Somalia: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t


South Africa has been asked and may have great difficulty avoiding deploying soldiers and sailors to Somalia.

French news agency AFP reports the African Union’s leadership at their Kampala meeting this week asked South Africa to deploy maritime forces (“warships”) to prevent al-Qaeda franchise al-Shabaab from importing weapons via Kismayo port for use against the United Nations-recognised Transitional Federal Government and some 6000 African Union (AU) troops. AFP added SA had said it is ready to do “everything it is asked from it” by the AU.

Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu yesterday indicated SA was being called to send both land and maritime forces. Speaking to a small group of reporters, she said she is stil to discuss the matter with President Jacob Zuma, who attended the AU meeting.

There are many good reasons to stay out of that troubled land but there are as many good reasons to get involved.

Should the government elect to involve us there we must bear in mind we are going to engage fanatics with a world view alien to our own. al-Shabaab is interested in taking, then keeping power and enforcing its fascist view of the world on the people of Somalia. This includes a backward place for women in society and a ban on music, television, which is seen as “unIslamic.” For this reason Somalis wanting to watch the World Cup were threatened with death – not idle words from a group that carries out public executions. These fanatics are not interested in negotiating their actions or compromising on their implementation. “Peace” for them means that their ever-expanding circle of opponents are either dead or subjugated.

This sets aside this prospective mission from SA’ involvement in Burundi, the DR Congo and even Darfur, where our presence is/was consensual and where the bulk of the parties at least said they were committed to peace. That will not be the case in Somalia. Our troops will draw fire and may have to return it. According to reports Uganda has to date lost 22 killed and 32 wounded since March 2007 and Burundi 29 killed and 17 wounded. We must ready ourselves for casualties. There could also be “blowback” domestically as demonstrated by the twin bomb attacks in Kampala earlier this month that killed over 70 World Cup revellers during the final match of the soccer spectacular.

We have often heard about “African solutions to African problems. So lets have some. Somalia has been a source of destabilisation since at least 1991 when the last government with any national claim was overthrown. But Somalia and Ethiopia have an even longer history of mutual aggression and destabilisation, a highlight of which was each supporting crossborder insurgencies and both invading the other in the 1970s.

The upshot is the country has been in a state of anarchy for close to 20 years. Its infrastructure and formal economy is destroyed. Refugees crowd Kenya – and even the Cape.

In Somalia millions of people continuously face the threat starvation from a harsh climate and the situation is made worse by pirates attacking relief ships at sea and bandits convoys on land. Insurgents have also threatened aid workers with death, a fate that befell a Kenyan doctor, a French logistics expert and a Somali driver working for the Dutch branch of aid agency Medicins Sans Frontieres in January 2008 when their vehicle was destroyed with a roadside bomb.

Piracy has become a strategic issue for the first time since the 17th Century. At least four ships carrying trade from SA have been attacked: The MV Panagia, bulk carrier taking coal from SA to Turkey was seized in October 2005. In late April last year pirates fired at the cruise ship MSC Melody and attempted to board the ship near the Seychelles. A security detail fought them off. The ship had departed Durban a week before carrying South African nationals. That same month pirates tried to capture the Liberian-registered Safmarine Asia. A French frigate intervened and thwarted the attack. Safmarine and its fleet had been SA-owned and SA-flagged until 1999 when it was sold to global shipping giant Maersk. In October pirates seized the Chinese bulk carrier De Xin Hai carrying about 76 000 tons of coal from South Africa to Mundra in India some 700 miles east of the Horn of Africa, a record at the time. Reports note a helicopter dropped US$4 million onto the ship in December to set her free. Pirates also delayed deployment of the Seacom submarine cable lining SA,India and Europe by three months and make its maintenance risky.

To date no South African ships have been attacked, but the likely reason is that SA now only has one cargo vessel, the SA Oranje, on its register. SA Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) CE Tsietsi Mokhele last March told the SA Navy’s 3rd Sea Power for Africa Symposium in Cape Town that SA in in the early 1990s had about 120 ships on register: about 60 Safmarine vessels and a similar number of Unicorn-line vessels. While successors to both still operate in SA waters, their ships now carry flags of convenience. Mokhele added that SA – and Africa – can never become maritime powers “so long as on the commercial side we don`t own commercial vessels.” Speaking to defenceWeb on the side of the conference, he said SAMSA had initiated a programme called “Project 300” in October 208 to argue for a 300 ship merchant fleet as a baseline figure. He avered this could create close to 250 000 jobs.

The SA Navy describes SA as one of the world’s top 12 sea trading nations with 50% of the nation’s GDP generated by sea fishery and maritime foreign trade: 80% of our imports and exports in monetary value and 95% in tonnage; much of this up the east coast of Africa or over the Indian Ocean. All of this is imperiled by continued Somali instability. Indeed, Reuters reported on March 1 that “Asian demand for South African coal will put more ships at risk from Somali pirates operating in the Indian Ocean and raise insurance and freight costs already hiked due to seaborne attacks.” One pirate who gave his name only as “Hassan” told Reuters that armed gangs can operate far out to sea and were able to dodge naval warships deployed to combat their activities. “If there are more coal ships coming, it is good news,” said Hassan, who was involved in a coal vessel hijacking last year. “A bulk ship means bulk ransom.” Companies involved in this seaborne coal trade said they have already had to swallow higher costs due to taking longer routes to avoid pirate hotspots and insurance premiums. This, of course, hikes the cost of SA coal relative to other suppliers and again imperils SA jobs and growth: “A senior shipper said piracy risk cover on a voyage from South Africa to India added $30 000 on top of the basic insurance cost. A further $40 000 to $50 000 had to be added for longer diversions aimed at avoiding pirates.”

A similar risk premium on development, job creation and growth may emerge on land should al-Shabaab repeat the Kampala outrage or even just remain at large in Somalia. We cannot afford that and therefore can no longer afford the present situation in Somalia.