Somali Autonomy and the Failure of the Puntland Maritime Police Force

Evan Fowler, a second-year master's candidate at SAIS, examines the political and economic forces that contributed to the rise of piracy in Somalia, and the failure of the Puntland Maritime Police Force in combating piracy.

By Evan Fowler

Until 1991, the Somali Democratic Republic was ruled by Mohamed Siad Barre, a socialist military dictator who came to power with a 1969 coup d’état. When the regime ended, following years of corruption and poor economic performance, Somalia descended into a long-running internecine conflict that devastated the country and destabilized East Africa. In the wake of this instability, regions within Somalia began to carve out their own spheres of autonomy, most notably in the cases of Somaliland, the self-declared independent state in northwest Somalia, and Puntland in the northeast.

The lawlessness that characterized post-Barre Somalia, particularly with the disbanding of the Somali Navy, encouraged the encroachment of illegal, foreign fishing and the dumping of waste in Somali territorial waters. As local fisherman began to combat these trends, the profitability of crime was showcased through ransom deals, and piracy became sine qua non in Somalia.

A Fragmented Country

On 1 August 2012, Somalia’s National Constituent Assembly agreed on a new constitution for the country, following the inept eight-year rule of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).  The September 2012 election of the new Somali president, political novice Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was seen as a break from the past administrations and stakeholders that had dominated the TFG. Internal and external observers saw the new constitution’s championing of federalism as rectifying the state desire for autonomy that drove two decades of conflict. Many observers also hoped that the autonomy granted by the constitution would assuage historical fears of centralized power in Mogadishu. Nearly a year after the formation of the republic, however, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland announced that it had cut its ties to the central government in Mogadishu.

Puntland’s declaration of independence revealed the deep fissures that have split the beleaguered country. President Sheikh Mohamud’s power and authority are largely contained in the capital, and he has struggled to deal with lingering problems such as clanism, administrative corruption, and the militant insurgent group al-Shabaab. According to local officials in Puntland, “the fragmented country has been plunged back into a vicious cycle of violence, displacement, clan animosities and a complete disregard for the country’s genuine Provisional Federal Constitution.”[i]

Federalism, when placed against the backdrop of the limitations of the central government, has only emboldened the regionalism that has become rampant in Somalia since 1991. Supporters of increased federalism need only point to the case of Somaliland in the northwest, a region described today as “peaceful and functional…while the rest continues to be such a violent, chaotic mess.”[ii] While Mogadishu was protected by international peacekeepers and flooded with international aid, Somaliland slowly built up a reputable and competent administration, with very little foreign aid and international support.

By relying on traditional authorities, and running a campaign of demobilization and disarmament, Somaliland has been successful in establishing stability and security= in the region. According to one activist, Somaliland has “a peace owned by the community,” [iii] in stark contrast to Mogadishu. While this peace has elevated Somaliland as a model for other locally-driven campaigns for autonomy, including campaigns in Puntland and Jubaland, the international community has not recognized Somaliland’s autonomy as a result of fears that “legitimizing [Somaliland] as a country would set a precedent for other secession movements” across Africa. [iv]

Puntland is located in northeastern Somalia along the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and encompasses one-third of Somalia’s population and area. In August 1998, Puntland declared itself an autonomous state of Somalia.[v] Before breaking off relations with Mogadishu this August 2013, Puntland had taken a much less strict approach to its relations with the capital. Unlike Somaliland, Puntland has always sought to situate itself within a new, federal system. According to the president of Puntland, Abdirahman Farole, “The Puntland people stand for the unity of Somalia … [and stand against] groups who continue to destabilize Somalia’s peace, security and nationhood.”[vi]

It was within Puntland’s administrative capital of Garowe that the Garowe Principles, which provided the national framework for the transformation of the transitional regime into a new government, were established between the Transitional Federal Government and various Somalia leaders. Federalism for all of Somalia was one of the key components of the Garowe Principles, and it was confirmed to be the way forward for the permanent government.[vii] With the formation of the federal structure in 2012, it was clear that Puntland had “expended critical support to reinstituting a united and federal Somalia…for the sake of peace and rebuilding.”[viii]

