The Dutch air defence and command frigate De Zeven Provincien (F802) is now in Somali waters, escorting World Food Programme (WFP) ships in that benighted country’s littoral.
WFP ships have for the last six months been escorted by a Canadian frigate after becoming a favourite target of pirates. Ships at sea are easy targets. They are large with small crews and carry valuable cargo. The latter can be sold for profit and the former can be ransomed for further reward. Shipping companies tend to pay up and ask no questions. Piracy is a high reward, low risk business.
Some weeks ago new defence minister Charles Nqakula said Cabinet had discussed piracy and a request to replace the Canadian ship with a SA vessel when her tour of duty ends, which it now has. To date nothing further has been heard on the subject.
The Dutch have in the meantime sent one of their best frigates, while a NATO and EU squadron is on its way to secure the seas and Somali waters, if need be. France last week arrested a group of pirates and destroyed their vessel. Piracy may no longer be that risk free – except ashore.
Other than Nqakula`s clearly off-the-cuff remarks to SABC news, there`s not been a peep on the subject from either Pretoria or the African Union in Addis Ababa. This masterly inactivity, to take a term from Yes, Minister, is strange and certainly runs counter to the oft-repeated mantra of African solutions to African problems.
Talk the walk
A retired general once remarked to me that “the problem with us is we talk the talk and then we talk the walk”. On this issue we are not even at talking stage yet.
Helmoed-Römer Heitman writes in yesterday`s Independent group newspapers that “African leaders like to complain that they are not taken seriously by the major powers, and it is true that they are not. However, the failure of Africa to respond in any way at all to the piracy problem in Somali waters is a very good example of why they are not taken seriously: Africa all too often does nothing to help itself, let alone others.”
Some cynics have suggested Africa`s inaction is the result of schadefreude, the ships belong to the “rich North”, the passing trade profits the continent not and the high-seas robbery is some form of “anti-imperialist tax”.
I refuse to believe that. Many of the crews held hostage and some of the sailors that have been murdered are from fellow “south” countries such as the Philippines and India. Furthermore, many of the cargoes, especially those carried for the WFP are for the benefit of Africans.
Equally cynical is the view that piracy actually benefits SA in that it is driving up maritime insurance which is diverting traffic from the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea/Suez Canal to the only other route between Asia and Europe: that past our shores.
Cutting of one`s nose to spite one`s face is not a useful implementation of the African Agenda. Our inaction makes our promises ring hollow – and it is not like we are powerless to address the problem. To be sure, the Department of Foreign Affairs has a point when it argues – as it did on these pages – that piracy is a symptom of the problem, not the actual malady. That, they argue, is the ongoing state failure in Somalia. If addressed, the argument goes, piracy will disappear.
The symptom has a body count
The problem is that Somalia`s symptom has a body count. A further trouble is that state success cannot be imposed. It requires national will and a willingness of the people concerned to subjugate themselves to an authority they may not necessarily like. If Somalia is ready for this type of commitment it hides it well. In addition, the country has a somewhat unfortunate tradition of biting the hand that attempts to feed it. Literally taken, this applies to stealing from the WFP. More figuratively – but more deadly – it refers to the propensity of various clans and warlords to attack outside help: the UN in the 1990s, Ugandan and Burundian AU peacekeepers as you read this.
How does one help a country like that? One doesn`t, which is likely why everyone is skirting the issue.
Meanwhile, it is in Africa`s interest to find an African solution to this African problem. If not, others may impose one. It is not as if we are powerless. Several African states have the capacity to secure the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters, including SA, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Saudi Arabia, Oman, several Arab/Persian Gulf states and even Iran could perhaps also be persuaded to join.
Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran as oil exporters have a direct interest here, as does Egypt as owner of the Suez Canal. Heitman notes they earn $500 million a month from the canal, about 5% of their total economic income. “Yet Egypt does not appear to have so much considered deploying ships or aircraft to assist in countering the piracy in the very sea lane that leads to its Suez Canal.”
Nqakula`s comments created a real hope that SA`s African Agenda would add another line item next to the about 2400 troops currently deployed in Darfur, the DRC and Burundi. To an extent the deployments have always been incongruous: The DFA`s 1999 White Paper on SA Participation in International Peace Missions and policy pronouncements since, not least regarding the SADC Brigade, have always emphasised that this country would volunteer scarcity rather than plenty, in other words, those skills and resources our neighbours lack. Typically this should mean aircraft, engineers, signallers, and, yes, ships, rather than infantry – but then even they are scarcer than many think: but that`s another story.
The SA Navy`s Project Sitron frigates are eminently suitable to the task of helping the WFP help Somalia, in terms of reach at least. Using these sophisticated ships to protect against pirates on motorboats and trawlers will be expensive to be sure, but then what value do we place on a human life? Are we dedicated to the African Agenda or is it just a talking point?
The Project Biro, Millennium and Xena vessels will be more suitable to containing crime at sea, being smaller in size and crew; they will also be less costly to run.
But these ships are still someway off. In the meantime, our warships are mostly in port and the Europeans are doing our work for us. This is disappointing.