"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

10.23.2008

arrrrr there authorities?

"'There are a host of pirates, but they don't identify themselves with eye-patches and hook hands so it isn't immediately obvious that they are pirates.'"

That's NATO's James Appathurai speaking to the BBC about new efforts to stop piracy along the Somali coast. French marine patrols arrested nine Somalis on suspicion of piracy in the Gulf of Aden on Tuesday.

What I find most fascinating about this story is that the accused pirates were then "handed ... over to the authorities." If you find yourself wondering, "what authorities?" you're not alone. Somalia hasn't had a functioning government in Mogadishu that is capable of controlling the capital city, much less the countryside, since 1991. Its government typically meets in a hotel ballroom in Nairobi. Kenya.

Upon closer inspection, however, we learn that the accused pirates were actually turned over to the authorities of Puntland, the northeastern region of Somalia. Like its northern neighbor Somaliland, Puntland has a functioning government, security forces, and most of the other accoutrements of governance and authority. It declared itself independent a few years back, and the government of Puntland even has a nice website.

What the government of Puntland does not have, however, is the international recognition that accords legitimacy to sovereign states in the international system. That means that Puntland doesn't get a seat at the United Nations, nor does it get to enter into most international treaties and agreements. Instead, it exists in the netherworld that scholars and policymakers refer to as an "autonomous region," running an economy, maintaining basic public order, and, apparently, arresting pirates.

The fiction of functionality is one of the most fascinating and vexing aspects of Africa's weakest states. The world pretends that Somalia is the legitimate governing authority over all of the territory known as Somalia when clearly that is not the case. Meanwhile, those who can establish some form of rule - Puntland is not a strong state by any measure of the imagination, but it is more statelike than is Somalia proper - are generally ignored by the international community and left to fend for themselves.

Except, it appears, in this case. By returning the pirates to Puntland's authorities, France and, arguably its NATO allies, are at conceding that, at least in the de facto sense, Puntland is more legitimate in the region than is Somalia. The implications of that decision remain to be seen.

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