How to tame an armed Somali pirate

Updated: 06 October, 2020 07:47 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

In 2009, Somali pirates in dinghies were cleaning up millions of seajacking ships and collecting ransoms. Who made them disappear 10 years later?

Since 2019, there has been no piracy at all off Somalia. Representation pic
Since 2019, there has been no piracy at all off Somalia. Representation pic

C Y Gopinath

What are you going to be when you grow up?" Every schoolboy is supposed to have an answer to that question. Back when I was in school, my answer was, "Not sure", but my best friend Anup's answer was clear and unambiguous.

"I'm going to be a shippie," he said. A shippie was a fellow who worked in the merchant navy, travelling to exotic lands and seeing the world while being paid handsomely for it. Anup loved the idea of seafaring as a way of globetrotting.

He was deadly serious about it. He'd worked out his flight path, or plotted his course, in maritime terms. Since he was aiming to end up as a Chief Engineer, he joined the IIT, completed his technical education, followed by 12 months of training at the Mazagon Docks in Bombay. Next thing I knew, he was a shippie.

Anup rose through the ranks and became a Chief Engineer, basking in that position for many long years. I met him one day and he confessed that over the past few years, going to sea had been making him increasingly jittery, especially if the route passed through the Gulf of Aden in the Horn of Africa.

Even I had heard the terrifying stories of Somalian fishermen turned sea bandits in rickety dinghies plundering booty from giant but helpless ships that were effectively sitting ducks since cargo ships are not allowed to carry armaments. In the early days, the pirates looted only cargo but soon realised that shippies were often paid in cash dollars, which proved a handier target. By and by, they figured that holding the entire ship and its crew to ransom would be their biggest bonanza.
No one could figure out how to stop Somalian piracy.

They say it's difficult to notice something that is not happening, because we're so busy processing the things that are. Perhaps this is why the question didn't pop up in my head sooner: Whatever happened to Somalian piracy? How come we don't hear about it any more?

Piracy was a growth industry around 2009. Their business model was impeccable. The payoff from piracy that year from ransoms had been a 100 times higher than it had been just four years earlier from looted cargo. Plunder paid — a single seajacking could earn a Somali $10,000, compared to his annual income of $600.

At that time, 7.5% of global sea trade passed through the Gulf of Aden, representing 710 million tonnes of freight and 4 million barrels of oil. A single seajacking with 12 pirates cost about $30,000 but one in three or four strikes would yield a gold mine, as much as $3 million in one case.

In 2011, when 237 incidents of piracy were recorded off Somalia, the pirates were costing the world an estimated $6.6 billion in international naval activities, maritime security, insurance and other costs.

Half of that went to financiers, 10% to village elders, 10% to the security squad and 30% to the actual pirates. How could anyone dismantle such a lucrative, nearly unstoppable 'business' with so many beneficiaries?

The solution emerged from a group of Danish businessmen and journalists who asked a good question — Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and could easily catch 200,000 tonnes a fish a year. What if pirates began seeing more money in fishing? After all, in 1989, Somalia had earned $15 million from fishing alone. They formed an NGO called FairFishing and began working with Somalis.

Somalia's native wisdom about fishing disappeared in 1991 after several droughts and a civil war in which most of its fishermen fought and died. The next generation of Somalis knew nothing about fishing. Seeing opportunity, international fishing companies moved in with their trawlers and began harvesting the open waters off Somalia.

FairFishing's first smart move was to sell ice to local fishermen to keep fish cool and fresh longer, which immediately drove their market prices up from 50 cents to between $4 and $6.

FairFishing, which supports the livelihoods of over 3,000 Somalis now, also began training fishermen, chefs, street vendors and housewives. Fishing crews saw their incomes triple.

The Somali Government took charge of its own waters for the first time in two decades and collected over a million dollars by issuing fishing licences to international vessels. By 2021, Somalia's turnover from fishing will have grown to over $10 million.

Of course, none of this matters to Anup now. Around 2008, he decided it was high time he quit the high seas. A decade after he took early retirement, Somalian piracy seems to have peacefully retired as well. The number of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa fell dramatically, with only eight attacks reported in 2017 and three in 2018.

Since 2019, there has been no piracy at all off Somalia.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at

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First Published: 06 October, 2020 06:13 IST

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