 A Hub of Piracy

Alongside its struggle for federal recognition, Puntland has since 2005 been “the hub of a burgeoning piracy operation” around the Gulf of Aden, where privateers target the international shipping lanes that lead to and from the Suez Canal.[ix] Spurred on by the lawlessness of the two-decade long civil war, Somalia has become a haven for maritime piracy, with “111 out of the total 293 pirate attacks worldwide” in 2008 taking place off the Somali coast.[x] The capability of these pirates was proven in November 2008 with the capture of the Sirius Star, the first time that a vessel of such size – a 330-meter tanker – had been boarded and hijacked.[xi] The million-dollar ransom of the Sirius Star, as well as other lightly guarded tankers, showcased the profitability and lucrative nature of maritime piracy. In Somalia’s shadow economy, bereft of state protection and control, piracy became a method to overcome widespread unemployment and hopelessness.

The piracy industry revitalized Puntland’s economy. The negotiation of ransoms necessitated the adoption of advanced technology and cell phones. Restaurants catered to the needs of pirates and their hostages. Housing units were built, and consumer goods were produced to meet the needs of the pirates.[xii] In raw economic terms, piracy boosted the economy of Puntland. In Nugal province, for example, “the daily wage increased from 40,000 Somali shillings in 2005 to 120,000 in 2011.”[xiii] In the same Chatham House report, it was noted that “regional centers have benefited from substantial investment funded by piracy,” with benefits dispersed among different clan-based stakeholders, making it difficult for Puntland’s political elites to act against the existing system.[xiv]

Public opinion has been divided on the issue of piracy. Some residents see the pirates as protectors of Somali territorial and resource-laden waters, which had been plundered by international commercial fishing boats after the collapse of the Somali state. Others have decried this line of thought as false, stating that what may have evolved from altruistic intentions has brought nothing but more problems to the people of Somalia. Dr. Ahmed Abdirahman, a professor in Puntland, argued that the prevailing fear is related to how piracy may evolve. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Dr. Abdirahman stated that “if the world does not come up with a solution to piracy, [piracy]’s going to take a far worse turn.”[xv]

The international community has made several efforts to respond to piracy off the coasts of Somalia, and overall, these efforts have been successful. In 2010, there were 49 successful hijackings, and by 2011, the number of hijackings declined to 31.[xvi] In the first nine months of 2011, there were 199 attacks against ships by pirates in the region; in 2012, there were only 70 attacks during the same time period.[xvii] The decrease in attempted and successful hijackings can be attributed to several changes. First, armed guards and other security countermeasures have become more common on ships travelling through the region. In 2009, around ten to twenty percent of ships traveling through the targeted regions had armed guards; today that number is closer to 70 percent.[xviii] Additionally, stronger security onboard these vessels has been supported by international efforts to combat piracy, particularly the American-backed Combined Task Force 151, the European-backed European Union Naval Force Somalia, and several unilateral deployments that have attempted to make Somali piracy less lucrative. These forces have been successful in escorting ships, improving the intelligence regarding pirate activities, and in some cases, attacking pirate strongholds.

Challenges of Combating Piracy

Containment of maritime piracy is difficult to sustain, particularly without long-lasting, confirmed international support. With 33,000 commercial vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden annually, it is impossible to tackle the issue of piracy by simply patrolling the waters; it is necessary to add a land-based equivalent to anti-piracy efforts, as well.[xix] For this component, the government in Puntland turned to the only strategy that it knew how to employ: federalism. After the parliament in Puntland promulgated the “first [and only Somali] Anti-Piracy Law” in 2010, the government formed a coastal police force, the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF).[xx] The purpose of the PMPF was simple: “a 1,000-strong local counter-piracy militia” headquartered in Puntland’s largest port, Bosaso, with both a combative and humanitarian mandate.[xxi] In the words of Abdirizak Ahmed, then-director of counter-piracy operations in the Ministry of Maritime Transport, Ports and Counter-Piracy, “The PMPF is a key component of Puntland’s aggressive, multi-pronged anti-piracy strategy.”[xxii]

