Not far from Fort Jesus, the sixteenth-century fort erected by the Portuguese to mark their violent entry into the world of Indian Ocean commerce, is a small office near the old port of Mombasa. Scattered inside are copies of Seatrade and other maritime trade magazines. An old desktop computer displays the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks international shipping prices for dry bulk cargo, as well as the shipping movements list from Lloyd’s of London highlighting the movement of commodities on ships registered with the insurance company. A former shipping agent, “Salim,” single-handedly manages this office, providing “logistical support” to individuals and organizations he describes vaguely as “interested parties.” When he started, “about three years ago,” Salim explains, “I was one of the first people providing this service. Today there are quite a few people in London, Dubai and Minneapolis, and a few others in Mombasa as well. I could go to some of these other cities, but I like staying here.” “I might start selling real estate,” he adds with a wry grin, alluding to the real estate boom, rumored to be fueled by piracy money, in the Kenyan town. “It is a good city for business.”
A focal point of the trans-regional social, cultural and economic space of the Indian Ocean, Mombasa arose over centuries of trade and other exchange with places as far afield as Mumbai and Malacca. By the twelfth century, the city had emerged as a thriving trade outpost and a regular port of call for scholars, merchants and other travelers, including the famous Moroccan Ibn Battuta. Connecting the East African hinterland with the wider world across the ocean, the port of Mombasa gained prominence as a hub for the export of ivory. The arrival of Vasco da Gama on the East African coast in 1498 heralded a new epoch in the organization of Indian Ocean commerce. A peculiar feature (to Europeans) of trade in the Indian Ocean prior to the European age of navigation had been the absence of a central state authority seeking a monopoly. From the sixteenth century onward, the Portuguese attempted to control the vast trade networks of the Indian Ocean, establishing sovereignty over a series of strategic choke points, including Mombasa. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, French, English and Americans, as Engseng Ho has noted, worked to transform the body of water into “an arena of military and commercial geo-strategy.”
By 1638, when Mombasa formally became a Portuguese colony, it was a critical stopover en route to the Portuguese stronghold of Goa. Portuguese domination was short-lived, however, and by 1698 the town came under the suzerainty of the Sultanate of Oman. During this period, Mombasa lost its place as East African entrepôt to the Omani-controlled island of Zanzibar. Mombasa regained its commercial importance after 1895 when the town became the capital of the British East Africa protectorate and the sea terminal for the newly constructed Uganda Railways connecting Kampala in Uganda to Mombasa, via Nairobi. This period saw an influx of migrants from British India, adding to the cosmopolitan mix of merchant families from South Asia, the Middle East and other parts of Africa. The late nineteenth century also witnessed the expansion of Arab and Indian merchant capital into the Benaadir region of southern Somalia, from Kismayo in the south to Mogadishu in the north. In 1899, British officials in Kismayo reported that the Indian monopoly over the ivory trade was so strong that government intervention was necessary to prevent the impoverishment of local traders. The solution proposed by the British was to allow Somali traders free transport to markets in Lamu and Mombasa. While this did little to halt the expansion of Arab and Indian merchants into Benaadir, access to Lamu and Mombasa strengthened the Somali presence in these towns. In Mombasa, Somali merchant capital played an important role in the revival of the city’s fortunes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Mombasa is still a center of Somali commerce. Scholars such as Peter Little have highlighted the vibrant cross-border and trans-regional trade in commodities ranging from mirra (the mildly narcotic leaf known in Yemen as qat) to cattle. Overall trade figures have largely remained unchanged since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, but commerce is organized far differently. War and instability in southern Somalia has often disabled or cut off ports such as Kismayo and Eyl, leading merchants and brokers to move south to Mombasa in order to export their goods. The civil war in Somalia has also created a large Somali diaspora in Nairobi, Mombasa, Aden and Dubai, whose various communities trade with each other and send remittances back home. Mombasa is a key node in this network, particularly the neighborhoods around the old port and Makadara Road.
Historically inhabited by descendants of Baluch soldiers who served in the sultan of Oman’s army, Makadara Road today is lined with Internet cafés, tea and mirra shops, moneychangers and phone booths offering cheap international calls. The street bustles with activity late into the night. One ubiquitous feature is the groups of young men, mostly Somali, who walk around with bundles of Kenyan currency offering to change money at rates considerably better than those provided by neighborhood banks. “Ali Dola,” a recent arrival from Mogadishu, explains that he is a subcontractor for his cousin, who owns a foreign exchange bureau and provided the Kenyan shillings. As at the bureau, Ali charges a commission for every transaction, though he gives out no receipts. When asked about the legality of his operation, he points to the police headquarters a few doors down: “Pirates are roaming free on the ocean. We are just moneychangers!”
