Even though some somali pirates have been retiring, as nicely summarized in this recent article on Somali Piracy in The Economist, piracy is just too damn lucrative. Especially given the other employment options available to the pirates.
As per the Economist article, the average ransom for a ship between 2005 and 2012 was $2.7 Million. Each pirate involved in the hijacking received between $30,000 and $75,000, with a bonus of up to $10,000 for the first man to board a ship and for each man who had their own weapon. Think about that. On average, one hijacking earned a man more than he would earn from a full time job in the US (where the average man earns approximately $45,000 a year). Now it is true that pirates are charged considerably more for loaned goods and services than they are worth and often have to pay $20 for $10 of mobile-phone airtime, but even at 100% mark-ups, pirates are still earning a hundred times more from a single hijacking than they would earn otherwise in a country where the average income is in the dollar-per-day range.
And it’s not just pirates, and the financiers that organize the missions, that make a killing. Cooks (who feed the crews), pimps, lawyers, merchants (who can provide banknote checkers to detect counterfeit), militia (who control ports and can provide details of cargo and patrol somewhere else on the day of the attack), and even government officials (who can look the other way when ransoms are illegally being flown into a country) also make off quite well. Piracy is a thriving business sector in Somalia, adding 50 M to 100 M annually to an economy that legitimately produces less than 1 Billion in GDP. With no employment opportunities that are nearly as lucrative and no sector with the possibility to create the same level of wealth in the country as piracy, it should be pretty obvious that piracy is not going away any time soon.
Especially since many men don’t have any other choice. Many pirates used to be fisherman, an age-old family trade passed downed from their fathers and grandfathers, and they were happy with that life. They learned to cast nets, pull them up, sort the fish, and go to the market to sell the fish for a modest, but acceptable, price at a very young age. But then, as explained in this article on Terror on the Seas, in the early 90’s, civil war broke out, the government collapsed, and maintaining order became impossible. The borders, and the territorial waters, went unprotected and foreign fishing trawlers emptied the waters unchallenged. The once tuna-rich waters were now as fish-free as a dead pond and the fishermen had to do something (or starve). They tried to form their own coast guard, but how much can a few fisherman with the odd dinky do to protect a 2,000 mile coastline against large international vessels. They tried, but up against improbable odds, got desperate, and aggressive – eventually storming a vessel and demanding money for its release. The ransom was paid, and they realized they had found a new livelihood which was not contained to fishing vessels. After all, who has more money, a small fishing company or a large international oil company?
What else are the pirates supposed to do? They can’t fish, there’s only so much farmland available in a country that is mostly desert and semi-desert, and it’s not exactly an outsourced manufacturing or service center. As one pirate said in a 2008 Newsweek article, “… when evil is the only solution, you do evil. That is why we are doing piracy. I know it is evil, but it is a solution.” Until they have another viable option, another solution, piracy is going to remain strong.