Even at its inception, the creation of this militia invited criticism and suspicion from within Somalia and among the international community. Despite pledges from the coordinator of the PMPF that “no one else supported the PMPF… they are Puntland made and Puntland trained by government money,” the government of Puntland contracted a foreign company, Saracen International, to train the PMPF.[xxiii] Saracen International is registered to Lafras Luitingh, one of the founders of Executive Outcomes (EO), “the world’s first modern private military company.”[xxiv] Experienced South African mercenaries, one-time apartheid counter-insurgency fighters who were employed by Saracen, soon became the mentors for the Puntlander maritime police.[xxv] The Puntland government was eager to find a way to combat the pirates along their coastline, and the PMPF project had been buoyed by millions of dollars of supportive funding from the United Arab Emirates.[xxvi] The PMPF, under the guidance of the Saracen contractors, became another actor in the anti-piracy retinue, as they “raided pirate locations, arrested piracy suspects, and seized vehicles and equipment.”[xxvii]

Saracen’s methods of training and working with Somali anti-piracy trainees have been called into question by international organizations. The U.N. monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea found “Somali trainees were beaten and even killed”[xxviii] during grueling training sessions. In one egregious case, “a trainee was hogtied … [and] died from his injuries,” with Luitingh dismissing the death as “Somali-on-Somali violence.”[xxix] Saracen International has been under scrutiny by the United Nations for violating the arms embargo on Somalia that has been in place since 1992. Saracan rebranded itself into Sterling Corporate Services in 2012, registering in Dubai, before disbanding after the UAE pulled its support for the PMPF.[xxx] Approximately a dozen foreign mercenaries remained in Somalia after the company’s dissolution.[xxxi] After the end of Saracen International’s involvement, the African Union launched a campaign, this time with Bancroft Global Development, a private military security contractor in Washington, D.C., to see if the anti-piracy force could be integrated into sanctioned Somali forces, such as the national army.[xxxii]

Bancroft’s president, Michael Stock, visited the PMPF headquarters, where he found almost “500 soldiers who had gone weeks without pay … [and] an armory of weapons amassed over two years.”[xxxiii] Stock decided that Bancroft would not take up the counter-piracy force’s training initiated by Saracen International. His assessment continues to ring true, as the legacy left behind is one of a poorly-paid, well-armed security unit. It does not take a regional expert to realize the inherent danger that an armed militia can play in Somalia, especially an unpaid militia, with an increasingly irrelevant mandate. The PMPF’s personal connection to President Abdirahman Farole could be used to hedge Farole’s position within Puntland, or for support in Puntland’s territorial disputes with neighboring Somaliland.[xxxiv] The counter-piracy unit also utilized some of the same buildings as the Puntland Intelligence Service, an intelligence organization that has been supported by the Central Intelligence Agency and reports directly to President Abdirahman Farole.[xxxv]

Looking to the Future

The decline in pirate attacks since the establishment of the PMPF is evidence of the need for both land and sea-based responses to maritime piracy. But the credit should not go to the enforcement by the PMPF, but to the previously mentioned efforts by commercial ships at arming themselves, as well as the increasingly pivotal role played by international patrols. The legacy of the PMPF is much more difficult to discern. At best, it will prove to be a minor success in the overall strategy at the reduction of piracy in the Horn of Africa. At worst, and far more likely, it could prove to be another destabilizing factor in Somalia, and an example of the dangers of federalist solutions.

Evidence in Somalia currently points to a transition of the PMPF from an anti-piracy unit into an anti-terrorist force that would protect Puntland from the recent arrival of al-Shabaab linked militants near Bosaso. The movement of these fighters into Puntland occurred following the group’s ousting from other areas of Somalia as it seeks to move closer to its partners in the Arabian Peninsula, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.[xxxvi] The PMPF took part in an attack against al-Shabaab in January 2013, following a spate of Islamist-linked attacks in Puntland in late 2012.[xxxvii] This transformation is incomplete, especially given the logistical and financial limitations of the Puntland government, and its own reliance on traditional military forces.

