Most of the first pirates came from Puntland, a semi-autonomous region that encompassed the traditional lands of the Darod, or the ‘horn’ in the Horn of Africa. A group of elders formed Puntland in 1998. Unlike Somaliland, they had no desire for independence from Somalia. Dominated by three of the sub-lineages of the powerful Majeerteen sub-clan, Puntland's founders set about building a government, a judiciary, and a modest security force.
By the time the Somali piracy epidemic began in 2008, Puntland had significantly more functional state-like structures in place than Mogadishu. Yet the international community, including the United Nations, remained entirely focused on the re-building of the Somali state from Mogadishu and refused to acknowledge Puntland. More on this is in the Suppression section.
The map to the right shows the sparsity of population areas in Puntland. Aside from the port of Bossaso, the three major towns of Puntland (including the capital Garowe) are all located inland, reflecting their pastoralist roots. As the centres of Puntland's authority, they were far from the small villages used as pirate bases.
We already know that piracy occurs because of the weakness of authority. We also know that this weakness often stems from the authority’s complicity in the piracy. And these problems recurred again in Puntland.
Map of Puntland with approximate clan/lineage territory
The situation in Puntland during the Somali piracy epidemic
Around 2007, Puntland faced significant economic and security challenges, weakening its inhabitants’ allegiance to its leadership. A territorial dispute with Somaliland and the rise of Al-Shabaab in the south consumed Puntland’s meagre security forces. At the same time, Saudi Arabia had banned the mainstay of Puntland’s economy, livestock exports, creating an economic crisis. The economic instability meant respect for Puntland’s President, Mahmoud Isse Hersi began to diminish amongst the sub-clans of the Majeerteen. This began to fracture the alliance formed to create Puntland.
Understanding the historic rivalry and cultural traditions of the three powerful lineages of the Majeerteen sub-clan, the Umar Mahammud, the Iise Mahammud and the Ismaan Mahammud is crucial to understanding Puntland’s position in the piracy epidemic. The leadership of Puntland rotated amongst these lineages and all three played key roles in Somali piracy.
Were Puntland's authorities complicit in the piracy?
The UN accused the two Presidents of the piracy epidemic period, Hersi and Abdirahman Mohamud Farole of complicity. Both vehemently denied this accusation. On one hand, it needs to be noted that the UN had no presence in Puntland so its information may have relied on dubious sources and paid informants with vested interests. On the other hand, traditional Somali social constructs show that the individual enrichment caused by Somali piracy would have advanced these men’s personal status and undoubtedly facilitated their political influence. The role of President of Puntland hinged on the president’s personal prestige and he needed wealth to gain respect or, at the very least, the wealth of his clan lineage. The rewards of piracy would have offered them both the prestige needed to retain the Puntland presidency and keep Puntland together during the economic crisis.
By 2009, President Farole recognised how piracy undermined his international credibility and he moved to increase Puntland’s capacity to suppress the pirates. His clan lineage connections to Eyl quickly ended its reign as a pirate base. However, he needed his presidential prestige to assert Puntland’s authority over other clan lineages involved in piracy. Given Puntland’s economic challenges and the absence of any international support, this proved a far tougher challenge. Farole’s experience showed the challenging reality of overriding the clan and traditional social constructs with a centralised authority.
Underlying his challenge was the fact the international community did not acknowledge Puntland’s existence, let alone its leadership’s attempts to establish authority over pirates. Only when the UN began realising the potential of Puntland in 2011 did it begin investing in assisting Puntland to suppress the piracy.