MOGADISHU: Mohamed Abdi Hassan, one of Somalia‚Äôs most notorious pirate chiefs, appears far more businessman than sea bandit, as he explains why he now wants to end the murderous hijacking of ships.
Hassan, better known as ‚ÄúAfweyne‚Äù or ‚ÄúBig Mouth‚Äù, whose men once terrorised vast stretches of the Indian Ocean‚Äîgenerating millions of dollars in ransoms from seized ships‚Äînow claims to have renounced piracy.
‚ÄúThe young men need to be trained, to get skills and get integrated into society,‚Äù Afweyne said, pulling out of his briefcase an official letter apparently nominating him as an ‚Äúanti-piracy officer‚Äù.
Afweyne, who says he earned his nickname as a child ‚Äúbecause I would cry a lot‚Äù, claims to have persuaded almost a thousand young pirates to quit.
‚ÄúWe are convincing the youths to give up piracy… I have influence, and have been mobilising the community… to keep the men from the water,‚Äù he told AFP over a cup of tea in an upmarket hotel in Somalia‚Äôs war-ravaged capital Mogadishu.
Last year a United Nations report described Afweyne as ‚Äúone of the most notorious and influential leaders‚Äù in Somalia.
Pirate attacks have in recent years been launched as far as 3,655 kilometres (2,277 miles) from the Somali coast in the Indian Ocean.
The World Bank last month calculated between $315 million and $385 million has been paid in ransoms since 2005, a figure dwarfed by the estimated $18 billion that piracy costs the world economy annually.
But Afweyne, a soft spoken and portly man in his fifties with an apparently kindly manner, shuns descriptions of himself as a pirate, and especially the Somali translation of ‚Äúburcad badeed‚Äù, literally, the ‚Äúscum of the sea‚Äù.
‚ÄúPerhaps you have heard a lot about this ship or that ransom… but 90 percent of what you hear in Somalia is false,‚Äù he said, opening his arms wide and chuckling to laugh off any suggestion he was dangerous.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not saying I was not involved, for I was the one who initiated the fight,‚Äù he said, claiming he took up piracy after his fishing company was ruined by foreign fleets off Somalia after the country spiralled into civil war in 1991. ‚ÄúIt was legitimate because there was no government, we were like orphans without a father,‚Äù he added.
Afweyne, whose son is reportedly a feared pirate chief, was involved in the 2008 capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star oil supertanker, released for a ransom of several million dollars.
His or his son‚Äôs men were also involved in the 2008 capture of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian transport ship carrying 33 refurbished Soviet-era battle tanks, which was released after a 134-day hijack for a reported three million dollars.
Afweyne also reportedly carried out a string of attacks against ships carrying food aid to his impoverished nation.
In recent years, international naval patrols from China, the European Union, United States and Russia have protected shipping and fought off pirate vessels, with the rate of attacks tumbling by 80 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to the EU‚Äôs anti-piracy mission in Somalia, EUNAVFOR.
But Afweyne says long-term change is not just about making changes at sea. ‚Äú(The patrols) have done a lot of good, but we need efforts on land too,‚Äù he said. Money for training and support to allow the pirates to turn their lives around is also key, he says.
‚ÄúWe need financial support to allow (ex-pirates) to have alternate careers… to be fishermen or farmers or traders, whatever they choose.‚Äù Cynics argue that Afweyne has made his money, and now wants to invest the cash in businesses.
Others suggest he is partly driven by condemnation that the pirates of his Saleban clan have tarnished the international reputation of the wider Somali people. Last year he was reportedly given a diplomatic passport by Somalia‚Äôs then president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, as an inducement to dismantle his pirate network.
But whatever his motivation‚Äîand however hard it may be in reality to stimulate economic growth in the lawless pirate regions‚ÄîAfweyne‚Äôs influence is important. Somalia‚Äôs weak government‚Äîpropped up by a 17,000-strong African Union force‚Äîdoes not control the key areas where pirates operate, which are largely along the northern coast in the autonomous Puntland region.
‚ÄúWe want the government and the international community to help us provide opportunities for our young men,‚Äù said Hassan Abdullahi Mohammed, a senior official from the Himan and Heeb region, a key pirate area, where several hostages remain.
While the pirates have lost ground, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) warns that Somalia‚Äôs waters remain extremely high-risk.
Five boats and 77 hostages are still held by Somali pirates, according to the IMB, while some pirates have turned to land-based kidnapping and banditry instead. But Somalia‚Äôs government is slowly boosting its control over its territory, helped by military advances made against Islamist forces by African Union and government troops, with the economy and trade growing as security slowly improves. Business in the country‚Äôs ports, notably, is booming.
At Mogadishu‚Äôs port, numbers of large ships offloading goods‚Äîand this year exporting livestock for the first time in over two decades‚Äîhave grown by around a fifth in the past year.
Other ex-pirates seem supportive of Afweyne‚Äôs move, but warn that efforts to stop piracy must involve concrete change on the ground.
Ex-pirate captain Abdullahi Abdi said he cannot promise that those he commanded, who are now jobless onshore, have given up attacks for good. ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt say that,‚Äù he said.
‚ÄúThere are hundreds of young men wanting a future… and a young hungry man can do anything.‚Äù