Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Africa's leading role in Shipping Lane Insecurity

I wrote the following lines (in bold) on October 31, but published it elsewhere in error. The message is however still relevant especially in light of new developments off Africa's East coast.

In light of the ongoing MV Fania saga, attention is now being focused on the security of shipping lanes especially in the vital Gulf of Aden. A new report from Chatham House highlights some of the burning issues faced by the shipping trade and those concerned with securing the shipping lanes. Some serious attention need to be paid to this pertinent issue.

The new development is that a tanker (Sirius Star) carrying a quarter of the daily output from the world's leading oil exporter (Saudi Arabia) has been 'seized' by the Pirates of Somalia Inc.

Here's what will happen next:

1. There will be a renewed flurry of naval activity in this region now, even greater than when MV Fania's military cargo was hijacked.

2. The pirates will grow even bolder and might even attack and cause collateral damage to one of the vessels and crew.

3. The temptation for military intervention on Somalia will be too great to resist. the excuse will be the need to get rid of their operational bases.

4. The consequence will be an escalation of the unresolved Somalia conflict that has been raging since the overthrow of Siad Barre in the early 1990s. The Ethiopians are already talking of leaving Somalia after their short occupation/protection.

As Roger Middleton (the author of the said Chatham House report) aptly puts it in a commentary piece just out today, the prospect is for more instability all around.

"The ransoms keep rising – and for many young Somalis with few other prospects the thought of military intervention is little deterrent.
For shipping companies, the question will be the possible loss of cargo, ships, time, ransom money and the lives of crew versus the fuel costs of sailing around the Cape. It is not hard to see that the argument is shifting towards the longer route.
Egypt receives very large sums from ships passing through the Suez Canal and the loss of that revenue would be painful. Mombasa is the major port for bringing goods into East and Central Africa. If companies felt that sailing there could become too dangerous, the effects on the Kenyan economy and on East Africa could be disastrous."

What is now obvious is the leading role that both the west and east coasts of Africa are now playing as they rotate the title for World Piracy Hotspot among each other. It was only in May 2008 that AFP reported this bit of news:

"According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Nigeria accounted for 10 of the 49 attacks registered worldwide in the first quarter of 2008, more than 20 percent. It called Nigeria "the number one hotspot" for piracy.
It has taken over from Indonesia for the first time in 16 years of reporting."

In closing, while Nigeria and Somalia's governments are at varying stages of political instability, there is an important lesson to be learnt from the current handling of one to the other. The Nigerian situation needs a political solution and so does Somalia's. The military option has its place but it musn't be the only game in town.
The Nigerian military has been bogged down in the Niger Delta for over a decade and the piracy (or militancy as it is called) has only worsened as it draws in various elements who see the opportunity to profit from the chaos.