South Africa’s willingness to deploy naval forces to fight the growing epidemic of piracy off the Horn of Africa remains uncertain with defence department and presidency referring queries to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), who are not giving a clear answer.
Rear Admiral Rusty Higgs, the SA Navy`s Flag Officer Fleet – the sea service`s senior operational commander – on Monday said the “Navy will do everything in its powers to defend the waters of Africa.”
He was answering questions on his service`s participation in anti-piracy operations with US naval forces off Somalia during a media conference aboard the Aegis cruiser USS Monterey, then alongside in Cape Town.
Higgs said the navy’s war fighting capabilities had shown that South Africa could and would, when required, be able to play a significant role in such operations. “These roles could, among other things, include the escorting of ships through dangerous waters,” he was quoted as saying in the Pretoria News.
“Our force preparation has prepared us to be deployed whenever and wherever we are needed. We are more than ready for any task and are able, by world naval standards, to achieve the objectives,” he added.
Higgs has under command four Meko A200SAN frigates, three Type 209SAN submarines and an assortment of other patrol vessels that could assist in executing United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1816(2008) adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, provides for combating the threat of piracy emanating from Somali territorial waters. He may also soon get up to ten new offshore patrol vessels and at least one strategic support ship that can support long-range deployments.
But to set sail would require orders from the Presidency.
Rear Admiral (retired) Steve Stead, now with the Brenthurst Foundation that promotes peace-building and development, says the absence of that order is surprising.
“What is of concern is that the anti-piracy patrols and constabulary actions are being undertaken by ships from the US Navy, those of the NATO navies and now there is a Russian warship on passage,” Stead says.
“Surely Africa should be making some contribution,” he adds.
Speaking at the same press conference as Higgs, US Navy Admiral Mark Fitzgerald said piracy, illegal fishing, and “oil bunkering” (the theft of oil) was costing Africa “near a US$1-billion a year.”
The DFA says Resolution 1816, adopted by the UNSC on 2 June 2008 authorises foreign countries to “enter the territorial waters of Somalia for the purpose of repressing acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea”, with the consent of the government of Somalia.
“When negotiating and agreeing to the resolution, SA was guided by the fact that the resolution limits itself to the situation in Somalia,” the department says.
“SA made it clear that it is the situation in Somalia that constitute a threat to international peace and security and not piracy on itself.
“Piracy is a symptom of the Somalia situation.”
The DFA further adds that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “still remains the basis for cooperation between states on the issue of piracy” and that the UNSC and Resolution 1816 “must respect” this.
“Most importantly, the Council should not lose not lose sight of the bigger issue in Somalia, specifically the need to address the political, security and humanitarian situation on the ground.”
Commentators say UNCLOS is primarily concerned with the safe use and transit of the seas; and making the waters around Somalia safe for shipping is in no way in contradiction of this. They add that some are interpreting SA`s lack of action on piracy as a leverage to force action on Somalia, where an African Union peacekeeping force is withering for want of support.
Successfully containing piracy without resolving the chaos that is Somalia that has not had an effective government since 1991 will again consign the country to the global backburner where it has languished since the departure of a US-led UN humanitarian mission in March 1995 in the face of local resistance.
He adds statistics going back into the 90s recount the number of attacks on commercial and pleasure vessels in the area. ”What is very evident is that the number of attacks increases every year, the methods of attack become more professional and the equipment used more sophisticated.”
“According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) there were 263 pirate attacks worldwide in 2007; up by 10% on the previous year. Assaults are becoming more violent with 64 crew members being injured compared with 17 in 2006.”
The International Herald Tribune says there has been more than 25 hijackings for ransom off Somalia this year, with payments averaging between one and two million US dollars.
Stead explains that recent attacks involve larger ships, more valuable cargoes and a capacity to operate out to 150 miles from the coast which is clear evidence of increasing sophistication. There have been instances of pirates using “mother ships” to launch small boats against targets.
“In fact, the Japanese tanker Takayama , was attacked 275 miles east of Aden and 90 miles [south of] the port of Mukalla (also in Yemen, marked with “A” on accompanying map),” Stead says.
“The most recent cargo, because that remains the objective of the attacks, is tanks – not the sort of equipment African states would like to see going to potentially hostile neighbours,” Stead says in reference to the seizure of a Ukrainian ship bearing arms to Kenya. Nairobi says the MV Faina is carrying 33 T-72 tanks, 150 grenade launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and ammunition.
Stead charges that the inability of African governments to provide adequate protection and security of passage through their regional waters has allowed the scourge of sea crime to escalate to a level that the UN has sanctioned offensive action by warships of UN member nations within the territorial waters of a sovereign state.
“The excuse that a maritime capability is unaffordable for African states is only partially true,” says Stead. “SA … could make a valuable contribution. Arguments claiming that the distance is too great and would leave too short a time on station are misleading – an agreement can be reached with CTF-150 to refuel and resupply in Djibouti.” Crews could also be rotated there.
Such cooperation, says Stead, which could also involve the Kenyan and Egyptian navies, “would additionally provide an opportunity to operate with coalition forces and contribute to the international status of South Africa and cast the continent in a more favourable light.”
There is a likelihood the situation may deteriorate further. As a result of the Faina incident, both the US and Europe, most notably France, are threatening direct action against the pirates and their land bases. UPDATE: Defence minister Charles Nqakula has since the publication of this feature announced that the piracy question has been discussed in Cabinet. He noted that a six month Canadian mission to escort World Food Programme (WFP) ships in Somali waters lapsed at the end of September. WFP ships have in the past frequently been targeted by pirates. Nqakula added that SA had been asked to take over the task.