When you read about anti-piracy efforts off the coastline of Somalia, you imagine huge war-ships slicing through the waters, with terrified sea bandits scattering in their wake.
But closer to shore, in the tiny breakaway east African state of Somaliland, it’s a different picture. Despite being only a few hundred kilometers down the coast from piracy-ridden Puntland, Somaliland’s coast guard operates with more than modest resources.
A 20-foot long motor boat in Berbera, the country’s port town, lies at the docks, seemingly broken beyond repair. One other coast guard boat – which I am assured is sea-worthy — is brought out. Soldiers pile on board carrying RPG rockets and AK47s.
“As you know, we have only two boats and they are very small boats,” explains Issa Mahad Abdi, second-in-command of the coast guard. “The coast is very long and we cannot cover it all but we try our best.”
Their performance in the water, however, seems to prove that they are more than a rag-tag group of officers. One fishing boat far beyond the breakwater cannot be identified and the coastguard race toward it. After leaping on board and searching the tiny vessel, there is much hand-shaking and everyone is on their way.
“That boat came in from the east and nobody knew if they were pirates or local fishermen,” Mahad Abdi shouts over the engine as we roared away. “Therefore we attacked it and we found that the boat was a Somaliland fishing boat. So always we go patrolling in this area and when the radar tells us, we attack.”
But if their target is clearly armed then it’s a much less friendly affair, he explains.
“When we meet the pirates, several rounds we fire over them. And they are afraid – they only have small boats, very small boats – so they give up. They put their hands up and we catch them, collect their arms, tie their boats and come here.”
A group of pirates being chased by Mahad Abdi and his colleagues recently came ashore and fled through the coastal plains and into the mountains. The coast guard chased the fugitives deep inland on vehicles and caught them as they got lost.
“They don’t know the land so it was a stupid place for them to run to,” Mahad Abdi recalls, smiling.
The success of the coast guard is hardly surprising, considering the career paths of their leaders. Mahad Abdi and his senior colleagues were all members of Somalia’s formerly strong navy, based in large southern ports such as Mogadishu and Kismayo. There they served under notorious dictator Siad Barre.