Underlying Issues and Causes of Maritime Piracy in the HOA
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Underlying Issues and Causes of Maritime Piracy in the HOA

While modern incidents of piracy off the Horn of Africa are part of a long tradition of piracy, it is imperative that the international community understand the acts in the context of modern notions of state sovereignty, notions of borders as well territorial waters. International trade and commerce has been adversely affected by the scourge. This article explores the details that have led to the rise of piracy along the Somalia coastline.


The international community has noted that the prevailing lawlessness in the State of Somalia has made the 1,900 square miles constituting the Somalia coastline the prime target for acts of piracy. The Gulf of Aden, found off the Coast of Somalia has witnessed the largest share of worldwide piracy attacks to date.

Research and studies conducted on this emerging trend attributed the actions and increase of piracy along the coast of the HOA to:

  • Somalia as a Failed State
  • Poverty within Somalia
  • Lack of employment within the State of Somalia
  • The volatile security within the State of Somali
  • Political instability within the State of Somalia

1.1.            Somalia as a failed State (Volatile security and Political Instability)

A state can be defined as the area and consolidation of territorial as well as demographic realm under a common political authority. A state gains its legitimacy from its people and it is expected to meet all of the basic needs of the larger majority of its people. It is the sole responsibility of the state to provide its people with security; to prevent any danger to domestic human security as well as domestic threats upon social structure and national order (Ould-Abdallah, 2008). Most States begin to fail when the ruling authority becomes consumed by internal violence. Somalia as a State, unfortunately, has been unable to provide any of these basic political goods for its citizens and has plunged into a state of failure. In Somalia the failure of the state to provide good governance, security, and respect for the rule of law is at the very heart of the country's endemic conflict (Mgidu, 2012). These inabilities, in turn, have fuelled piracy and provided a breeding ground for terrorist activity[1].

The peak of the gradual deterioration of the state of Somalia occurred in the 1990’s after the break out of the civil war during the ousting of President Said Barre. The resulting atmosphere of virtual anarchy characterized by the absence of a functional national government led to the proliferation of armed militia and warlords. Internal conflict propelled large numbers of Somalis to escape and seek refuge in other neighboring countries as they try to regain their natural right to acquire food supplies (Freeman, 2009). The internal political instability and violence resulted in the lack of funds as well as official personnel to patrol Somalia’s tuna-rich coastal waters which were soon invaded and illegally plundered by international commercial fishing fleets. The civil strife within the state left one of the most geographically important and strategically placed shipping lanes to become a safe haven for pirate gangs to go on with their activities. The result was an ensuing and continuous battle between local fishermen trying to earn a living through crude fishing and the more advanced commercial fishing fleets. Failure of governance has ultimately resulted in the development of a criminal economy as the returns from acts of piracy work to sustain the insurgency within the country as a whole (Knott, 2009). The failure of the country to protect its boundaries or control the internal conflict has ensured that the country has a continuous supply of small arms as well as light weapons. With a substantial number of these weapons being circulated in an environment of worsening poverty, piracy has become one of the fastest methods of earning money.

Somalia as a failed state has been unable to combat the acts of piracy that plagues its coastal waters due to the fact of a lack of a centralized government within the state has ensured that Somalia lacks the ultimate capacity to confront or tackle the issue. Using a nationalist rhetoric claiming that they are trying to do what the government has been unable to do to justify their actions, ransom pirates have gained considerable support from the Somali populace and have evolved into a criminal enterprise[2].

Due to the fact that the Somali government cannot provide for its people, acts of piracy along the Horn of Africa has proved to be beneficial to the local communities in the form of business from pirates spending their ill acquired money at local businesses. Additionally, the numerous acts of piracy have worked to discourage most of the numerous commercial fishing fleets that were taking advantage of the marine rich unpatrolled waters (Chalk, 2010). This has worked to improve the fishing harvests for local fishermen. The millions of dollars that the pirates acquire from paid ransom requests have resulted in the creation of other secondary businesses in the regions the pirates originate. In order to ensure that the hostages are well fed, restaurants and shops have been created. In order to carry out their activities, pirates require buying cell phones and technology to assist in radio communication whereas the construction of beautiful beachside mansions requires suppliers, carpenter, masons, electricians and plumbers. The abhorrent activity has proved to be beneficial to the whole community in a perverse form of quantitative easing(Chalk, 2010). Profits from the proceeds of pirate activities have thus ensured that the general population supports the pirates as they have since come to be viewed to be detrimental to the survival of the society[3].

It is worth noting that an indicator that the rise in piracy attempts and successful attacks along the Horn of Africa by Somali pirates is the decrease in the number of attempts as well as attacks when it Islamic Courts Union (ICU) gained rule between 2006 and 2007. The central as well as local institutions formed during its reign played an important role in managing piracy as it was able to extend some military control over well known pirate bases in Hobyo and Haradheere (Osie-Tutu, 2011). The ICU was successful in exerting its control and imposed strict sanctions and penalties for those caught committing an act of piracy which included the cutting off of both hands.

