Letter to Uncle Sam
One or two weeks ago, folks here were told that a cargo ship bound for Mauritius had to take a different sea route to avoid getting trapped into the notorious piracy activities off the coast of Somalia. Piracy along this sea route is well documented in view of its phenomenal success in capturing ships and crews since quite some time.
Now, Uncle, have you heard Wall Street, or for that matter the CEOs of big multinationals making any forceful call to the international community for swift action to keep Somalian pirates at bay? Have you heard any rich and powerful participant at the recent Davos meeting in icy Switzerland making any forceful attempt to raise the issue to attract attention? Have the G20 or G7 taken any decision to act against pirates and if so was such decision followed by meaningful action?
To tell you honestly, Uncle, I am just flabbergasted by the powerlessness of the international community to tackle head-on these pirates who engage in acts of robbery and criminal violence at sea in this day and age. The deployment of surveillance forces by a few countries has proved ineffectual so far to guard the international waters off Somalia. In recent days, some pirates have once again succeeded in capturing cargo ships and crews and negotiate huge sums as ransom money.
What is in fact the crude reality? First, the problem of Somalia — a lawless country where warlords dictate the rules of the game. This country has never had any government worthy of the name for almost two decades. What’s in place is an assembly of disparate warlords and their sponsors, who will come together on and off to discuss unity and governance, but it does not take long for all this to turn out like a mime show.
In recent years, the warlords have invented what looks like a very lucrative business: piracy. Presumably, they operate from places in and around Mogadishu; their activities consist in sponsoring groups of pirates that operate along the seashore. The latter go out to sea when they are sure any fishing expedition is worth the trip. So much so that these Somali pirates have been able to establish themselves as the sole authority monitoring ships’ movements in international seawaters. Today, they represent an undeniable threat to international shipping off the coast of Somalia.
The other fact relates to the response of the international community. Europe, NATO and a few other countries have tried to kickstart a diplomatic and political dialogue on the issue. The timid response that followed and the surveillance system put in place fall below our serious expectations. Few countries have independently tried to escort their cargo ships while they navigate in seawaters off Somalia.
Again, Uncle, and am sorry to put it bluntly, but that’s exactly where we are. Just think about it: a few pirates, armed with just a few second-hand Kalashnikovs, driven in a few old engine boats, using hand-held GPS navigation devices to position themselves in the wide expanses of the ocean, are succeeding to take hostage international shipping in the entire Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean from Aden to Mauritius and Mombassa to the Maldives with complete immunity! Many countries in this region, most particularly small island nations like Seychelles and Mauritius, are helpless to face the growing threat posed by Somalian piracy and the growing costs to business.
The other truth is that till now these acts of piracy do not represent a direct or any very serious threat to US vital interests as far as trade and commerce is concerned. Not so much to Europe, it seems, despite its politico-diplomatic initiative to engage talks on the issue. Had this been so, we are sure the US would not only have taken the lead but would have mounted the response this threat situation requires.
In your speech to the American people on Monday, Uncle, you did mention the role of the US in “maintaining the flow of commerce”, without at all referring to any specific region. You added: “These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help…”
Uncle, folks here strongly believe that the international community cannot sit back to entertain the world with words and seminars and allow Somalian piracy to prosper against the interests of the whole region.
By the way, the most sophisticated US military base in Africa is in Diego Garcia, owned in all sovereignty by Mauritius, just a couple of hours’ flight to Somalia and its neighbourhood.
If the US and the international community had the political will to embrace an efficient response to keep Somalian pirates on the beach, this could have been done within days. On other issues, actions were swift and result oriented and no need here to rehearse any recent example. On Monday, Uncle, you rehearsed but in your own words the American military doctrine – “I made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively, and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies and our core interests…” The key word is “unilaterally”.
To end, folks here do admit that there is a cost to policing international seawaters off Somalia. And folks also agree that these costs can’t be met by American taxpayers alone. What do you think if the international community takes the initiative to devise the necessary mechanism to impose a tax on value of cargo transhipped through this region and be used to finance the policing of the sea off Somalia? Instead of a status quo wherein consumers in the region pay extra costs charged by shipping multinationals and this money goes straight into their pockets…without them offering any security service at all!
* Published in print edition on 1 April 2011