Kenyans probably first heard of Somalia piracy after MV Faina, a Ukrainian-owned ship destined for Mombasa, was hijacked in the Indian Ocean. MV Faina’s cargo of 33 T-72 Soviet-era tanks and other weapons was consigned to Kenya’s Defence ministry on behalf of the government of South Sudan.
The crew and cargo were released after five months and a $20 million (Sh2 billion) ransom.
The 2013 biographical survival thriller Captain Phillips by Sony Pictures perhaps encapsulates what it means to be hijacked in the high seas by a band of pirates.
Telling the story of American merchant mariner Richard Phillips, the film explores the 2009 hijacking of the US container ship MV Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates.
With UN security resolutions in place, European Union member states launched Operation Atalanta in December 2008 under the EU Naval Force for Somalia (NAVFOR).
According to the operation spokesperson Jacqueline Sherriff this December marks eight years since its “first ever maritime military operation in response to a surge in armed pirate attacks on merchant ships and other vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.”
This anniversary also unfortunately marks the end of NATO’s counter piracy mission dubbed Operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa.
According to its website, “NATO will terminate Ocean Shield on December 15 but will remain engaged in the fight against piracy by maintaining maritime situational awareness and continuing close links with other international counter-piracy actors.”
Navy fleets from various nations joined the fray after their ships were targeted by the pirates. The policemen of the sea patrol an area two-thirds of the size of the United States with operating costs amounting to billions of dollars.
Jay Bahadur’s book, The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World (2011), is written from the perspective of a journalist learning on the job and speaking to former pirates. He also talks to maritime experts, lawyers and prison wardens.
Sometimes the book gets into the legal maze of prosecuting suspected pirates. He also pieces together newspaper cuttings while attempting to trace the origin of modern-day piracy.
Bahadur paints pictures of his numerous visits to Puntland, Garowe, Eyl, Bossasso, Naivasha and Mombasa to mention but a few towns’ where pirates come from or end up in.
Bahadur writes of his visits to Naivasha and Shimo La Tewa prisons to speak to convicted pirates.
Bahadur resisted using the word pirate while speaking to one of the pirates. The closest he could come to was the Somali words ‘‘burcad badeed’’ meaning ocean robber. This is interesting because the Somalis referred to themselves as ‘‘badaadinta badah’,’ meaning saviours of the sea.
Billions have been spent securing the world’s waterways off the coast of Somalia and the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, laws have been changed leading to pirates being tried and jailed locally.
Bahadur also speaks to famous pirates like Mohamed Abdi Hassan, known as Afweyn “Big Mouth”, from the coastal town of Harardheere.
He made piracy more sophisticated than it was before. He made the gangs more resourceful and organised, working with “mother ships” from which they could operate hundreds of miles from the ocean.
To understand the inner workings of piracy, the crowd funding, the reasons behind its mushrooming and thriving, pre-NAVFOR, get a copy of Jay Bahadur’s book.