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Piracy in Southern Africa

20 January, 2011

Pirates have reached the Southern African seas. The European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR) documents two confirmed cases of piracy off the Southern African coastline. The first is a Taiwanese fishing vessel that went missing on the 25th of December 2010 northeast of Madagascar. The second is a Mozambican fishing vessel that was reported missing between Mozambique and Madagascar and which was subsequently spotted being towed by a pirate skiff northwards towards the Comoros.

In addition to the confirmed cases, news media reported two failed attacks by pirates close to the port of Beira in Mozambique on the 24th and 25th of December 2010. While these are the attacks and attempted attacks that we can verify, it is not possible to ascertain how many attacks remain unreported.

The implication for Southern Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is clear: the pirate threat is no longer a theoretical possibility, it has become a reality.

The incentive for the pirates to travel further from their normal area of operations may be found in the geography of the region. The Mozambique Channel that separates Madagascar and Mozambique forms a natural corridor; it reduces the number of routes vessels can follow and restricts their manoeuvrability. This in turn increases the piratesí chances of successfully capturing lucrative prey.

Secondly, Southern African waters are increasingly becoming an attractive alternative to Somali pirates who realised that there is worthwhile prey waiting to be exploited. The prey consists of numerous recreational and commercial vessels. These unarmed vessels either travel to tourist destinations in the Seychelles, the Comoros, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa, or to fishing grounds close to the Mozambique Channel. It is also becoming an alternative route for companies wishing to avoid the pirate infested route around the horn of Africa by taking the longer and more hazardous route via the Cape of Good Hope.

An additional benefit, to the pirates, is that this area does not fall within the region normally patrolled by the international anti-pirate forces. Naval resources are extremely limited in Southern Africa and South Africa, the country with the largest naval capability, has a fleet that is effectively grounded due to financial constraints. The South Africa navy and itís counterparts in SADC might be able to do short tours in the Mozambique channel for a limited time, but the continuous monitoring of the channel will not be possible within current resource and personnel allocations.

The naval situation is dire but understandable; historically there has been no reason to acquire frigates or other large naval vessels to protect Southern African oceans, with South Africa being the exception to the rule. There were no seaborne threat to countriesí sovereignty and thus no incentive to spend limited resources on a navy that would almost never be deployed in any meaningful way. Some countries realised that they needed to protect their territorial fishing grounds and subsequently invested in small vessels that would cover distances quickly based on information supplied by airborne assets. These vessels however do not have the capability of extended patrols and are limited in their range.

The perception of landlocked countries in Southern Africa that piracy is of no concern to them; also needs to change. Simply because a country is landlocked does not mean they are safe from the impact of piracy. The ripple effect will impact on them as much, if not more than coastal countries. For instance a country may decide to invest in several large naval vessels to protect its territorial waters and the shipping lanes therein from pirate attacks. This action would benefit both the country and the landlocked countriesí harbourís service. Affected countries will be able to continue exporting their natural resources and manufactured goods while the supply of imported goods and energy resources would continue uninterrupted. The financing of the vessels will however have to be realised from somewhere; the most likely source being from increased customs duties and taxes on goods landed safely in the countriesí ports as well as taxes on exports. The same would apply in cases where countries cannot wait for the ships to be built and increases the number of their airborne platforms to include land based maritime aircraft to patrol their territorial waters.

The fight against piracy will increasingly impact the whole world as the pirates grow bolder and our shipping routes come increasingly under attack. The current SADC score card in its fight against piracy reads as follows:

* Pirates: two successful attacks.
* Ship Masters: two successful escapes from attacks due to superior speed and good practices.
* SADC naval response: zero.

This has to change if Southern Africa is to maintain its growth path and succeed in its continued struggle to feed its growing population.

Written by Ben Coetzee, Senior Researcher, Arms Management Programme, Institute for Security Studies Pretoria

Edited by: Institute for Security Studies.

Source : Polity.org

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