Piracy menace

2008-10-17 00:00

Failed states export failure — South Africans know this all too well from their northern neighbour. But none have done it so spectacularly as Somalia where a long-term absence of civil authority has spilled across the surrounding ocean, encouraging piracy. Dozens of incidents have been reported off the Horn of Africa this year alone.

In the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, high-seas hijacking is the main industry — the ransom raised far exceeds the local budget. Speedboats launched from mother ships carrying pirates using rocket-propelled grenades are backed up by well-organised and resourced gangs. There is evidence that piracy is linked to the transitional federal government in Mogadishu, indirectly implicating Ethiopia. A current high-profile case involves the Ukrainian vessel, MV Faina, transporting tanks and heavy weaponry. The hijackers have threatened to destroy themselves and the vessel, suggesting that extortion may not be the only motive involved.

After South East Asia, most piratical acts take place off the coast of Africa from Nigeria to Angola, and the Horn of Africa to Tanzania. One-third of the world’s oil passes through the Gulf of Aden and the epidemic of piracy is a direct threat to freedom of the seas, global trade and the use of the Suez Canal. The United Nations, in accordance with international law, has authorised the use of force and a Nato flotilla will soon be stationed off Somalia.

There is good reason to argue that one of South Africa’s newly commissioned frigates should join it. The arms deal has been contaminated by improper processes that surrounded the procurement process and this has unfortunately obscured debate about the country’s defence needs. Every year since 2001 there has been at least one act of attempted piracy close to home in the Mozambique Channel or near Madagascar: maritime anarchy is not just a faraway threat.

South Africa has a long coastline. Its security, and that of the economic exclusion zone, cannot be taken for granted; this makes the navy a key component of the nation’s defence force. Nor should the country’s obligations towards continental peacekeeping be forgotten. Viewed in this light, the loss of human resources from the South African National Defence Force and reported operational problems are matters for genuine concern.

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