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Political Solution Is Needed To Horn Of Africa Piracy
19 December 2008
LIFE once more imitates art. Captain Jack Sparrow became a Hollywood idol after the success of the three Pirates of the Caribbean films. In real life, piracy has become the curse of maritime trade, especially around the Horn of Africa.
The cause of the anarchy at sea has been the chaos on land. Somalia is a failed state. This year has witnessed 100 pirate attacks in the region, the most famous the capture of the Saudi Aramco mega-tanker, the Sirius Star. The ship’s displacement is three times that of a US aircraft carrier, and it was hijacked 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa.
The average ransom demand has risen from $300000 last year to $3m this year. This is big money for one of the world’s poorest countries. Somalia, though, is not a state, and probably never will be again. Somaliland looks to secession and future international recognition. Puntland, the heartland of the Muslim buccaneers, has become a pirate state. The central government in Mogadishu is in its usual disarray, and the south of the country is controlled more or less by Islamist warlords.
In Puntland, piracy is a highly lucrative, socially acceptable, fashionable, lifestyle. The pirates have the best houses, prettiest women, and newest cars and guns. Among the pirates are former fishermen, who can argue with some justice that international fleets have robbed them of their livelihood by overfishing in unprotected national and international waters. So their argument that they are vigilante coastguards carries some weight, at least in Somalia. They have been joined by fighters from the clan warlords. The maritime skills are provided by the former, the military muscle by the latter.
The third operational component is the computer geeks, who operate the satellite phones, GPS equipment, etc.
The piracy is well-organised and, a rarity in Somali life, based on multi-clan co-operation.
The motivation initially was money. Then it became politicised. The Union of Islamic Courts, after being ousted from Mogadishu by the US-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006-07, began to deploy the pirates as the naval wing of their renewed insurgency.
The plunder from piracy is further corrupting the whole region. This booming business has also sucked in specialist western firms, former special forces who help conduct the ransom negotiations, which involve complex deals at sea, sometimes air-drops from Kenya, but sometimes co-ordinated by specialists in London.
Nato has diverted naval assets to the region, with little result. This month, in its first naval operation, the European Union sent out a task force of eight ships, commanded from London . Other countries, such as India and Russia, are independently patrolling. The French have been the most robust, taking the war to the pirates’ bases in one dramatic raid.
Foreign naval forces have acted because African navies are largely ineffective, with the marginal exceptions of Nigeria, SA and Egypt.
The Gulf of Aden has become the most dangerous — despite now being the most patrolled — maritime route in the world. The disruption has caused huge hikes in shipping costs, not least insurance premiums, in a market devastated by the world slump.
Very large crude carriers, such as the Sirius Star, are too big to transit the Suez Canal, but even the smaller vessels are now choosing the South African Cape route. The longer route adds nearly $1m for additional fuel, labour and the extra seven days’ transit time.
Although Washington has over-egged the Islamist threat and al-Qaeda links to the Somali crisis, the comparison with Afghanistan before 9/11 carries some weight. The state-sponsorship of terrorism and piracy is a growing threat.
Some naval experts have advocated strikes on the pirate bases, for example bombarding and occupying the port of Eyl, the main pirate base in Puntland. But the Law of the Sea Convention places limits on such daring action.
Recent United Nations resolutions have tried to enact new legislation for piracy in international waters, while antipiracy operations in Somali waters require the agreement of the ineffectual transitional government in Mogadishu. Short of declaring war, clearing out the pirates’ nests is not, yet, an option.
Maritime law also imposes restrictions on arming merchant vessels. Increasingly, however, former military experts are defending the big ships. More common measures are protected convoys through dangerous areas.
The lack of decisive naval action and the anarchy on land have allowed the pirates to launch bigger, bolder, and smarter attacks. Ethiopian troops are scheduled to pull out of Mogadishu shortly, and a beefed-up African Union (AU) force, currently 3400 troops from Burundi and Uganda, is supposed to hold the ring. A much bigger AU component won’t happen, nor will the AU’s request that a large UN peacekeeping replacement become a reality.
As ever, outside military action provides no long-term solutions to Africa’s gut-wrenching failure of governance. Africa’s problems have largely been tribal, but Somalia boasts one people, one language and one religion. Yet the collapse has been comprehensive. The multiple crises will not permit a single solution.
But first the old Organisation of African Unity shibboleth must be ditched. Somalia cannot be put together. Somaliland in the north has a functioning government but no recognition. The transitional government in Mogadishu enjoys recognition but doesn’t function. SA has warmed to the aspirations of Somaliland, so this could be a start to resolving Somalia.
Everyone looks to the new black US president to help. Barack Obama may indeed take a less ideological approach to the region’s multiple ills. The Union of Islamic Courts did bring a harsh semblance of governance and order, just as the Taliban once did in Afghanistan. The US could move to accept deals with both Islamic groups as part of a necessary wider political settlement.
As in the Balkans, a slew of new states may emerge: potentially fractious, yes, but surely better than the current anarchy. The skull-and-crossbones policy of the Somalis will wither, not because of western warships, but only through political engagement.
A settlement, based on partition, or federation, is possible. New governance, not gunboats, is the only way to banish the Somali clones of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Prof Moorcraft is the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, London. He recently convened an international conference in London on the crisis in the Horn.
Source: The Business Day