Somali pirates are not Johnny Depps, swashbuckling in the Caribbean but — absent satellite phones, GPS and rocket launchers — the two brotherhoods do have something in common: they control large areas of the high seas, in this case the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. They are a menace, and they are pretty good at their job: last year alone they bagged over US$60 million in ransom money, and captured 47 vessels and nearly 300 crew members.

Last October a British couple –he 60 years old, and she 56- were hijacked with their yacht sailing from the Seychelles, and are still in custody, in separate locations, pleading for the British authorities to hand over the ransom money.

In an unprecedented joint international effort to eradicate Somali piracy, NATO, the European Union, the US Navy and now the Chinese are all working together – Chinese container ships laden with goods for the fast-growing African market are falling prey to the hijackers.

Worse, the pirates are perceived as key players on the other side of the “War on Terror”, ransom money being siphoned off to fund al-Shabab, and al-Qaeda. They have links with Yemen, the latest terror-nation suspect. On top of that they are costing governments big money in counter-piracy measures — for example, the US, to deploy Reaper drones in the Indian Ocean.

Yet on their home ground, the Somalia’s maritime marauders are considered heroes, and their business perfectly legitimate. Are the Somalis then so depraved and anarchic as to not recognize simple notions of justice?

If they were, it would not be surprising after nearly 20 years of fratricidal conflict, the flight of more than half of their population and a serious humanitarian crisis created by shortage of food, water and medical supplies. Are they not, as we saw in Black Hawk Down, rather too ready to bite the hand that feeds them, and is not Somalia just another failed state?

According to Mark Bradbury, a British academic who has worked and interacted with the Somalis for the past twenty years as an aid worker, the truth is far more complex. In his book, Becoming Somaliland (2008), he argues that although Somalia has failed there is still a viable Somali nation: the breakaway Republic of Somaliland, which, he says, the international community should recognize.

Bradbury puts the present pitiful situation of the Somali people down to three things: contradictions between the centralisation of state power – a colonial legacy — and the traditionally decentralised political system of the Somalis; Cold War politics in which Somalia was supported at different times by the USA and the USSR; and the consequent militarisation, autocratic government and economic and social injustices.

Somalia, in fact, presents us with a typical case of inter-cultural misunderstanding, fed by selective media coverage. The few times Western audiences see Somalis on their television news, they are either dying of hunger or being mowed down by trigger-happy young thugs, high on drugs, as if this were the only reality of Somalia. And when we hear that the UN wants funds to support a Somali coastguard, we say, “Of course; it’s the only way”.

And yet “guarding their own coasts” is exactly what the pirates say they are doing.

For the past dozen years, Somali fishermen have been losing their livelihoods; some of those involved in the piracy business were fishermen, affected by illegal fishing in their waters by foreign vessels, and the dumping of toxic waste. No longer able to make a living out of fishing, they have joined ex-militia-men who have fought for the various clans for the past twenty years. As well, there are young, unemployed men looking for adventure and a living.

Foreign navies won’t manage to stop the piracy, according to local villagers. This will happen only when the country has an effective government that can defend their fishing rights. Then they would disarm and give their boats to that government, but to no-one else.

The Somali people have clung to their identity for centuries. Their present language dates back 1,500 years; they have a rich poetic and oral tradition. Surprisingly, their culture is one of reconciliation and mediation; war was used in the past to secure cattle, camels and land, and to assert rights. A strict code of war was followed: women, children and the aged were never to be harmed.

They also have a unique financial system, based on trust and honour, by-passing banks and other financial institutions. They are not shy newcomers on the block finding their way around. The past twenty years have been among the most violent in their long history.

The piracy business has made some people rich, especially negotiators, lawyers and security companies. The actual pirates, the foot soldiers, get about 30 per cent of the takings – the first one on board getting a double share. Ransoms are paid in cash, and the trickle-down effect is more tangible than the hollow promises of the free-market system and the international financial institutions. Families of pirates killed in action are given compensation. You could see this as honour among thieves, or basic justice.

And you could see the Somali pirate as Johnny Depp, Robin Hood and highwayman all rolled into one. Apart from the few humanitarian agencies still operating in the country, the inflow of arms, and the hospitality of neighbouring countries, themselves poor, Somalia is receiving almost no help from outside. The choices left open to the uneducated fisherman who has lost his livelihood but has a family to feed, or to the unemployed who have known only famine and war, are truly limited and anything but ideal.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.