In East Africa hijacking has developed into a highly structured social and business model. Modern-day piracy is Somalia’s most lucrative business. In the booming pirate port of Ely, Somalia big villas and hotels are sprouting and former subsistence fishermen are driving Mercedes-Benzes.
The pirate city is Somalia’s sole boomtown. Somalia has no central government, no banks and few opportunities. In a country that has seen 14 provisional governments since 1991, multimillion dollar ransoms are one of few ways to earn a living in the war-ravaged and impoverished region. Nearly half the population depends on aid. Since the civil war many coastal Somalis have turned to buccaneering as a business.
Eyl is a costal town in the northern region of Somalia and home to Somali men such as those who hijacked the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama. Banditry at sea offers power and potential prosperity in a land so bleak that life expectancy is just 46 years and a quarter of children die before they reach 5. Piracy evolved due to Somalia’s lawlessness and Eyl’s strategic location. Thirty 30 percent of the world’s oil goes through the narrow Gulf of Aden off Somalia’s northern coast. One of the world’s busiest waterways, 20,000 merchant ships pass through the Gulf of Aden on their way to and from the Suez Canal each year.
Their booty from one of the world’s busiest waterways has made Somali’s coastal bandits the country’s wealthiest people and propelled piracy and ransoming to the country’s largest income-earner. In Somalia, where the average family lives on less than $1 a day, the lure of the black flag is intoxicating. The Somali pirates made $125 million in 2008.
In Eyl, hijacking is the main industry. In the boomtown, fancy houses are being built and expensive cars and consumer goods are being bought. The going rate for ransom payments is between $300,000 and $1.5 million. Even though the number of pirates who actually take part in a hijacking is relatively small, the whole modern industry of piracy involves many more people that reside in and around Eyl.
These are not the rum-drunk, eccentric, peg-leg pirates of yesteryear: Africa’s modern corsair is well-organized, disciplined and toting a satellite phone. Now that they are making so much money, these 21st Century pirates can afford increasingly sophisticated weapons and speedboats.
The number of people who make the first attack is small, normally from seven to 10. They seek up to hulking ships at night in small, powerful unlit speedboats, fling grappling hooks over the side and board. Once they seize the ship, about 50 pirates stay on board the vessel. And about 50 more wait on shore in case anything goes wrong. Given all the other people involved in the piracy industry, including those who feed hostages, it has become a mainstay of the Eyl’s economy.
In spite of the Maersk Alabama’s rescue, the pirates lost little and still have much to gain continuing to strike. The pirates, ship owners and insurers all know that it’s more cost-effective to pay ransoms. The pirates’ current average bounty of $300,000 to $1 million ransom per vessel is significantly cheaper option for owners than buying a new ship. Most tankers and ships are not armed, or if they are, they have small side arms. The pirates circle the vessel and threaten to blow it out of the water with rocket-propelled grenades or shoulder-launched missiles. Faced with that prospect, most captains – to save the life of their crew and the vessels – will surrender control to pirates.
Shippers are paying premium prices for coverage of trips through the Gulf of Aden and millions of dollars on diversions and extra security. The pirates’ business practices are effective primarily because of their simplicity. In a country where banking no longer functions everything is done by cash. And, as long as pirates can get shippers to airdrop tens of thousands of $100 notes as ransom payments Eyl will continue as “Blingtown” flush with new cars, plush houses, Sean Jean clothes and cologne and satellite televisions and bigger guns.
(William Reed – www.BlackPressInternational.com)