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Building African Partnerships to Defeat Piracy

Author: Michael L. Baker
June 23, 2010

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For nearly two years, international navies have policed the waters off Somalia to try to stamp out piracy. More than thirty vessels are deployed across the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden under a wide range of banners, including NATO, U.S., European Union, and Chinese. Yet despite the size and sophistication of these international task forces, Somali pirates continue to expand operations.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, in the first half of 2010, Somali pirates have attacked ninety-one ships and taken control of twenty, and are getting closer to India's coastline. So while the number of attacks appear to be lower than last year (217 attacks and 47 successful hijackings for the whole of 2009), Somali piracy continues to represent a substantial threat to commercial shipping. The international community needs a new, more strategic approach to countering piracy based on building partnerships and trust with Africans both at sea and onshore.

The Somali Problem and African Sentiment

Many commentators have noted that piracy is part of a greater problem--namely, the lack of a Somali state--and can only be solved by improving both governance and living conditions for Somalia's public. To achieve that the international community needs credible partners within Somalia. Yet the United States is reluctant to work with many Somali groups and has focused its efforts on bolstering Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG). This endeavor has borne little fruit to date and is not likely to be useful when it comes to countering piracy, since the TFG has virtually no ability to change conditions in the northern autonomous region of Puntland.

Some Somalis in Puntland still stand to gain from the trickle-down effects of pirate wealth. It is also not unusual to hear Somalis talk about the negative effects of illegal foreign fishing or the dumping of waste off their coastline, causing them to view pirates as a champion of sorts. So long as these attitudes persist among average Somalis, it will be extremely difficult to stop piracy.

If the international community is going to be successful in its fight against piracy, it will therefore have to change the opinion of Somalis in Puntland by taking measures to build trust with the public and incorporate them as viable stakeholders in maritime governance and security to counter illegal fishing, dumping, and piracy.

The situation calls for a long-term, multifaceted approach at sea and onshore that establishes trust, protects and builds markets, and enforces laws (both national and international).

The African Union and several of its member states have publicly spurned piracy and have signed a code of conduct to repress piracy, commonly referred to as the "Djibouti Code of Conduct" (PDF). But only Kenya and the Seychelles have taken any notable action--by agreeing to receive and try captured pirates--and Africans are conspicuously absent from the joint patrols. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, some African bureaucrats and leaders decry piracy as an outside problem plaguing the rest of the world but not Africa. They claim that the international community expects Africa to solve piracy while those same actors turn a blind eye toward illegal fishing and dumping.

Global actors should respond to such sentiment by expanding their activities in areas where Africans have high interests and work on long-term approaches to improve African participation in the maritime domain writ large. They should use a robust partnership with Africans at sea to improve partnerships ashore and get at the core problem of the failed Somali state. And they should ensure that their African counterparts understand the real impact that piracy has on African citizens.

Piracy's Impact on Africa

For starters, Africans who believe that piracy is primarily a problem for Westerners are misguided. The costs of piracy are passed on to consumers (including the poorest consumers: Africans) as shipping companies recoup the majority of their losses through their protection and indemnity clauses, and insurance companies recoup their losses through increased rates and policies. Recent reporting also indicates that pirates are attacking ships carrying food items to Somalia, causing shortages and increased prices for staple items like rice and flour. World leaders should be sure that their African interlocutors clearly grasp these realities.

The situation calls for a long-term, multifaceted approach at sea and onshore that establishes trust, protects and builds markets, and enforces laws (both national and international). The international task forces in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean can play a strategic role in each of those three areas to change conditions on the ground in Somalia, but they have to change the nature of their partnerships and expand their mandates. Fortunately, there are good examples in West and South Africa.

The Promise of Maritime Partnerships

In March 2009, in the inaugural Southern Africa Joint Patrols, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, and Tanzania conducted combined patrols in the Indian Ocean on board the Sarah Baartman, a South African environmental protection ship. During the one-month operation, the team inspected forty-one vessels, levying ten fines and arresting six ships for violations of national maritime laws. The highlight of the operation was the seizure of one vessel in Tanzania waters with over 300 tons of illegal tuna on board.

In June 2008, the United States Africa Command and Cape Verde's government initiated the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP). This operation puts African maritime boarding teams and police on board U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Navy vessels to enforce African maritime law. AMLEP offers an operational platform for small African maritime forces, enabling them to extend their reach throughout their territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zones. To date, AMLEP operations have focused on combating illegal fishing and countering illegal trafficking in West Africa. The last two operations resulted in five seizures of vessels illegally fishing in Sierra Leone's waters.

Operations like the Southern Africa Joint Patrols--so far a one-time action--and AMLEP build trust through combining maritime law enforcement personnel from different countries on one vessel and operating at sea for extended periods of time. By conducting routine inspections of commercial and private ships, they achieve three distinct but interrelated goals: 1) build or enhance the capacity of African maritime law enforcement or security forces; 2) enforce regulations that support free and fair maritime markets; 3) seek and address the full range of maritime crime (drug-trafficking, smuggling, illegal fishing, illegal migration, and piracy).

A More Strategic Approach

The various task forces in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean should put African seamen and boarding teams on their vessels to build partnerships, trust, and African capacity; and they should address the full range of illegal maritime activity in those waters.

Rather than simply reacting to Somali piracy, states should work to address the problems of governance both at sea and ashore through partnerships with Africans. The various naval task forces should put African seamen and boarding teams on their vessels to build partnerships, trust, and African capacity; and they should address the full range of illegal maritime activity in those waters. Existing models in South and West Africa prove that it is not difficult to take these steps. Such actions will deflate Somali claims that foreign powers only care about their own shipping interests while tacitly condoning the theft of Somali fish. Simultaneously, this approach will build African capacity to conduct similar missions in the future.

Furthermore, naval partnerships with African states would play an important role in reviving and improving the Somali fishing industry, a vital source of jobs and wealth. Such an approach would provide the international community an important strategic message that could eventually open doors with new partners ashore capable of returning law and order to Somalia as a whole and more likely to end Somali piracy in the long run.

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