A Policy Paper: Somali Piracy in the Horn of Africa

Introduction and Background

Like much of the Horn of Africa, Somalia is plagued by poverty. The World Bank in 2009 estimated that 40 percent of Somalia’s population lived on less than one dollar per day and approximately 75 percent of households lived on less than two dollars per day (Gilpin, 2009). Gross national income (GNI) is also extremely low at $150 per capita (World Bank, 2012). Nearly 4 million Somalis also depend on food donations to survive (Kunertova, 2010). Further, two thirds of youth in Somalia are unemployed. Education levels are also low, even in relation to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, with only 32.5 percent of children enrolled in primary education (Gilpin, 2009).

Political instability in Somalia has been at the forefront of Somali security issues. After the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, the government has struggled to reestablish itself and achieve successful democratic reform. Three clans make up the political divisions within the state, with Somaliland in the northwest, Puntland in the northeast and Central Somalia in the south (Gilpin, 2009). Lacking from the leadership of a centralized government, clan militia took it upon themselves to attempt to protect the territorial waters of Somalia from poachers and polluters. These groups – often using titles like the Central Somalia Coast Guard or the National Volunteer Coast Guard – would board ships that entered their waters to collect taxes and fines. Boarding these ships eventually turned to hijacking and is now regarded as piracy by the international community (Gilpin, 2009).

Somali piracy has quickly gained international attention. It has been grouped with other security issues in the Horn of Africa, such as liberation movements, guerrillas, bandits, criminal gangs, etc., all of which have been collectively labeled as terrorism (Gilpin, 2009). Somali piracy has been growing exponentially in recent years. The pirates are mostly in their late teens to their early thirties and generally are poorly educated and unemployed men. Piracy initially began to protect the fishing industry, which has been exploited by international fishing vessels. Reductions in seafood populations have impacted Somalia’s food security and gross domestic product, with today’s catch being only 10% of what it was ten years ago (Kunertova, 2010). Toxic dumping is also affecting Somali waters, especially after the 2004 tsunami when toxic and radioactive waste made its way into the Gulf of Aden. Piracy initially was the result of these threats, with fishermen working to stop foreign vessels from entering and then taxing them before they were able to leave. In 2008, there were 111 attacks and 47 hijacks, and the highest recorded ransom paid was reported at $3.2 million (Gilpin, 2009). Further, records in 2009 are believed to have surpassed those of 2008 in just the first five months of the year.

While Somali piracy poses a threat to international trade, it primarily affects national economic growth due to factors such as regional security, illicit trade, loss of revenue from reduced maritime traffic, and environmental threats (Kunertova, 2010). Piracy further threatens the livelihood of Somalis, as ships carrying food donations and other support cannot always afford armed defense. Increases in piracy could therefore worsen the malnutrition crisis already prevalent throughout the country, and in much of the Horn of Africa. It is also believed that piracy only promotes criminal activities and organized crime, and creates a greater potential threat for these issues throughout the rest of the state and its neighbouring countries (Kunertova, 2010). In order to improve the quality of life and rates of economic growth in the Horn of Africa, it is essential to resolve issues of Somali piracy and increase maritime security. Current initiatives by international parties are underway, but are failing to end piracy, and do not provide long term strategies, as they only tackle current security issues in the Gulf of Aden.

International initiatives acknowledge that Somali piracy is hindering global aid efforts within the Horn of Africa, and must therefore be resolved before implementing other economic growth strategies. The UN Resolution 1816, created in 2008 to provide recommendations for international policy to deal with piracy, has been a starting point for policy making in many states (UN Security Council, 2008). One of its main initiatives allowed foreign vessels to enter Somalia’s territorial waters, given that they had the intent of fighting acts of piracy.  Those vessels would also have to adhere to relevant international law, and were given permission to enter by the Somali government only for a period of six months. The resolution primarily aimed to minimize attacks of piracy so that food and other aid could be effectively distributed to Somalis in need. In many ways, this resolution was and still is a temporary solution, as it gives permission to foreign vessels to enter for a short period of six months, and does not provide any long term, sustainable resolutions to issues of piracy.

In response to the passing of Resolution 1816, four groups of international actors began operations to fight piracy: Combined Force 151, NATO, the European Union, and national contingents (Kunertova, 2010). Initially, Combined Force 150, led by the US in 2001, was started as a part of the war on terrorism. While this included fighting piracy, the initiative evolved in 2009 into Combined Force 151. This mission clearly stated that piracy was a part of the terrorism that the twenty sponsoring countries were battling.

NATO’s initiatives were based on the UN Security Council’s request to have armed escorts provided for vessels carrying food aid shipments. Originally, NATO relocated part of its Maritime Group from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Aden. This mission grew, however, and was replaced by Operation Ocean Shield, sending ships from the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the US. This operation still remains and is expected to finish at the end of 2012.

The European Union’s response has been similar to that of NATO, but also seeks to address the EU’s trade interests and the aid required in Somalia. The mission, labeled the Atlanta-Mandate, aimed to end armed robbery and other acts of piracy. The EU also created the Maritime Security Centre in the Horn of Africa to warn vessels of risks and safety concerns in the Gulf of Aden.