A few hundred feet from Ali Dola’s makeshift office, the slightly more sedate chambers of the Magistrate’s Court bring into view another dimension of Mombasa’s entanglements with the wider Indian Ocean world. Since 2007, a marked rise in piracy off the coast of Somalia has prompted action from the international community, including the deployment of four separate multi-national naval patrols. While focusing on state building in Somalia, the UN response, urged by the United States, among other nations, has also emphasized prosecution of suspected pirates. In 2009, as part of a deal brokered between the European Union, Britain, the US and Kenya, Mombasa was selected as the location for the largest, most systematic attempt at prosecuting maritime piracy in over a century. Over 100 suspects were to be tried in the Magistrate’s Court in return for technical and capacity-building assistance for the Kenyan judiciary.
The selection of Mombasa was not without controversy. Critics pointed to a lack of infrastructure and technical expertise for handling the increasing caseload as the naval patrols began to intercept more and more pirate ships. The agreement was finalized at a time when the capacity of the Kenyan judicial system was being questioned in various quarters. The judiciary was criticized for being unable or unwilling to prosecute suspected perpetrators of 2007 post-election violence, in which over 1,000 people died and over 150,000 were displaced. Others were skeptical of Kenya’s jurisdiction in the matter. A Mombasa-based defense attorney accused the US and EU of “dumping” pirates in Kenya.
Early in 2010, Kenya, citing high costs, announced that it would stop accepting suspected pirates for trials in Mombasa. In response, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, along with the EU and other stakeholders, increased funding for piracy trials and constructed a fast-track court at the Shimo La Tewa Prison near Mombasa. While this court will primarily try suspected pirates under Kenyan law, the UN sees it as a general investment in the Kenyan judiciary and insists that it will try other cases as well.
The piracy trials offer a fascinating window into the complexities of international maritime law as well as the organization of piracy and its connections with a range of licit and illicit commercial activities. Testifying in a case involving a somewhat bizarre attempt by pirates to hijack a EU-flagged naval warship, the German captain of the attacked ship offered a candid insight into the difficulties faced by the multi-national naval patrols: “The ocean is not just an empty space. It is full of fishing boats and other kinds of merchant ships. The same person who is a pirate today may be a fisherman the next day, a trader bringing goods from Dubai to Kenya another day, or even a human smuggler heading to Yemen with a cargo of Somali migrants the day after that. What do you do when faced with such a situation?”
Indeed, many suspected pirates have claimed in the courtroom that they are simply fishermen who have been displaced from their traditional fishing grounds due to encroachment by trawlers from as far away as Southeast Asia. Other suspects have acknowledged turning to piracy as a way to supplement earnings from other forms of maritime trade. In another case, a group of suspects acknowledged their primary occupation as crewmen on a transport ship operating between northern Somalia and Yemen. These testimonies highlight the shape-shifting quality of pirates in the western Indian Ocean, which is home to a variety of legal and illegal maritime economies. The economies run on a combination of cash and credit, drawing upon sources of payment ranging from clan networks to multi-national banks. Thanks to high demand for skilled and unskilled labor in the Arab Gulf states, human traffickers pilot almost one boatload of Somalis and other Africans per day across the Gulf of Aden, often in perilous conditions. An estimated 50,000 people have landed in Yemen since the beginning of 2009 and over 500 have died while attempting the crossing. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the trade in cattle and goats between Somalia or Kenya and Saudi Arabia and other states in the Gulf during the Muslim holiday of ‘Id al-Adha. Considered by many to be a “holy trade,” this traffic in livestock often travels along the same routes as the human smugglers and involves similar forms of payment. These informal economies work mostly outside the realm of the state, but are often connected to officialdom through forms of licensing or bribes and other protection payments to state bureaucrats. Maritime piracy shares the logic of this other privatized commercial activity, and the same people are often involved with both, moving easily between them.
Mombasa is an important place where the revenues of piracy and the gray-economy activities are converted into licit assets. Beginning in 2009, the port town has witnessed an explosion of new construction funded mostly with cash payments coming from Dubai and Somalia. Given the relatively lax fiscal regulatory system in Kenya and the scant restrictions on the movement of capital, it is highly lucrative to buy property in Kenya as a way to reinvest piracy money. Real estate agents in Mombasa regularly recount tales of Somali men arriving with bags full of cash looking to purchase land. An agent who identified himself as “Kyolo” welcomes this boom, as property prices are rising after a decade-long slump, made worse by the post-election violence of 2007. Without piracy money, Kyolo explains, the economy would still be in the doldrums.
While many like Kyolo see the influx of piracy money as a boon, others writing in editorial pages and having private conversations warn of a serious threat to the economy, as well as law and order in the country. There are somewhat fantastical rumors that suspected pirates in Shimo La Tewa prison are really al-Qaeda sleeper cells and there are more serious complaints about the rising cost of housing. Kenyans are debating what is legal and what is illegal, as well as the nature of the relationship between their country and Somalia. Piracy is not just robbery on the high seas, but a phenomenon that is profoundly reshaping a trans-regional space of commerce and exchange in the western reaches of the Indian Ocean.