With elections approaching in Puntland, the influence of the PMPF should not be understated. A well-armed unit trained by paramilitary South African mercenaries, with a fluctuating mission, and a personal loyalty to the established government of Puntland, is a testament to the fractious nature of developments across Somalia. With Puntland’s disavowal of Mogadishu, this force could serve to become another destabilizing element, especially coupled with an influx of disaffected al-Shabaab militants. Federalism may have produced a solution to the problem of Puntland’s maritime piracy, but only time will tell whether it is really a cure, or another symptom of the sickness.

Evan Fowler is a second-year master’s candidate at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is pursuing a degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle East Studies. His research interests include Middle East politics, post-conflict transition, and constitutional development.


[i] Richard Lough and Michael Roddy. “Somalia’s Puntland Breaks Off Relations With Central Government.” Reuters. August 5, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[ii] Jeffrey Gettleman. “Somaliland Is An Overlooked African Success Story.” The New York Times. March 6, 2007. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Charles Anderson and Glen Johnson. “Somaliland: An Oasis Of Success.” New Internationalist. September 21, 2011. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[v] BBC News Africa. “Puntland Profile.” The British Broadcasting Corporation. September 11, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[vi] Garowe Online. “Somalia: 53rd Independence Day Celebrated Across Puntland.” allAfrica. July 1, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[vii] Michael A. Weinstein. “Somalia: New Roadmap – the Garowe Principles.” allAfrica. December 30, 2011. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[viii] Puntland State Of Somalia. “Press Release, Official Position of Puntland Government On Relations With Federal Government Of Somalia.” Saadaal News. August 5, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[ix] BBC News Africa. “Puntland Profile.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
[x] Andrew Carlson. “Pirates of Puntland, Somalia.” Origins: Current Events In Historical Perspective. Vol. 2, Issue 9. June, 2009. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] BBC News Africa. “Somali piracy ‘boosts Puntland economy’.” The British Broadcasting Corporation. January 12, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Mohammed Adow. “The Pirate Kings Of Puntland.” Al Jazeera. June 17, 2009. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xvi] Ben West. “The Expensive, Diminishing Threat Of Somali Piracy.” Stratfor. November 8, 2009. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] West. “The Expensive, Diminishing Threat Of Somali Piracy.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xx] Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud Farole. “The Piracy Problem: The Puntland Perspective.” Piracy In Comparative Perspective: Problems, Strategies, Law. September 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxi] James Bridger and Jay Bahadur. “The Wild West In East Africa.” Foreign Policy. May 30, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxii] Shiine Omar. “Puntland, Somaliland Prepare To Fight Pirates.” SomaliaReport. January 20, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxiii] Ibid.
[xxiv] Bridger and Bahadur. “The Wild West In East Africa.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxv] Ibid.
[xxvi] Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt. “Private Army Formed To Fight Somali Pirates Leaves Troubled Legacy.” The New York Times. October 4, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxvii] Farole. “The Piracy Problem: The Puntland Perspective.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxviii] Bridger and Bahadur. “The Wild West In East Africa.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxix] Ibid.
[xxx] Ibid.
[xxxi] Ibid.
[xxxii] Mazzetti and Schmitt. “Private Army Formed To Fight Somali Pirates Leaves Troubled Legacy.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxxiii] Ibid.
[xxxiv] Bridger and Bahadur. “The Wild West In East Africa.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxxv] Robert Young Pelton. Omar. “Puntland’s Anti-Piracy Program Shut Down.” SomaliaReport. June 22, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxxvi] Yara Bayoumy. “Somalia’s al Shabaab, Squeezed In South, Move To Puntland.” Reuters. November 9, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[xxxvii] Bridger and Bahadur. “The Wild West In East Africa.” Accessed September 25, 2013.
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