Durban: The chief of the South African Navy says that southern Africa is safe from the threat of piracy, but that Southern African Development Community navies are hampered by a lack of warships. Vice Admiral Refiloe J Mudimu was speaking yesterday at the SADC’s 18 Standing Maritime Committee conference in Durban yesterday, which aims to secure the region’s maritime interests. The heads of SADC member nations were present for the conference.
“The region is very safe,” Mudimu said. “The members of the navies and coast guards of the regions are ready to protect the territorial sovereignty of SADC countries.”
The issue of piracy unsurprisingly dominated the discussion of maritime threats yesterday. “One of the fundamental issues is the issue of piracy, primarily in Somalia and Kenya,” Mudimu said. “Even if piracy is an old issue it has never affected the region as it does now”.
Piracy has “cost us a lot of economic hardship,” especially as 80% of economic trade in South Africa is conducted through the sea, Mudimu said. “The presence of pirates has a negative economic impact and impacts outside trade.”
After the Vega 5 fishing vessel was hijacked in the Mozambique Channel on December 28, 2010, South Africa went to Mozambique’s assistance by sending the SAS Amatola to patrol the region. The SAS Isandlwana is currently patrolling the Channel as part of Operation Copper. Funds have been made available to continue this operation.
In addition, South Africa is attempting to build up the Mozambican navy by providing training. Mudimu said that there are currently Mozambican personnel training in South Africa.
“The region is prepared…the people are ready, committed. The only shortcoming is the lack of assets,” he said. “The main weakness of the region is the ability to have ships at sea.”
Mudimu said that there is a great need to build and support local vessels, especially when some navies in the region lack assets. He added that there are many benefits to building ships locally (such as cost) and that Durban and Simonstown have the capacity to build and support offshore patrol vessels.
While Mudimu mentioned the need for patrol vessels, he said that support ships are “very important” especially when sending supplies to forward bases. He noted that the SA Navy is looking into forward basing of a Xena camp in Pemba or Nakala. Xena camps are designed to equip, house and maintain the Navy’s Maritime Reaction Squadron in the field.
“The continent has sufficient resources to build its strength,” Mudimu said.
He noted the success of two recent SADC exercises. Eight SADC countries participated in Exercise Good Tidings on Lake Malawi in September last year while in October a search and rescue exercise was held off Tanzania, together with the navies of Kenya and Mozambique. Mudimu said that three South African Navy vessels participated, including the SAS Drakensberg, SAS Mendi and SAS Charlotte Maxeke. Tanzanian forces arrested seven pirates during the operation.
Mudimu said the Standing Maritime Committee will discuss a number of issues during the four-day conference (which ends tomorrow), including the presence of armed guards on ships, the possibility of establishing a common offshore patrol vessel for the SADC region and setting up floating armouries around a dozen nautical miles offshore so that merchant vessels carrying weapons for security details could drop off and collect weapons without brining them into port.
Admiral Augusto da Silva Cunha of Angola said that on the Atlantic side of the continent, piracy only occurred in very isolated cases and there were more incidences of ships being attacked and robbed, especially in the Niger Delta region. However, he added that, “there is insecurity but we have been able to respond.”
Mozambique has seen more of a problem with pirates. After the capture of the Vega 5 in December 2010 SADC countries were alerted to the issue of piracy, as they thought piracy only affected Somalia.
Rear admiral Lazaro Lopes Menete said that the Mozambican Navy has recorded successes in the area after taking action to stop piracy moving into the Mozambique Channel. “We don’t feel any direct pirate threats but we are prepared for action,” Menete said.
It has been estimated that piracy costs the global economy between US$7 and US$12 billion per year, mainly due to insurance, which has in some cases gone up tenfold, the cost of protection and the rerouting of ships.
“Whoever controls the sea controls the world,” said Major General Saidi Shabani Omar, commander of the Tanzanian navy. “If it is left like this it means pirates will control the sea and therefore the world.”
He said that piracy was affecting Tanzania, with a third fewer ships entering Dar es Salaam port due to pirate activity, thus increasing the cost of living and commodities. Oil exploration has recently begun in Mozambique and Tanzania, but explorers require protection from pirates, which is very expensive. “The biggest impact of piracy is economic,” Omar said.
Omar said Mozambique currently has 19 pirates in custody, seven of which were captured in October. However, he noted that there are many challenges in dealing with pirates once captured.
“The biggest problem is transfer agreements,” he said, as most foreign navies are not willing to take the pirates back home for prosecution.
Only four nations, the Seychelles, Djibouti, Mauritius and Kenya, have agreed to take on pirates. However, most of those caught are then released and very few are convicted - of those caught, only 10% appear in court, Omar said. “Three years ago we didn’t have the world pirate in our courts – this changed recently.”
Pirates in Tanzania are given life sentences.
While the conference discussed threats at sea, Mudimu did touch on the importance of combating piracy at its source. It has been said that piracy is best tackled from land and that if pirate bases are destroyed, they will not be able to put to sea at all. “Piracy emanates from land, and then goes to sea,” Mudimu noted.
He said that although piracy is the most important issue facing regional navies, there are many other threats as well, such as illegal dumping, human trafficking, gun running, oil spills, pollution and drug smuggling. Other maritime threats highlighted during the conference yesterday included the unauthorised entry of ships into ports, smuggling of plants and animals, tax evasion and the movement of illicit and counterfeit goods, sailing and fishing in unauthorised areas and the discharging of waste at sea.
Chief of the South African National Defence Force, General Solly Shoke, was also present at the Standing Maritime Committee meeting. With regard to maritime security, Shoke said that, “we are able to tell the world that SADC is ready to deliver.”