Bahadur figures. But the low-level operatives barely made what is considered a living wage in the Western world.

The 20 Somalis assigned the task of watching over the ship's hostages were each paid about $12,000, while a cook's assistant made about $9,000, in Bahadur's estimation.

Still, such sums are more than sufficient to recruit Somali youths to piracy, despite its significant risks, the book adds.

Like drug dealing for inner-city youth in the US, piracy provides one of the few avenues for a young Somali to gain status and respect, Bahadur observes. This he says, mainly accounts for the growth of the piracy industry in Somalia.

He reports Somali brigands' oft-invoked claims that their actions represent a form of retaliation for the dumping of toxic wastes in the country's waters and for foreign vessels' pillaging of coastal fishing grounds.

There is little evidence to support the charge that large quantities of poisonous material have been thrown into the sea near Somalia, Bahadur concludes.

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