Ben Macintyre: Piracy's Roots Go Deep In Somalia's History





[Ben Macintyre is Writer at Large for The Times and contributes a regular Friday column.]

We call them “pirates”, because that is how they most easily translate into Western culture, but the Somali marauders currently terrorising Indian Ocean shipping might better be termed ocean-going shiftas, heirs to a long and uniquely African tradition of banditry.

The term shifta may be unfamiliar, yet it is a key to understanding what is happening off the coast of Somalia, and how it might possibly be resolved. Shifta, derived from the Somali word shúfto, can be translated as bandit or rebel, outlaw or revolutionary, depending on which end of the gun you are on.

In the roiling chaos that is Somalia, the killers and criminals are variously pirates, warlords, kidnappers, fanatics or Islamic insurgents. Most are young, angry men with no prospects, no education and a great deal of heavy weaponry. But all are historically descended from the shiftas who have plundered the Horn of Africa for decades.

The shiftas originated in the 19th century as a sort of local militia in the unruly mountains of north east Africa, but soon developed into freelance outlaws, rustlers and highway robbers, roaming across borders to rob and kill. The British colonial authorities sought to control shifta activity, but the armed bands played an important role in resisting Italian occupation in Ethiopia and Somaliland during the Second World War.

They had a reputation for extreme barbarity. One British officer based in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya in 1942 described the marauding, heavily armed bands of Somali shiftas as “ruthless outlaws who killed for the sake of killing, holding human life cheap if it stood in the way of rape and pillage”. The shiftas, it was said, handed captives over to their womenfolk to be elaborately mutilated before an agonisingly slow death.

The term shifta is still used to describe robber gangs in the remoter rural regions of Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya. The conservationist George Adamson of Born Free fame was killed by Somali shiftas in Kenya in 1989.

But shiftinnet (the role of the shifta) is more complex than mere thievery and thuggery. The term can also denote status, respect and rebellion against unpopular authority. Two 19th-century Ethiopian emperors were originally shiftas. In his book Bandits, Eric Hobsbawm argued that in some instances, outlaws rise above their crimes to become champions of the underdog, rebels articulating the grievances of the dispossessed, robbing the rich to give to the poor.

Shiftinnet has some of this outlaw mystique. Precisely the same is true of the latter-day Somali pirates infesting the seas off East Africa. They, too, follow a code of conduct that precludes harming crewmen, as well as a formula for divvying up the loot within the robber band. In their own communities, they are seen as heroes and breadwinners, a sort of maritime mafia upholding social order while resisting Western power...


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