Geopolitics

Somalia piracy is extending to the East African coast
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 18 Feb , 2024

The concern

For quite some time, Somali pirates have been on the prowl in the waters off the East African coast, harassing commercial vessels or looting them at gunpoint. This has caused concern to the countries conducting trade through international waterways. India is one of the major countries that have extensive trade being conducted through the critical water channel through the west of the Indian Ocean.

Somali pirates have been threatening commercial shippingbecause of the ease of movement without detection. Since November 2023, suspected Somali pirates have renewed their attacks on ships moving off the east coast of Africa.

Risk

With the ramifications of the war in the Middle East, it appears that piracy along the critical commercial sea routes in the Pacific region has reactivated along the East African coast as they have not so far been made to face strong and overpowering resistance or counter-piracy deterrence. Indeed, they have met with little resistance in the past for their acts of international crime.

The area that falls within their sphere of notorious piracy reaches from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the adjoining region of the Indian Ocean. Since November 2023, no fewer than four ships have been hijacked off the Somalia coast. The matter of serious concern is that the Iran-supported Houthi rebels — who are fighting Israel by their support of Hamas — are said to be covertly supporting the Somali pirates active in the region too. If the collaboration between the two is a reality, which time will show, then the concerns are genuine and pose a challenge which not only India but all peace-loving countries wanting to conduct their commercial trade without hindrance have to formulate a common strategy to eliminate the threat of piracy in the region. Consequently, sea piracy should be dealt with on par with non-state actors of terrorism.

Implications

Increasing acts of piracy together with home governments not taking the development seriously or incapable of punitive action, call for international action against piracy. The purpose of countering piracy is not the show strength against the governments that are unable to control piracy but to curb the menace and ensure the security of commercial vessels criss-crossing oceanic channels. Some countries have instituted studies and research on the phenomenon of piracy and the recommendations of experts have also taken some solid steps to prevent the menace.

There is little doubt that the Houthi missile and rocket firing in the Red Sea in the context of ongoing Israeli–Hamas fighting has emboldened Somali piracy, really not linked to somereligious sentiment but for loot and plunder which are old practices with the pirate. It is to be noted that the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) originated in 1995en Nelson Mandela, the then President of South Africa, visited India. The IORA was formed in 1997 with 23 member states including India nd South Africa

The Middle East war has exposed a vast region to the risks of piracy. The area under threat is the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and Mediterranean. In the absence of a strong and unified naval action together with the induction of political elements to control and eradicate the threat of piracy, the shipping companies have adopted the tactics of avoiding the traditional water channels and diverting their ships around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of the African continent. Taking a longer route around Africa increases shipping costs and lengthens shipping time. This is detrimental to the world economy when the negative impact over a longer period is taken into account.

According to the UN’s trade and development agency, UNCTAD, the Suez Canal, which accounted for 12% to 15% of the total global trade in 2023, recorded a 42% decrease in ship traffic in December 2023 and January 2024.

The losses incurred globally owing to the Houthi missile threats on commercial vessels and Somali piracy are incredibly alarming. The global economy incurred a colossal loss at the peak of Somali piracy. The World Bank estimates that Somali pirates not only kidnapped seafarers but also received between US$339 million and US$413 million as ransom for hijacked ships between 2005 and 2012.

The shipping companies had to bear extra expenses not only by taking a longer sea route for their ships to reach their destination but also by engaging more security personnel, paying more compensation to the endangered crew and paying the enhanced insurance amount of the crew and the goods. One Earth Foundation, a nonprofit organization, estimated that US$7 billion was lost to Somali piracy at its peak in 2011.

Counter piracy – India

“The piracy uptick is a puzzle, not just for India but for nations and navies around the world,” said Abhijit Singh, a former naval officer and the current head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi.

The Indian Navy massively ramped up its deployment of large surface ships and aircraft to clamp down on pirates and backstop the otherwise busy Americans and British. India has increased its surface deployments from two ships to 12, all focused on that vulnerable stretch of the eastern Indian Ocean.

Finally, it is pertinent to cite the take from the Foreign Policy of 14 February which is as this, “Piracy scenario as stated by India, is free to focus on the uptick in piracy precisely because it has avoided getting entangled in the problems with the Houthis and the Red Sea—much like how China, which for years has had a small anti-piracy deployment active off Somalia, has refused to play any role in protecting shipping under Houthi attack. India, like China, is wary of alienating any Middle Eastern countries that are big sources of their energy requirements. But that still leaves a vital role for New Delhi to play.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

KN Pandita

Former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

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