Do we really need to patrol the Mozambique Channel?


Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has claimed that the reduction in piracy off Africa’s East coast is partly as a result of SA Navy patrols in the Mozambique Channel and that it is necessary to keep up these costly patrols in order to deter pirates.

However nice it may be to applaud the SA Navy for eliminating piracy in the Mozambique Channel, the stark truth may be that piracy has declined regardless of the South African Navy’s activities and that having Navy assets deployed round the clock in foreign waters is an unnecessarily expensive undertaking.

This is not the view of the Department of Defence, which has allocated money for the continuation of Operation Copper. Speaking to defenceWeb and other journalists at AFB Waterkloof in February, Mapisa-Nqakula said the reduction in piracy, “is as a result of our presence in the Mozambique Channel. Now they know they can’t go down that far,” she said. “The presence of the SANDF serves as a deterrent…if we go, the pirates may come back.”

The minister cautioned that piracy is growing in the Atlantic Ocean, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea and said South Africa should maintain a presence in the Mozambique Channel until global piracy shows a reduction.

Global piracy has in fact shown a reduction – a drastic one at that. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), last year only 15 incidents of piracy off the Somali coast were reported, down from 75 in 2012. The 15 incidents attributed to Somali pirates last year include two hijacked vessels, both of which were released within a day as a result of naval actions. These figures are the lowest since 2006 when 10 attacks were recorded off the Somali coast.

Internationally, there were 264 recorded attacks last year. This represents a 40% drop since Somali piracy peaked in 2011, with 237 incidents off the Horn of Africa alone.

There are several reasons for the drop in Somali piracy, notably the key role of international navies in patrolling waters off the Horn of Africa, hardening of merchant vessels, the use of private armed security teams and the stabilising influence of the central Somali government.

During the height of piracy in 2011, Somali pirates ventured far south and began attacking vessels in the waters between Africa and Madagascar. In December 2010 two vessels were attacked off Mozambique and a Mozambique-flagged fishing vessel was hijacked.

These incidents prompted South Africa in 2011 to establish Operation Copper to patrol the Mozambique Channel. Since then, frigates, offshore patrol vessels and maritime surveillance aircraft have been deployed to Mozambican waters.

In spite of all this activity, South African National Defence Force (SANDF) assets have only assisted in the capture of a single pirate action group (PAG) since Copper began. In April 2012 the SAS Drakensberg acted as a stopper for European Union Naval Force assets chasing the hijacked fishing vessel Nimesha Duwa. Drakensberg pursued the pirates along the Tanzanian coast where a Spanish warship apprehended seven suspected pirates and liberated the Sri Lankan crew.

Given the very few encounters with pirates in the Mozambique Channel, the question that should be posed to the Minister is: is it worth the cost? For the 2013/14 period, some R585 million was allocated for anti-piracy operations as part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Maritime Security Strategy. Operation Copper cost R150 million in 2011 and 2012, according to a written parliamentary reply.

This is money that is sorely needed to protect the land borders of South Africa, which see thousands of illegal immigrants cross every year, hundreds of rhino poachers skirting back and forth and millions of rands of contraband making their way into the country.

It seems like overkill to have frigates patrolling Mozambican waters in the absence of a clear threat. Perhaps it is sufficient for the SANDF to keep a maritime surveillance aircraft on station in Pemba to respond to emergencies. Another alternative is to let Tanzania and Mozambique start footing the bill for Op Copper patrols, or start contributing their own vessels. In 2015 Mozambique will receive six patrol vessels that can take over from South African assets – perhaps this is a date by which South Africa should halt Copper if the drop in piracy continues.