Friday, August 29, 2014

Djibouti Trip

Seven weeks after leaving Chad I was back in Africa again, spending a week in Djibouti.  Last time I visited Djibouti was in 2011 and the highlight of the trip was snorkeling with whale sharks in northern Djibouti.  This time in Djibouti it was all work.

I noticed a number of positive changes in the city such as the addition of solar powered traffic lights and more paved roads.  For the most part the people seemed to obey the traffic lights and police and/or gendarmes were around to enforce the rules.

Some things haven't changed, like getting haircuts by the canal or khat stands throughout the city and in every village in the countryside.

I spent some time visiting projects in the hills outside Djibouti where huge hills and ravines were covered with black volcanic rocks the size of bowling balls.

The port facilities continue to improve, I just wish I had more time to spend at the beach (or with whale sharks!).

 I was glad I had an interpreter with me for this trip as very few of the Djiboutians that I met with spoke in pure French.  Most spoke in Somali or in a Somali-French hybrid.  However, the people that spoke English only wanted to practice their English.

I'm looking forward to visiting again soon!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: The Pirates of Somalia

The Pirates of Somalia: Inside their Hidden World by Jay Bahadur (2011)

To write this book about the inside world of the Puntland pirates Jay Bahadur traveled to Somalia and with great luck managed to make friends with former pirates and succeeded in returning alive to tell his story.*  Patience and a lot of khat, the tree leaves chewed in the region for its narcotic properties, allowed Jay to get pirates to tell their stories.  Surprisingly the pirates personal stories don't match the tales in the media of pirate mansions and freely flowing money.

In seeking to verify the media reports Jay Bahadur interviewed several pirates, victims, pirate associates, and villagers in the pirate areas.  In the end, Jay discovered that the pirate haven of Eyl was poor and there were no pirate mansions.  The people also claimed to be anti-pirate and wanted them to leave the area.  The former pirates all seemed to be broke and an accounting of ransom payments and the expenses of a hijacking verified that piracy didn't pay any better than a minimum wage job in the region.  However, the pirate sponsors made a lot of money.

Jay also described the three waves of piracy in Somali waters, where the first group were legitimate fisherman fighting against foreign fishing vessels which had destroyed local fisheries.  The second group of pirates started when the original fisherman weren't able to fight the foreign fishing boats (due to up arming of the foreign boats) but they found the cargo vessels transiting Somali waters to be easy targets.  The third wave transpired when Somali inlanders heard about the record ransoms for the hijacked boats and decided to get into the piracy business.  This third wave began to turn piracy into a business enterprise with motherships and speed boats that ventured hundreds of miles from Somali territorial waters to prey on big boats in the commercial shipping lanes.

An interesting point in the book is that many pirates were former members of various defunct coast guard operations designed to fight foreign fishing boats or pirates.  These coast guards learned advanced maritime operations, how to navigate at sea at distances far from shore, marksmanship, and how to coordinate attacks.  When the government of Puntland stopped paying the coast guards they turned to piracy themselves.

At the end of the book the author made several recommendations to combat the Somali piracy issue:
1. Finance an effective and well-paid Puntland Police Task Force
2. Fund an expansion of the Puntland prison system (to hold captured pirates)
3. Foster intelligence coordination between Puntland and international naval forces
4. Clamp down on illegal fishing
5. Encourage or require passive security measures abroad

The author correctly concludes by stating that the problem of piracy or land-based kidnapping for ransom in the region won't stop until the underlying issues of scarce resources is addressed. The above recommendations will help with resolving the immediate problem of piracy but addressing conflict and competition for scarce resources may never be resolved given the cultural and physical environment in Somalia.

*American journalist Michael Scott Moore wasn't as lucky as Jay Bahadur as he was kidnapped by Somali pirates while conducting research for a book on piracy in January 2012.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ebola Issues

The Ebola epidemic in Africa is about to get a lot worse thanks to the assault on a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia on 16 August 2014 where 17 Ebola patients were liberated along with their bedsheets and other Ebola contaminated items.  These patients were hand carried from the hospital and out in the general community for a couple days coming into contact with many others as their "liberators" didn't believe in Ebola.  As most people get around Liberia on mototaxi or crowded minibuses, many may have come into physical contact with the infected patients.  This close contact with others will allow the virus to spread rapidly and people may not know they were exposed.

Ebola is a virus that is spread through contact with fluids of an infected person and has an incubation period of 2 to 21 days.  Ebola kills 90% of people infected with the virus and does not currently have a vaccine.  An experimental drug has been used successfully in some cases but the supply is limited and knowledge of the side effects and associated complications are not fully known.

In the Liberian case the Ebola patients were moved around the densely populated city of Monrovia (estimated population of 750,000 in 2011) and possibly into the countryside as the liberators sought out traditional healers to cure the sick.  So far more than 400 deaths have been attributed to Ebola in Liberia but many may be unreported in the interior away from modern medical treatment centers.

Its possible that the Ebola patients may have also been moved away from the city along traditional trafficking routes towards Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, or Sierra Leone.  The borders throughout the region are extremely porous with people moving freely into Sierra Leone on many routes that avoid official checkpoints.  Given the incubation period of 2 to 21 days its possible that people are already enroute to areas that haven't been warned about Ebola and are currently reporting no issues.

Countries may also be underreporting Ebola incidents after the example of the treatment of Liberia and Sierra Leone by the international community.  Major airlines have cut off service to the affected countries and tourism has come to a stop.  As neighboring countries have sealed their borders trade has also halted and scarce supplies and food are becoming impossible to find.

The next phase of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia will explode around 6 September (21 days after the hospital escape) and may linger longer if the government claims of having recaptured all the infected patients isn't true.  The current Ebola outbreak is the deadliest in history with over 1200 killed since December 2013 and an estimated 2,200 infected.