May 27, 2010

The well-known road to perdition.

Readers may also find ‘The Niger Delta, the next Somalia?” interesting – published in the same column ten months ago, in July 2009

History, as Marx would say, is repeating itself. It is now tragedy. Soon it will be farce.

About a week ago, five armed men in a speedboat boarded, ransacked and beat up all the crew on board a ship at anchor in Apapa, Nigeria, in the Gulf of Guinea. Five Chinese crewmembers were hospitalised, including the Master- shot in the leg, and a company representative, shot in the chest.

In unrelated back-to-back incidents next door in Cameroon, the Master and Chief Engineer of a Russian cargo ship are missing after an armed attack on the “North Spirit’ in the port of Douala. Also missing in the second attack in Doula is the Lithuanian Captain of the ‘Argo’. The armed men have simply taken the three away.

Cameroon has blamed piracy for its drop in oil production last year. Countries in Africa's oil-producing Gulf of Guinea say the threat of piracy is spreading, and is moving south. I will not even begin to dignify the argument of those that will say that these incidents are not high seas piracy but armed attacks within port limits; these semantics may be important to insurance companies but have little meaning to those mariners who are at the wrong end of an assault rifle.

In response to all this, the matrix is being reloaded once again. Foreign navies are ‘helping’ the local authorities in this troubled and increasingly violent region that has seen hundreds of foreign workers kidnapped over the years. The British Chamber of Shipping President is now saying that West Africa needs an anti-piracy centre similar to the one that covers the Eastern part of the continent. Meanwhile, a global coalition of organisations, including BIMCO, Intertanko, the ICS, ITF and P&I clubs, is getting together to demand greater action against piracy off Somalia; I wonder when they will add the Gulf of Guinea to their list. It all reminds me of Somalia, when I was witness to identical first steps being taken by foreign navies and governments when piracy there, shall we say, first flowered and then started to bloom.

It seems we are going down the same lethargic- and ultimately impotent- road to perdition as we have done in the Somali theatre. It is madness, therefore, to expect different results this time.

The biggest fallacy in fighting piracy is the one that continues to treat it as a criminal issue that will be solved by simply increasing policing and (this is hilarious) training crews. It is not. Piracy is a well-organised industry with murky links to parts of the Middle East, Europe and perhaps even Canada, judging by recent reports. It has links to extremist groups. It merges with political movements or militant organisations in some parts of the world, including in the Niger Delta, and it therefore demands political solutions concurrent with military ones. Besides, Somalia has proved beyond any doubt that policing even one ocean is impossible, leave alone two or three.

It is naive to expect that the success of the Somali pirates will not be emulated by others across the world, given the opportunity. It is a foregone conclusion, in my mind at least, that unless existing piracy is aggressively put down both on land and sea, any half baked sailor with a RPG, a boat, some khat and a large enough beef will be wondering how best to put all of them to good use; Africa, for a start, has enough corrupt and unstable governments, illegal arms, porous borders and rich resources that make the export- or should I say globalisation- of piracy an eminently workable proposition. I bet many criminal or terrorist groups across the world are compiling manuals on best piracy practices while the rest of the world is twiddling its thumbs.

Criminals at sea are a threat not just to the safety of crews but also to the security of nations. India, after the Mumbai attacks recently and long ago (the smuggling in of RDX by boat in the early nineties used in bombings across the same city) is no stranger to that fact. To me, therefore, all maritime criminal activity- including piracy and the smuggling of material, refugees or illegal immigrants, a universal phenomenon- is a potentially huge threat to border States.

It belies belief that the nations of the world- who are absolutely dependant on maritime trade- refuse to act effectively to stop piracy. This industry could do well to remind governments of the criticality of shipping. And for Heaven’s sakes, while they are at it, get them to make a mechanism to prosecute captured pirates!

We need to stop making seafarers guinea pigs again, this time in the Gulf of Guinea. The first step is to recognise that the old routines are not working and to come up with new comprehensive and workable ideas. The threat is widening and deepening, and it has the seeds within it to conflagrate at any hot spot around the world. The time for old-hat anti-piracy tactics is long past. What we need, instead, is a concerted global strategy. We also need more action and less smoke.