18 December 2012

Uganda: Deadly Waters of Somalia - Review

Jay Bahadur's account of the Somali pirates smacks of the real thing. He went to Puntland and the self-declared autonomous region of Galmudug and spoke with pirates and their bosses, and local fishermen, chewed khat and sipped sweet tea with them, to get their story.

The result is a very interesting book. Somalia, he says, is like a country out of a twisted fairytale. Everything known by the outside world has been constructed from news reports spilling out of the country over the past twenty years: warlords, famine, Black Hawks, jihads, and pirates. Together with bananas and livestock, international news is one of the few items that Somalia can still claim to export.

In fact, to even speak of Somalia as a uniform entity is inaccurate, because after the civil war the country broke up into a number of autonomous enclaves. Puntland, for example, founded in 1998 as a sanctuary for the thousands of Darod clans - people fleeing massacres in the south - comprises about 1.3 million people, and almost half its coastline.

Straddling the shipping bottleneck of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, it was the natural candidate to become the centre of the outbreak of piracy. It is also one of the biggest shipping lanes in the world. More than 20,000 commercial vessels, about 10 per cent of global shipping pass through the Gulf of Aden each year.

Puntland, says Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa expert with the London-based think tank, Chatham House, was the perfect area for pirates to operate because it's just stable enough, but also ungoverned enough. Pirates make exciting stories; they appeal to the romantic imagination.

But reports of hijackings in the newspapers or on television attract people to an issue without telling the whole story. Descriptions of hijackings with their sometimes lurid content make a black-and-white sketch which Bahadur tries to render in colour.

Deadly Waters is about pirates' lives inside and outside their attack skiffs; in short, what makes them human beings. And also what they do, piracy, which has made them the scourge of every sea-faring nation. Besides speaking with the pirates, he interacted with government officials, former hostages, scholars, soldiers and jailors, to get as many perspectives as possible.

By following the international news, it's easy to think that every ship entering the Indian Ocean stands a 50-50 chance of being hijacked. According to the statistics of the International Maritime Bureau, there is a less than 1 in 550 chance (0.17 per cent) of being taken hostage.

Do the pirates have a case? Was their fishing ruined by the 2004 tsunami, which brought to the shore the polluted waste dumped offshore by the industrial nations? Was their fishing industry affected by foreign fishing-boats taking fish from their waters?

Are they victims whose courage was to be somehow admired, or barbaric gangsters instead, self-interested and unprincipled, as the hostages might attest to? This book has most of the answers.

Book: Deadly Waters.

Author: Jay Bahadur.

Publisher: Profile Books, 2011.

Volume: 302 pages.

Cost: Shs 59,000

Available from Aristoc

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