The word "pirate" has come into the news for the first time in memory, as raiders armed with grenade launchers and grappling hooks take over vessels headed through waters off Somalia for the Suez Canal. Last week, four ships were captured, including a massive Saudi oil tanker, the Sirius Star. More than 3 million barrels of oil pass through those waters every day en route to markets in Europe and the United States. On Thursday, the pirates announced that they wanted $25 million for ransom for the Saudi tanker. For more than a month, pirates have held a Ukrainian freighter, the cargo of which is a vast store of weapons, including tanks and artillery. The arms were headed for Kenya or Sudan.
Oil and weapons. The pirates have enriched themselves and now build villas on the Somali coast, but the high-seas drama moves away from mundane thievery to take on the character of a morality tale. A legion of impoverished people were castaways of the world economy, condemned to stand on their forlorn shore and watch passing ships loaded with fuel that creates wealth and arms that protect it. They decided to stop being mere spectators of their own desperation, and became desperados instead. The invisible poor are being seen, and their complaint is heard. Consider:
- The anarchy that permits piracy dates to the collapse of the Somali government in 1991. In 1992, the United States led the infamous "humanitarian intervention" that ended in the American humiliation at Mogadishu. Somalia has been a failed state ever since. According to UN figures, of the $2 billion spent in that intervention, 90 percent went to a military effort, with the paltry rest going to economic reconstruction. Imported weapons empower the warlords to this day.
- America's continuing overreliance on weapons is one of the pillars of the problem. Last month, the US Africa Command became fully operational, headquartered in Germany, in part because no African nation wants to be host. The United States no longer pretends that its main way of relating to the continent is through the State Department or the Agency of International Development, and not through the Pentagon - through force of arms instead of foreign aid. It figures. As the captured Ukrainian freighter makes clear, Africa is the world's weapons dump. The pirates, in effect, protest.
- Somali piracy began when the nation's failed government lost the ability to protect the rights of fishermen. Tuna abound in Somali waters, and in the 1990s vessels from other countries illegally moved in, prompting Somali fishermen to arm themselves and confront the poachers. Soon they confronted everyone.
Piracy is not justifiable, but it did not begin as such, and that matters.
- There is more than one kind of piracy. Drug companies, marketing cures from the flora of the tropical world, including Africa, engage in what the Nobel economist Joseph E. Stiglitz calls "bio-piracy." While the developed world exploits African resources, including oil; while government subsidies for US farmers destroy the ability of African farmers to compete; while high-tech and green revolutions pass by; while their continent is looted, the extreme poverty of Africans only grows.
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Due east of Somalia, in the far Indian Ocean, are the Maldives, an island nation of more than 300,000 people. As I learned reading Stiglitz, the Maldives will be underwater in 50 years because of rising sea levels due to global warming. Who speaks for those people? Or the billions of others in vulnerable coastal regions - the soon-to-be victims of all those oil tankers, which might as well be warships. Pirates may not consciously be mounting protests to the coming catastrophe, but their actions are not unconnected to it.
The worldwide distress of financial meltdown is one sign of corporate disregard for the common good. CEOs, regulators, investors, and governments chose short-term self interest over long-term fairness. It did not work. A reform of the globalized economy is urgently needed. But piracy off the coast of Somalia is equally a sign of needed global reform. The gross inequity that simply writes off a majority of the world's population flows back on the affluent minority, like an offshore tide carrying the raider flotilla, with grappling hooks and grenades. Ahoy!