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What Should We Do with Somali Pirates?

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Article in The Economist yesterday about piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the difficulties faced by shipping lines trying to ply their trade. While we should all be relieved that the crew of the Maersk Alabama and their captain are all safe and well, it might be worth a moment of reflection to consider what the virtually unchecked hijacking of ships could mean for Kenya and our economy.

Mombasa is a gateway port, where ships load and unload cargo to and from East Africa and beyond. Regardless of our current difficulties, imagine the state the Kenyan economy would now be in if we were landlocked and dependent on the goodwill of our neighbours for the safe and efficient transit of goods. As such, we should be very worried about the piracy taking place off Somali waters, because it messes with our business. The pirates are not plucky outlaws trying to alleviate their living conditions; they are part of a highly organised transnational effort to disrupt international trade. We are not being shoplifted, we are being jacked.

Every ship that is held hostage in Somali waters is another ship that doesn’t dock in Mombasa, that doesn’t pay port fees, that isn’t loaded or unloaded by local dockworkers. While it would be very convenient to hope that the international community finds some way of dealing with the pirates without too much Kenyan involvement, that simply just won’t do. Currently, while there are a number of foreign warships off the coast of Somalia on ostensible patrols, this is not a workable solution. There is too much traffic, there are not enough warships and the area is simply too big to be policed effectively.

Last year, 111 pirate attacks were recorded, nearly triple the number for 2007. Going by the number of attacks thus far, this year is going to be another record-breaker. While the help of international navies is appreciated, Kenya too must step up to the plate and play her part, if only to make sure that shipping traffic to Mombasa port continues.

Shipping lines, like any other business, have to pay insurance to cover their liabilities. With every new pirate attack on a ship to or from Mombasa, their insurance premiums rise and with it, the disincentive to ship goods to Kenyan ports. Though more expensive, they might eventually choose to go overland or to freight goods by air if insurance becomes too expensive. This would not only raise the cost of imported goods in Kenya, but throughout the region. For the purpose of self-interest alone, we owe it ourselves (and our regional partners) to take steps to prevent this happening.

As a nation, Kenya lacks the nautical and military might to patrol the waters single-handed. We are not about to launch a military invasion of Somalia to bring back law and order, nor do we have the ships necessary to patrol the Indian Ocean. What we can do, however, is offer every assistance possible to those foreign vessels who are doing their best to keep commercial shipping safe.

The easiest and most effective way to do this would be to offer ourselves as a legal clearing house. As I understand it, under maritime law, any captives seized come under the jurisdiction of the home port of the ship by which they are captured. Forget that: we should say that we are willing to bring new, heavily punitive laws on to our books and that we are willing to bring the full force of these new laws to any pirates seized by ships in the area. Believe me, a Somali pirate would rather do a couple of years in a European prison and claim asylum than to succumb to the tender mercies of our penal system.

This isn’t a plea for feel-good happy-clappy international cooperation. This is naked self-interest. Somali pirates are disrupting shipping to our port, so it is we who should decide on their punishment. And I believe our vengeance should be as fearsome as it is righteous.

[Image by Nick Humphries]

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