newritings

December 20, 2008

Old pirates yes they rob I

Filed under: opinion article — newritings @ 10:51 am

Piracy like prostitution is one of the oldest “professions” in the world, and like prostitution always results in someone or some groups winning and others losing. Bob Marley, in his Redemption Song, talks about being stolen by pirates and sold to merchant ships – a clear reference to slavery and its enduring legacy.

Fast forward to 2008, and the Gulf of Aden is said to be a hotbed of piracy, with each captured vessel fetching an average of $2m in ransom. (BBC).

The global media is now focused on the pirates holding the Sirius Star, a 330m Saudi super-tanker carrying 2mn barrels of crude. The pirates have demanded $25mn in ransom. This issue has got tongues wagging, as no country has been spared. Many a commentator has fingered Somalia as a key part of the problem. It is ungovernable they say. pirates-comic-strip1

The attached cartoon obviates the needs for words – but I cannot resist and say that the pirates have focused our minds and given us much food for thought about governance and sustainable development. The late Julius Mwalimu Nyerere has touched on this issue and its relation to Somalia late in 1998. The cartoon puts squarely on the agenda the question of genuine and interdependent sustainable development. You will see from this brief journey that not only is brute force used but creativity and intelligence which if applied towards the goals of national or regional egalitarian development and democracies will be rare success stories for a troubled continent like Africa. But this is not on the agenda. It is about small groups of people…

This year alone more than $120mn in ransom money has been paid out to the pirates, according to a UN envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould Abdallah. “They may have collected over $120mn (91.3mn euros) for this year, with total impunity,” he said to an international conference in Nairobi called to deal with the issue. “This unprecedented rise in piracy is threatening the very freedom and safety of maritime trade routes, affecting not only Somalia and the region, but also a large percentage of world trade,” he said. IN a period of just over two months, since October, about 32 ships have been attacked. (source AFP)

The conference highlighted that this is a matter of regional and global concern and requires concerted action. In addition, it was pointed out that only a fraction of the ransom money goes into Somalia, with other countries including the Kenya (Nairobi), Britain and Canada seeing much of the fruits.

It is true that Somalia has not had an inclusive and democratic government for 17 years and to survive the people have gone back to clans and rival armed groups all contesting for centralized state power.

The BBC reporters (Hunter and Ali…) point out the bonds of solidarity of purpose that exist among the pirates: “they are never seen fighting because the promise of money keeps them together.”

Robyn Hunter concludes that “given Somalia’s history of clan warfare this is quite a feat.”

In addition it would appear that the best intellectual resources of this society are being utilized for these operations:
* Ex-fishermen – the brains – of the operation because they have the local knowledge in particular of the sea
* Ex-militiamen- the muscle – having fought in various wars for the different warlords
* The technical experts – the computer geeks – who have expertise necessary for the pirates’ work including high tech equipment including GPS, satellite phones and military hardware.

Whilst the UN conference has heard that countries must “trace, track and freeze the assets and the backers of the pirates”, it may be easier to work towards a stable viable democracy in Somalia and the countries surrounding the path the ships use to carry their valuable cargo, ignoring the countries and regions alongside it.

The same can be said of the gas and pipelines that cut through regions of the world dying of hunger and disease (the South) to warm up and feed elites mainly in the North. This is untenable and unsustainable. Whilst local civil society activists in the unions and mass movements organize to make their voices heard, the terrorists and pirates “debate through action” or as they use to say in the past “propaganda by deed”, which, however painful it may be, must cause us to reflect on the causes of such exclusion and desperation. We have to seek solution to the rule of pirates in suits or those with guns and embed genuine participatory democracy that can put food on the table, provide decent shelter and also allow for space to dream, enjoy and be creative.

These ideas are neither radical nor new, as even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a beautiful slogan, which if implemented can carve the path to liberation for us all and it reads: “Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.” It is for this reason that we must raise the debate around governance that is profound and goes beyond simple construction of institutions without the content that tackles poverty and inequality.

At the beginning we began with Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, marking them as trouble spots etc but way back in 1998, Mwalimu pointed an accusing finger at the NORTH for imposing their developing model – which they did not practice – on others. He argued that:

Today there is a call, emanating from the North, for the weakening of the State. In my view, Africa should ignore this call. Our States are so weak and anaemic already that it would almost amount to a crime to weaken them further. We have a duty to strengthen the African States in almost every aspect you can think of; one of the objectives of improving the governance of our countries is to strengthen the African State and thus enable it to serve the people of Africa better.

One result of weakening the State can be observed in Somalia. There are many potential Somalias in Africa if we heed the Northern call to weaken the State. In any case, dieting and other slimming exercises are appropriate for the opulent who over-eat, but very inappropriate for the emaciated and starving!

Incidentally, the world has changed indeed! The withering of the State used to be the ultimate objective of good Marxists. Today the weakening of the State is the immediate objective of free-marketeers!

In advocating a strong State, I am not advocating an overburdened State, nor a State with a bloated bureaucracy. To advocate for a strong State is to advocate for a State which, among other things, has power to act on behalf of the people in accordance with their wishes. And in a market economy, with its law of the jungle, we need a State that has the capacity to intervene on behalf of the weak.

No State is really strong unless its government has the full consent of at least the majority of its people; and it is difficult to envisage how that consent can be obtained outside democracy. So a call for a strong State is not a call for dictatorship either. Indeed all dictatorships are basically weak; because the means they apply in governance make them inherently unstable.

The key to a government’s effectiveness and its ability to lead the nation lies in a combination of three elements. First its closeness to its people, and its responsiveness to their needs and demands; in other words, democracy. Secondly, its ability to coordinate and bring into a democratic balance the many functional and often competing sectional institutions which groups of people have created to serve their particular interests. And thirdly, the efficiency of the institutions (official and unofficial) by means of which its decisions are made known and implemented throughout the country.

Need I say more? It’s a long road, which we must enjoin if we have to sing these songs of freedom.

PS. The latest news is that the UN Security Council has unanimously approved a US resolution allowing countries to pursue Somali pirates on land as well as at sea.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] conclude I repeat: who are the pirates? for an answer look at the cartoon in an earlier posting. Comments […]

    Pingback by Dem pirates still robbing i « newritings — April 28, 2009 @ 3:17 pm | Reply


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