1.2.            Poverty within Somalia

Extreme conditions of poverty suffered by people within the state of Somalia has also been identified as another underlying cause for the emergence, evolution and increase in the number of pirate attacks occurring along the Horn of Africa.  The average Somali living within the failed state earns less than two dollars a day (Osei-Tutu, 2011). The potential rewards that are offered by a single act of piracy has made it even more difficult for young Somali men to resist joining pirate gangs[4].

Most pirate gang members are generally young men who are desperate and have been raised in a disorganized unlawful society. Their desperation to escape these low standards of living and improve their quality of life is overwhelming and has pushed a number of them to be willing to risk their lives in order to gain quick riches.

Although the pirates still hide under the rhetoric remains of the political aims that once governed the activities of the initial modern Somali pirate, the real ends of pirate attacks on vessels has clearly been for economic purposes[5].

It is worth noting that the dire crisis of poverty caused by the civil war within Somalia has been compounded by the continuous series of devastating droughts that have plagued the coastal country. Not only have the droughts increase the level of desperation among the Somali people to survive, but they have also increased the level of temptation as humanitarian relief vessels that are meant to transport supplies and tones of emergency aid pose as possible vulnerable targets.

1.3.            Unemployment within Somalia

The most serious problem affecting the youth is unemployment which was cited by 97 per cent of the respondents. This is not surprising as the country has a weak private sector base leaving the government as the main employer.

According to Somaliland's National Development programme - which was launched in October - total employment (comprising self-employment and paid employment) among the economically active population is estimated at 38.5 percent for urban areas and 59.3 percent for rural and nomadic areas. The weighted average national employment rate is estimated at 52.6 percent (Congressional Research Service, 2011). 

Unemployment among the youth, which stands at 75 percent, is much higher than the average. Unofficial estimates show that at least 65-70 percent of Somaliland's 3.5 million people are younger than 30. Lack of employment opportunities prevents them from putting their energies and creativity to good use and thereby fulfilling their ambitions(Congressional Research Service, 2011). This leaves them with a sense of frustration and hopelessness that drives some of them to take desperate measures. 

Each year, hundreds decide to try their luck against all odds, by getting to the shores of Europe, crossing continents, deserts and dangerous seas. Most of them do not make it and many perish on the way.

According to the study, lack of sports and recreational facilities, venues for cultural activities as well as opportunities for internships and doing voluntary work increase the youth's desperation and feeling of alienation. 


Chalk, P. (2010). Pircay off the Horn of Africa: Scope, Dimensions, Causes and Responses. Brown Journal Of World Affairs, 89-110.

Congressional Research Service. (2011, April 27). Piracy off the Horn of Africa. Washington DC: CRS Report for Congress 7-5700. Retrieved May 22, 2012, from CRS Report for Congress: http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/162745.pdf

Freeman, C. (2009). Why Somali Piracy is Booming – By Former Hostage Victim. The Daily Telegraph (UK) accessed from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/somalia/5142032/Why-Somali-piracy-is-booming-by-former-hostage-victim.html

Knott, J. (2009). Somalia, the Gulf of Aden, and Piracy: An overview, and recent developments. Holman Fenwick Willan accessed on 14-11-2012 from http://www.mondaq.com/x/77982/Marine+Shipping/Somalia+The+Gulf+Of+Aden+And+Piracy+An+Overview+And+Recent+Developments

Mgidu, C. (2012). Somalia piracy threat remains despite Horn of Africa cut off. Hirraan Online accessed on         15-11-2012           from http://www.hiiraan.com/news4/2012/Nov/26808/somalia_piracy_threat_remains_despite_horn_of_africa_cut_off.aspx.

Osei-Tutu, J. A. (2011). Root Cause of the Somali Piracy. Koffi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center.

Ould-Abdallah, A. A. (2008, November 21). Piracy off the Somali Coast. Nairobi: International Expert Group. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from International Expert Group: http://www.imcsnet.org/imcs/docs/somalia_piracy_intl_experts_report_consolidated.pdf

[1] Scholars who lean towards state failure as a reason for the upsurge in the incident of pirate attacks along the Coast of Somalia rely on “Weberian” conception of the definition of the state which supports the theory that the most important characteristic of the state is the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Without a proper framework to guarantee this particular monopoly, the stable economic, social, political as well as cultural structure of the society is impossible to ensure.

[2] A lack of a proper banking system within the country makes tracing the money difficult. A large amount of the money circulates through the traditional system which provides an informal means of exchanging money. Since the system does not rely on written contracts, the control of cash flow by authorities is almost impossible.

[3] Testimonies from people living in “pirate towns” describe pirates as living lavish and affluent lives, settling in big mansions and driving expensive cars.

[4] According to the World Bank statistics for the year 2005, over 300,000 people in Somalia had dies from disease, famine and a further 44,000 individuals had dies as a direct result of the internal strife.

[5] The organization of piracy is clearly based on the principle of minimizing expenditures and maximizing profits. The pirate gang’s method of operation, in terms of the financial aspects of carrying out an operation, is that one person, usually the leader owns or pays for everything, and gives a percentage of the ransom to each participant of a successful mission and it often depends on the persons contribution to the mission. The person to set foot first on the target always gets a bonus for their bravery. 

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