Somalia: The New Barbary? Piracy And Islam In the Horn Of Africa, by Martin N. Murphy
[Note: I received this book for free from Columbia University Press in exchange for an honest review. No corruption or bribery was necessary.]
This is the second book I have reviewed from eminent piracy scholar Martin Murphy , and like its predecessor Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money, it is a triumph of nuanced reasoning, excellent research, and sound and rational conclusions. While his other work was a large scale analysis of the problem of piracy, in Somalia: The New Barbary? Murphy focuses on the specific nature of piracy within Somalia as well as its larger implications. The book therefore is a skillful and well-researched mixture of history, economic and geopolitical analysis, and reasonable and sensible recommendations on how the problem of Somali piracy can be dealt with in such a way that deals with the larger issues faced by the failed state of Somalia. Included in these proposals is the sensible and obvious policy of recognizing Somaliland as an independent nation and being prepared to deal similarly with Puntland as the case arises, given the knowledge that the only viable states in Somalia at present are in the north, even given the fact that Puntland has been greatly complicit with piracy.
Although this book is very serious when dealing with the grim existence of Somalis as well as the fact that many have turned to piracy in large part to exploit the large difference between the value of a Somali life and the value of a western yacht traveler or mariner, the book is also full of a great deal of dry and understated humor. For example, a great deal of Somalia’s problems in terms of the development of effective state institutions is its brutal bandwagon tendencies and the fact that Somalis talk too much to be able to keep secrets and work in common. It is immensely sad that the entreprenurial and democratic and pragmatic aspects of Somali culture have been so poorly rewarded by opportunities for legitimate wealth and recognition in the course of the world today, largely because people who for whatever reasons (especially clannishness) cannot work together have been forced together in a state that simply cannot succeed because the right mindset is not present but must be built from the ground up and from the inside out rather than being forced from outside.
Along with the gloomy narrative political history of Somalia over the past few decades, and an insightful and close analysis of the clan and sub-clan cooperation and rivalry throughout Somalia, the book also examines some of the connections between Islamism and piracy, between piracy wealth and political power, and between foreign involvement and the rise of terrorist and Islamist groups with often nationalist and clan-based aims. Likewise, the author does not shrink from examining the economic and environmental aspects of the Somali piracy problem, noting as a grim irony that the fear illegal fisherman have of exploiting Somalia’s rich fishing yields given the immense piracy risk may have positive environmental effects given the importance of Somali fishing stocks (in a nation that tends to, also ironically, look down on fisherman as being contemptible). Intriguingly, the author offers some research-based hints that Somali piarcy may have an element of insurance fraud attached as Maltese shipowners have been disproportionally among the biggest sufferers of hijacking, with ships being insured for more than they are worth with the affected shipowners receiving insurance money while their hijacked crew are held for ransom by pirates also looking for a big payoff. These sordid high-level business connections have received little notice in the hand-wringing over the problem of Somali piracy.
Among the most tragic and the most powerful aspects of this most excellent work are the combinations of narrative political history of the rise and fall of various would-be Somali regimes in the face of Somalia’s tendency to only back winners, their immense hostility to outside influence, whether it is from regional powers like Ethiopia and Eritrea or the United States (which has a long and bad track record for supporting either dictators or powerless and corrupt transitional regimes). Likewise, the rising influence of China and India given their immense ambitions in the region and globally cannot be ignored either. Ultimately, a lack of knowledge and a lack of political will to deal with reality and make the best of the current situation mark the reasons for the longstanding failure of the international community in successfully coping with the problem of Somalia. As the author notes, with concern, while the problem of Somali piracy has so far had only a small effect on international trade, the problem could grow worse if both sides of the Gulf of Aden come under the rule of an unfriendly single power, and the longstanding nature of Somali failure could eventually prove to be crisis of legitimacy for other states (like the European Union and the United States). As Murphy repeatedly notes, Somalia is not the only failed state in the world, and it is not likely to be the last one either, even though it gives plenty of opportunities for how to make the best of a bad situation that have so far not been taken.