Other initiatives have been taken by various states, including Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, and India. The African Union has also initiated a peacekeeping mission to secure Somali’s government and the port in Mogadishu.

Policy Options

New policy initiatives are essential to ending Somali piracy and in providing long-term solutions. As current NATO missions are scheduled to end at the completion of 2012, strategies for new missions must be put forth immediately. The UN Resolution fails to tackle some of the key issues that pertain to piracy and its motives. Environmental rehabilitation, economic growth and employment opportunities, national political reform within Somalia and other neighboring states in the Horn of Africa, and maritime security must all be addressed when drafting new resolutions.

National security is undoubtedly an inherent threat of Somali piracy and must remain a part of policy making in the Horn of Africa. It is recommended that current missions therefore be extended and continue to play a key role in international peace building strategies in the Horn of Africa. An increase in military presence by international actors could create a scenario of too high opportunity costs for Somali pirates; the risks of facing foreign military force are too high for the amount of payoff in acts of piracy. Further, if security measures throughout the Gulf increase, the port of Mogadishu could revitalize its ability to engage in global trade, improving trade opportunities across the Horn of Africa. Increasing the degree of military force within the Gulf of Aden also presents however the risk of further instability and political divisions among Somalis. Regional and ethnic cleavages have already created friction in Somali society, and an increase in military force could present an opportunity for greater warfare.

While the Somali government gave permission for foreign vessels to enter its territorial waters, the actual initiatives of these vessels was left moderately open, leaving room for each group to form their own strategies, none of which deal with the current environmental degradation in Somali waters. Piracy began due to the exploitation of fish resources and toxic dumping by foreign vessels. Though it is important to monitor vessels entering and exiting these waters, it is equally important to rebuild the depleted resources that left Somali pirates to resort to acts of terror. It is therefore recommended that new initiatives be created to begin the clean up and restoration of the Gulf of Aden, making it a hospitable and thriving environment for fish populations, and giving Somalis back a form of livelihood. Further, this initiative would aid unemployment rates among Somalis, specifically Somali youth, and present new trade and investment opportunities throughout the Horn of Africa.

One of the primary concerns raised due to piracy is the effect on food aid vessels working in the Horn of Africa. Though food and emergency aid resources are still needed in the Horn and essential to the survival of many Somalis, these initiatives must be expanded. Emergency aid responses tend to imply short-term relief. It is necessary to work on long-term strategies to achieve economic growth and improve the quality of life for Somalis and all populations in the Horn of Africa. This includes but is not limited to funding education and related infrastructure, providing wider access to medical care, improving access to clean water, and assisting local industries to grow and increase economic opportunities in the Horn of Africa. These goals can only be achieved though if aid resources are able to reach Somalia. This implies that increased national security is essential for the success of aid relief efforts.

Lastly, political reform and an acceptable level of political stability are necessary for the coordination of future policy. Somalia has lacked a government that rules its entire state since 1991 (Warbrick, 2008, p.691). Instead, it has been replaced with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). This government has only succeeded at controlling parts of Somalia, and is hindered by ongoing conflict in areas of the state. Forming a functioning, democratic government will be an important part in the solution to Somali piracy. If Somalia manages to achieve a solidified government, the processes of distribution of aid, building improved infrastructure, increasing environmental sustainability and improving national security will be simplified. Government reform, however, is not a guaranteed occurrence, and policymakers cannot depend on this happening at any given point. While it is an essential part of future growth for Somalia, it will most likely be a lengthy process. We must therefore develop policies that do not fully depend on Somali government reform and its cooperation.



Policy Recommendations

Future policy must address and encompass all threats to humanity and the environment in the Horn of Africa. That is, strategies must consider more than just maritime security in order to structure a successful long-term plan. While foreign interest by many states in providing security to the Gulf of Aden has been high, collective solutions will be essential moving forth.

As UN Resolution 1816 was successful in persuading countries to act on the issue of Somali piracy, it would be beneficial for the UN Security Council to draft a new resolution. This must address problems of access to resources, environmental degradation, security in the Gulf of Aden and the port of Mogadishu, and trade opportunities and investments throughout the Horn of Africa. New policy can then be developed through the collaboration of leading international parties, such as NATO, the EU and other states with invested interests within the Gulf of Aden. Missions and projects that emerge from this policy should be added on to current missions, as to avoid a break in the level of international involvement in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. The policy recommendations provided are clearly just a starting point, and the further development of strategies is needed. These suggestions do, however, imply that long-term solutions and a collaborative global effort will be required in resolving the challenging and daunting issue of Somali piracy.




1.     Gilpin, Raymond (2009). Counting the Costs of Somali Piracy. United States Institute of Peace, 1-17.

2.     Kagwanja, Peter (2006).  Counter-terrorism in the Horn of Africa: New Security Frontiers, Old Strategies. African Security Review, 15(3), 72-86.

3.     Kunertova, Dominika et al. (2010). European anti-piracy Strategy: Somalian Piracy: Today’s Challenge Addressed by an EU Initiative. NewSecEU, 1-30.

4.     UN Security Council. (2008, June 2). SC/9344: Resolution 1816. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/sc9344.doc.htm.

5.     World Bank. (2012). Data: Somalia. Retrieved from http://data.worldbank.org/country/somalia.



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