By: Said Shiiq, Ph.D.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Some people blame the semi-autonomous region of Puntland for outsourcing President Abdullahi Yusuf to the national scene after he pitted sub-clans against each other, ditched the results of democratic presidential elections, and threatened the stability of the region.
But I disagree with that charge; Insofar as President Yusuf is being foisted to the national scene by tactful Ethiopian hands, he has always espoused an ambition to become Somalia’s president, irrespective of how he gets there.
That said, I think that Yusuf’s bastion, Puntland, is increasingly becoming a poster child for Somalia’s umpteen problems. Earlier this year, I tried to travel to Puntland to investigate the mysterious piracy and the tragic human trafficking business, both of which found a safe-haven in that part of the country.
Everyone I know warned me against entering Puntland’s ethnic territory. For that reason, I retreated to conduct a satellite research, using telephone conversations and first-person accounts, among others. What I found was rather baffling, to say the least.
Piracy in Puntland
Not surprisingly, the official line among Puntland’s government ministers was that “piracy is a global problem that found headway in Somalia’s porous waters in recent years.” One after another, they told me that Puntland isn’t tooled to combat this problem, because pirates are well-armed, well-financed and multi-jurisdictional. (That’s to say that pirates operate in places like Haradheere in central Somalia).
But surprisingly, and below the official line, there’s a wide belief among Puntlanders that “pirates [they don’t even use this word!] are heroes, because they are protecting Somalia’s unguarded resources, looted by international companies.”
Quite the contrary, so many people, including former government officials and journalists told me that pirates have deep connections in the highest ranks in Puntland’s regime. In fact, people could list names of government ministers whose own militia are the pirates.
Few weeks ago, when pirates kidnapped a Japanese vessel outside Somalia’s international waters (which is quite routine, and, remarkably, counter-argument to those who say that pirates are “guarding” our resources), U.S. and French naval ships cornered the pirates near Boosaaso, the business capital of Puntland. The pirates, I was told, were able to disembark from the kidnapped ship every night to chew Khat and hang out with friends and family members, while other “substitute” pirates replaced them!
Eventually, the ordeal ended with the Japanese tanker being released unharmed, and pirates getting away with an undisclosed amount of ransom. The pirates’ front-men are senior government officials, who typically convince kidnapped ships to pay ransom (usually less then than pirates originally demanded). I found that this scenario occurred no less than three dozen times in the last few years.
It’s technically true, I also found, that pirates are “multi-jurisdictional.” But sources confirmed to me that Haradheere-based gangs are no more than “holders” of the ships seized by Puntland pirates, whenever there’s an internal dispute among Puntland ring leaders. As such, only two or three times have pirates actually “held” a ship in Haradheere for the real pirates.
In addition to piracy, human trafficking is pandemic in Puntland. More than 35,000 people have perished since 1991 trying to cross the short, but dangerous distance between Boosaaso and Yemen, using makeshift rafts.
Even back in the days when President Yusuf was the president of Puntland, the administration there made a noise that it will crack down on traffickers, whenever the international attention was zeroing on the issue.
However, hardly anything has been done. In fact, human traffickers, who like pirates have deep connections to the corridors of power, have flourished. In Boosaaso and nearby towns, journalists and other sources sent me the photos of the homes of well-known human traffickers and pirates, whose villas and latest-model Land Cruisers have dazzled me.
Last week, when Gwen Le Gouil, a French journalist tried to do an investigative report on human trafficking, he was kidnapped for nine grueling days. Remarkably, he was seized on his way to Shimbiraale, the infamous village known for its human and weapons traffickers. Insiders told me that his kidnappers were Puntland intelligence officers associated with both human traffickers and pirates.
French journalist Gwen Le Gouil talks with the media at a hotel after his release in Bosasso
Here’s the evidence to back that claim:
First, a day after Mr. Le Gouil was kidnapped his captors took his photos, brandishing their AK47’s behind him. The digital photos were distributed to Somali media outlets, to maximize the damage and instill fear on foreign journalists trying to get to the bottom of this murky business. Now, who would believe that everyday kidnappers carry digital cameras and presumably a laptop with them?
I, for one, don’t buy it.
Secondly, instead of handing this as a security issue, the Puntland administration delegated “elders” to the scene. Again, these are “front-men” for the human traffickers, who wouldn’t want their stories to be broadcast globally. The “elders” came back with a rather fascinating verdict: They held an impromptu press conference, in which they told foreign agencies that the French embassy in Nairobi has to compensate the kidnappers before Mr. Le Gouil could be released unharmed.
Left with no options, a diplomat from the French embassy in Kenya precipitously flew to Boosaaso to finalize that unholy deal. God knows how much the kidnappers pocketed, but Le Gouil was released on Christmas Day.
Charge the victim!
If you think that was the end of Mr. Le Gouil’s ordeal, you’re terribly wrong. The Puntland administration actually announced that they “will prosecute Le Gouil for illegally entering [our] sovereign nation!”
This official threat forced the French government to hastily agree to pay an undisclosed ransom to the kidnappers. Furthermore, with the admission of President Adde Musse Hirsi, the kidnappers, driving a Land Cruiser, dropped Mr. Le Gouil at a major hotel in downtown Boosaaso. Conveniently, one Puntland minister told the VOA Somali Service that Mr. Le Gouil was “pardoned for entering the country illegally.”
Also speaking to the VOA Somali Service on Wednesday, President Adde Musse admitted that none of the kidnappers was arrested, let alone be charged. Instead, he unleashed a barrage of attacks against “Puntland enemies” for perpetrating all these problems. Pressed for more reasonable answers, he retreated and blamed his former ally and former Minister of Fisheries, Said Mohamed Raage, for “some of the problems.”
Sadly, President Hirsi didn’t elaborate on whether Mr. Raage is a former minister-pirate-trafficker.
On this same day, two MSF humanitarian workers were again abducted in plain sight and in the middle of Boosaaso. Adde Musse, at it again, said this time the security apparatus would handle the case. The kidnappers, at it again, took the victims to Shimbiraale, the same location they took Mr. Le Gouil, according to media accounts.
So which one would you believe? Some say the two aren’t mutually exclusive!
Adding an insult to the injury, the apocalyptic Transitional Federal Government revoked MSF Belgium’s license to operate in Somalia on the same day when two of its foreign employees were kidnapped. I didn’t know that the TFG could “revoke” a license, per se, but I can draw my own conclusions about the interesting coincidence.
Once again, the TFG is inseparable from Puntland, and the two operate in an often conspicuous fashion. But that’s beside the point. Puntland, for all practical purposes, is translating its relatively stable ethnic enclave to either attack its not-so-ethnic neighbor, Somaliland, or to groom pirates and human traffickers.
That’s on top of claiming an extraordinary power to unilaterally exploiting oil and other national resources at the expense of the nation. One wonders: Is Puntland flying solo to the point of no return?
Said Shiiq, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and a consultant with international relief organizations. He can be reached at [email protected]