The African Coastguards

Everyone loves the story of Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws, plundering the rich to give to the poor. Well, everyone that is apart from the tyrants: King John, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and those of the wealthy who were being plundered.

Absolutely no-one, outside of those mentioned above, took the side of the tyrants. Everyone, but everyone, was a fan of Robin Hood.

The merry band of outlaws evolved, so legend has it, because the powerful barons stole the food of English peasants by levying exorbitant taxes that left the peasantry starving. Eventually, there seemed no alternative but to hit back.

There is another band of merry men presently in circulation, committing similar acts against the rich and powerful, yet this time we’re being told they’re ruthless, bloodthirsty, and engaged in the oldest maritime profession known to man. It’s enough to make you shiver your timbers, quake in your boots, or suffer nightmares of swashbuckling, plank walking, and keelhauling, sufficient to satisfy the bloodlust of even that most notorious of pirates, Captain Morgan himself.

This latest band of seagoing outlaws has chosen the Indian Ocean for their marauding. It’s not known exactly how many ships have been hijacked so far this year, but the figure is fast approaching thirty, with the most newsworthy – the huge oil tanker, Sirius Star – being the latest.

As western media does its worst to paint these matelots as bloodthirsty subhumans, armed to the teeth and set for rape and pillage, the truth as usual is somewhat different. Had King John and his trusty Nottingham sheriff been favored by access to NBC or BBC News, the picture we have today of Robin Hood may well not be so favorable. Imagine the effect of beaming into every peasant’s home the latest stagecoach hijack, or assault upon the sheriff’s treasury coffers, creating – according to the Nottinghamshire Broadcasting Service – further hardship for all poor people, being as the good sheriff was just about to distribute his excess riches amongst the peasant populace.

What price popular support for Robin Hood, champion of the poor and needy, then?

Much of the west and east coast of Africa is unproductive country. Fishing was once the principal occupation. Life was hard, but fruitful. There were plenty of fish to be had and most folk made an adequate, though peasant-style, living.

Meanwhile, among the rich and wealthy of Europe, there was consternation. Used to gorging themselves on fish and fish products, the seas around that continent were fast unable to support the huge amount of its product demanded by voracious British, German, and Spanish stomachs. The cry went out, “More fish!” But none was to be had.

Desperate to satisfy demand and top-up their dwindling coffers, European trawler owners looked further afield to fill their voluminous nets. There were fish a-plenty around Africa, but Europeans weren’t allowed to fish there. Quickly, the wealthy trawler owners turned to the European Union for assistance. They found there a champion of their cause, a veritable sheriff of Europe, one Peter Mandelson, the EU Trade Commissioner.

Sheriff Mandelson soon badgered and bullied African government officials into allowing European companies to set up offices in their countries, by making them believe there would be enormous benefits for their corrupt wallets. Once EU fishery companies had set up their branch offices, they could re-register their vast bottom-trawling ships as African, and legally fish that nation’s waters.

Nothing was set in writing stating they had to market their catch in Africa, so once the ship’s holds were stuffed, they steamed with all speed to the European marketplace, their catch nicely frozen and ready to be landed for European consumption.

Before long, all the fish once abundant in Africa’s inshore waters were vacuumed up by the huge EU trawlers, which then turned their attention to deeper offshore areas where local fishermen couldn’t go with their small, fragile, boats.

The fishermen of the African coast, like the peasants of old England, had had their livelihoods stolen from them by the wealthy and powerful, and were being left to slowly starve.

Like Robin Hood and his merry men of yore, they decided to take back what had been stolen from them, and distribute it among the peasant population. Being men of the sea, they formed themselves into bands of pirates and began hijacking merchant vessels and holding them for ransom.

The plan worked wonderfully well. They made more money than they’d ever dreamed of. The western world’s ‘King John’ leaders ran around like headless chickens, demanding of their “sheriffs of Nottingham” that something be done to capture the pirates. Much was tried, but nothing succeeded.

Then the pirates pulled off their greatest ever coup. The “Sirius Star”, a supertanker owned by the oil-rich nation of Saudi Arabia was carrying over two million barrels of Saudi oil, bound for the United States, when Somali pirates boarded the vessel in the Gulf of Aden and took the crew hostage.

The great appeal of Robin Hood and his band was their humanity and righteousness. While stories abound of rogues killed in self defense, no-one suffered unnecessarily at their hands. The pirates of Africa have, so far, practiced a similar philosophy. There is no record of them killing, or hurting, anyone taken hostage. All are released unharmed once a ransom is paid. In fact, the pirates are on record as saying, “We hurt no-one. Our only interest is the money.”

No doubt, as the pirates grow richer – their wealth is already extensive, with an estimated thirty million dollars paid out in ransoms this year – the attempts to capture them will become greater. The modern day King Johns of this world can’t be seen as acquiescing to a band of marauding African fisherman. Already reports are abroad of ties to al Qaeda, and militant Muslim extremists. As yet, the evidence for that is slim to the point of non-existence. Mud sticks, however, and we will see much more mud thrown at us through our TV screens, before the last African pirate is rounded up and thrown into jail.

Meanwhile, they’re enjoying a fine lifestyle, unknown to them before EU and Japanese trawlers destroyed their fish stocks. They have big houses, new cars, and beautiful wives. Neither do they see themselves as pirates.

According to one Somali resident, Abdulkadil Mohamed, “Illegal fishing is the root cause of the piracy problem,” he says, “They call themselves coastguards.”[1]

[1] “Somali pirates living the high life” BBC, October 28th 2008

Further reading on the background to this issue:

“Manufactured Famine” Monbiot, August 26th 2008

“Protect and Survive” Monbiot, September 9th 2008

“Foreign fields: Rich states look beyond their borders for fertile soil” Financial Times, August 19th 2008 (Free registration required)

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