Piracy threat

2009-04-17 00:00

TWENTY years ago an American official reputedly said that Somalia had ceased to exist; and that no one cared. They do now. The world’s oldest failed state is causing anarchy over a million square miles of Indian Ocean. Piracy, once just a historical curiosity, is on the rise.

It is now big business. Masterminded from the autonomous region of Puntland, it is well organised and equipped with the latest technology. Ransoms, according to one estimate, netted $80 million last year, over a dozen vessels may be held at a time, and hijack attempts average one a day. The pirates include technical experts, militiamen and fishermen who have lost their livelihoods.

The navies of 15 nations are now involved in trying to curb piracy. That they mean business is shown by the force recently used by the Americans and French. The International Law of the Sea tends to favour pirates, although the United Nations Security Council has authorised all necessary means to pursue them. Armed convoys seem one obvious defensive measure, but the ultimate solution lies on land.

For South Africa, the main strategic threat is to its trade. Both coasts of Africa are affected. Piracy infests waters from the Gulf of Aden to Mozambique, while the world’s second hot spot is the Gulf of Guinea. Hijacking has been factored into insurance premiums and this has had a general inflationary effect on freight charges.

While all shipping off the East African coast is at risk, vessels carrying food aid into Mombasa are of particular significance. The American captain dramatically rescued last weekend was from such a ship. Disruption to the supply of aid to Sudan and Ethiopia could have disastrous humanitarian consequences, worsen the refugee crisis and lead to further regional instability.

An increasingly violent maritime war is being conducted in seas of direct interest to South Africa. The fallout on the mainland threatens the stability of countries that already affect this country’s national security. The infamous arms deal that has dominated South African politics for a decade involved four corvettes and three submarines. Shouldn’t they be put to good use?

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