Our strategic community and official agencies should pay more attention to the conditions and power dynamics in the Horn of Africa because what happens in the region has a direct bearing on our security.

Africa has been of growing interest to India for political and economic reasons but does it have security implications for us? The answer is ‘yes,' especially as we focus on a particular sub-region, the Horn of Africa. A recent, distinguished visitor to India from the area — Hailemariam Desalegn, Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia — highlighted the wider implications of terrorism and piracy in the east African region. He even suggested that there should be “a naval blockade and no fly zone over Somalia.”

The immediate relevance of the threat posed by piracy has been underlined by the latest incident in which a Bangladeshi-flagged merchant ship, MV Jahan Moni, was hijacked by Somali pirates at a location barely 90 nautical miles from the Lakshadweep Islands.

The Horn of Africa comprises four countries — Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. As a quintessential microcosm of Africa, the area has seen it all: imperialism, neo-colonialism, Cold War, ethnic strife, intra-African conflict, poverty, disease, famine and much else. Without its recovery and progress, Africa's resurgence would never be complete. With the headquarters of African Union located in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, the continent's apex organisation gets a direct and unhindered view of what happens in its immediate vicinity.

The sub-region covers a wide spectrum from Ethiopia — an ancient civilisation and a nation that retained its independence (except for a short period) — to Somalia, the most failed state on the planet today. Eritrea and Djibouti, smaller neighbours located on the seashore, have had their own share of strife and strained relations with Ethiopia and Somalia respectively. Eritrea emerged as an independent state after a 30-year-long confrontation with Ethiopia, a development that turned the latter into a landlocked country. Djibouti, the erstwhile French Somaliland, has been a beacon of relative stability and prosperity, which has contributed to mediation and peace-making efforts in and outside the Horn of Africa.

Africa's Afghanistan

Somalia today is a mere geographical expression, not a united country. In the past decade, it has gone through 14 governments. In its northern part, three quasi-sovereign governments exist — Somaliland, Puntland and Galmudug. The southern part is controlled partly by the Transitional Federal Government, but its writ runs in parts of Mogadishu only. Outside, Islamic groups named the Union of Islamic Courts call the shots. The on-going armed conflict within the capital city reminds me of the years I spent in the civil war-torn Beirut. The South has become a veritable hub of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab having links with the al-Qaeda. The North has been the breeding ground of pirates who pose a serious threat to international shipping. Somalia may aptly be depicted as ‘Africa's Afghanistan.'

Somali pirates, operating in the waters off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden through which passes a massive quantum of the world's goods and energy supplies, pose a grave danger. The trend now is for them to take their operations far out on the high seas. The number of attacks in 2008 was 111 and 217 in 2009. The year ending now has seen the problem grow. In a recent assessment, the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria stressed that piracy has been growing “in frequency, range, aggression and severity at an alarming rate.” Pirates keep trying to harm international shipping, content to extract ransom, but their continuing operations and the potential of building links with international terrorist organisations cause widespread worry. The probability of a major, spectacular attack such as the sinking of an oil tanker cannot be ruled out.

Navy's magnificent work

In this context, the magnificent work the Indian Navy has been doing in the area since October 2008 deserves wider appreciation. Its warships patrol the Gulf of Aden and quietly provide escort and security assistance to not only Indian but also foreign merchant vessels. About 1,350 ships belonging to different countries have availed themselves of this facility so far. During the first fortnight of September 2010 alone, INS Delhi scored success on four separate occasions to foil attacks by pirates. In all, 22 piracy attempts have been averted by the Navy. It has discharged, as Navy Chief Admiral Nirmal Verma put it, “its responsibilities with distinction.”

It is worth noting that a considerable degree of consultation, coordination and cooperation in capacity building in anti-piracy operations has been taking place. However, there is a problem about what to do with the pirates apprehended on the high seas as Indian laws do not permit their prosecution by our courts.

There are, of course, ships of several other countries, including the United States, European Union member-states, Russia, Australia, China and Japan. The growing presence of Chinese vessels demonstrates the country's reach as the emerging naval power. It also juxtaposes China's undue sensitivity about the presence of other Navies on the South China Sea. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna observed recently: “China is taking more than normal interest in the Indian Ocean and we are monitoring it carefully.”

The world's Navies have been tackling the consequences and addressing the symptoms of the underlying malaise, which is the destruction of Somalia as a state and the resultant anarchy and absence of the rule of law. The United Nations has been helping in the process, both on the political and peacekeeping aspects. But 8,000 troops provided by Uganda and Burundi are considered to be inadequate for the task. On a recent visit to Somalia, Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, complained that the international community “did not take the Somali problem seriously enough.” Apparently, moves are afoot to increase the size of the troops to 12,000, whereas the African Union wants it to go up to 20,000 quickly.

‘Not sea bandits'

Other factors also explain the piracy phenomenon. Sugule Ali, a pirate leader, stated: “We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits to be those who illegally fish and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our area.” Objective analysts would agree that there is some merit in the argument, but this is hardly a justification for the continuing attacks. Piracy represents a serious challenge to international law and order. Therefore, international community must do more to resolve the fundamental issues, taking a holistic view. As experts have suggested, there is a need to deal with this problem “from the beach side, in concert with the ocean side.” Further, what is required is to craft much greater cooperation among the countries concerned than has been secured so far.

Our strategic community and official agencies too should pay more attention to the prevailing conditions and power dynamics in the Horn of Africa. The government would be well advised to become more active in examining and discussing the complex problem in-depth with the governments in Eastern Africa, the African Union and others concerned so as to be able to make a meaningful contribution to its resolution. The Navy can do only fire-fighting, but surely India is capable of striving more at the diplomatic and political levels. What happens in the region has a direct bearing on our security and well-being, and this is becoming clearer and more urgent by the day.

(The author served as India's High Commissioner to Kenya and South Africa.)

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