April 12, 2012

Piracy (not again!) and the Kaifi Azmi option

Over the years, the lethargic and mechanical response to piracy has numbed all of us in shipping to a point when it appears that it every attack is just history repeating itself; our zombied Pavlovian reactions mirror the anaemic  actions that our Governments have taken- or, more accurately, not taken- over the years to come to terms with the scourge. Even so, it astonishes me that the industry seems incapable of analysing, predicting or anticipating where the excreta is going to hit the fan next. But perhaps I am being uncharitable; perhaps the industry simply does not care. Or perhaps I expect too much from an industry whose managers are- barring few exceptions- either bean counters, out of touch with reality or living in the Stone Age.

Some of us could see, three years ago, that the criminals in the Niger Delta would learn from those in the Horn of Africa (see The Niger Delta-the next Somalia? published here sometime in 2009), but the industry and governments were incapable of doing so. Today similar predictions are being made about Senegal, where European, Russian and Chinese owned trawlers are overfishing and decimating the livelihoods of thousands of locals. And, although I dispute the notion that overfishing was the prime reason for Somali piracy, my contention will not matter if criminals or terrorists take to boats off Senegal and target passing ships in the future, seeking justification or legitimacy for their crimes by using overfishing as a pretext.  There are already reports that one foreign trawler Captain was "beat around the balls" by local fishermen, who claim that their nets are being regularly destroyed and that catches have plummeted over the last decade due to overfishing.

Greenpeace says that there are many foreign 'super trawlers' operating off Senegal, including the largest one in the world. "This is overcapacity on an obscene scale. The European fleet is unfairly competing with local fishermen. It would take 56 traditional fishing pirogues (local canoes) one year to catch as much fish as one super-trawler can capture and process in a single day," it says. The organisation claims that "€142.7 million of European taxpayers’ money was paid to enable these vessels to fish Mauritanian and Moroccan waters between 2006 and 2012".

Which brings me to the R word.

Like it or not, Western racism (and I do not use the word lightly) has a lot to do with the tolerance-and consequent spread -of piracy. Whether it is overfishing off Africa (let the EU try this in Europe even for a day), making billions annually from the blood of mainly Asian mariner hostages of ignoring the torture and execution of these hostages, racism subtly and not so subtly drives the non-response to piracy. The recent condemnation of European and NATO forces that left 63 sub Saharan African migrants to die of thirst and hunger after drifting for two weeks in the Mediterranean last year only confirms my thinking. 

According to The Guardian, the report says it is "a dark day for Europe," and that this ghastly incident happened "even though their (refugee) boat had been located by European authorities and emergency distress calls had been issued to all other ships in the area". It claims that NATO, its warships, EU States-particularly Spain- and the Italians are to blame for the deaths. The report's author, Tineke Strik, said, "There is no doubt that if more evidence is gathered the question may arise about whether a crime has been committed here". 

I hope you are not going to ask me what this has to do with piracy and the protection of mainly Third World crews. (Pardon me for using the politically incorrect term, but at least I am not leaving nationals of 'developing countries' to die because I do not much care for their skin colour). This, my fellow Asian sailors, is part of the circus that says that it will protect you from pirates.

Meanwhile, India is playing its usual confusing game, capitulation one day, tough action the next. A report says that the Asphalt Venture Indian hostages (taken on Somali land after that ship was released last year, with one or two reported dead subsequently) will be swapped for Somali pirates held in Indian jails. On the flip side, the international community is all praise for Indian naval actions in driving away pirate mother boats from the coast last year, to the point where merchant ships are today hugging the Indian coastline in a 'safe corridor' created by these actions, giving rise, no doubt, to the Prabhu Daya and Enrica Lexie kind of incidents thanks to the massive increase in merchant traffic near the coast. 

"Ships would drive down the Indian coast if they had wheels," said a speaker at a conference (obviously held in Europe) last month. "No attacks off the Indian coast for more than a year," said the IMBs Pottengal Mukundan at that jamboree, adding that the Indian navy's action "does send the right message to pirates." In typical bureaucratese- he could have learnt this from the best of Indian babus- Mukundan added that "casualties have occurred on both sides" during those same naval actions, with both pirates and crewmembers killed. I presume he is talking of the reported indiscriminate shelling or raking by gunfire of mother ships- trawlers or dhows, usually- with crew and pirates jumping in the water or being shot or drowned or all of the above. 

I guess the 'right' message went out to mother ship crews as well. You are dispensable; you are collateral damage. We have been ordered to shoot to kill since the insurance companies have put the Indian coast in the war zone. We are trigger-happy; we don't give a rat's ass about any vessel or its crew. 

By the way, in case the naive reader believes that Somali piracy is well under control, listen to this: Risk mitigation company AKE  (although I haven't checked, I will bet my last soiled shirt that this will turn out to be a Western company) said last week, "More vessels were hijacked by Somali pirates in March (this year) than in any other month since late 2010", and that pirate activity is likely to increase, thanks to the weather, because the pirates will be encouraged by recent successes and because four of the hijacked vessels have been converted into mother ships. AKE says that attacks will also increase off Nigeria and Benin. (Run for your lives, crews of those converted mother ships. The 'right signals' from the international community are coming your way.)

The charade plays on. The world modifies tactics but continues to have no strategy in place to fight piracy. Somalia, Nigeria, Benin have no solutions, apparently- and do not forget the generally 'safer' pirates of South East Asia that have been around for decades. Where is the next hotspot? Senegal, as some are saying? Some troubled country in Latin America or Africa? The northeastern 'Maoist' coast of India?

The world does not even bother to hide the fact that it doesn't care about the safety of merchant ship crews anymore. Some countries have threatened to make illegal the payment of ransoms. Mukundan like statements are becoming more commonplace. Uncaring actions continue to speak louder than words. The hapless sailor is powerless in this game; He has little choice; all he can do is hope like hell he will not become the next hostage or the next casualty. 

Of course, he has a devil's alternative open to him. He can, if he wants instead, sit back at sea with a drink (and to hell with the D and A policy!) and quote Kaifi Azmi's urdu couplet philosophically:

"Belche laao, kholo zamin ki tahein   
Main kahaan dafan huun, kuchh pataa to chale"

(Bring out the spades; dig up the bowels of the earth.
Let us find out where I am buried, at least)


No comments: