A string of fresh piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia spells uncertainty for commodity dealers and consumers in East Africa.
The shock hijacking of a commercial oil tanker, the MT Aris 13, in March ended a five-year lull in piracy on the key Indian Ocean route around the Gulf of Aden. In early April, it is suspected Somali pirates seized an Indian dhow, Al–Kausar, on its way to the port of Bosaso in northern Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region, while another bulk carrier, OS 35, was hijacked a few days later. It has sparked fears of a return of the menace the caused global concern at its peak between 2011 and 2013.
In 2016, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded two incidents of failed attacks off Somalia. Pirates attempted to attack a container vessel in the Gulf of Aden in May, and fired on a product tanker in the Somali basin 300 nautical miles from shore in October. The attempts showed that the threat of piracy had not disappeared.
The latest back-to-back attacks have prompted an EU naval force operating on the sea route to urge “for vigilance to all ships transiting the piracy high risk area”.
Commodity dealers and consumers in East Africa should pray that these are isolated incidents rather than a precursor to the return of piracy on this key sea route that links eastern Africa to the Arabian Gulf, Europe and beyond.
At its peak a few years ago, securing captured vessels, cargo and crew off the coast of Somalia cost the global shipping industry billions of dollars in ransom pay-outs. The menace also led to increased operational costs due to higher insurance premiums and the use of longer alternative routes around the coast of South Africa. The shipping lines also had to incur the extra expense of hiring security personnel to escort vessels through the troubled route around the Gulf of Aden, as well as other pre-emptive measures, such as installing watchtowers and razor wire.
Shipping lines did not absorb the heat alone. The pain of inflation trickled down the supply chain, causing the prices of basic industrial and household items to rally sharply.
With East Africa’s huge dependence on import commodities, such as farming and industrial machinery, vehicles, clinker, steel and petroleum, the return of piracy on Somali waters means consumers will be squeezed even more. The booming infrastructure and housing projects in East Africa would also suffer a jolt of higher implementation budgets, reflecting the cost variations attributable to the piracy.
Exporters from East Africa will then face the challenge of keeping their commodities competitive in markets abroad due to the higher cost of shipment.
Ship owners have no doubt been blinded by the lengthy lull in attacks and even began taking on very risky routes to save of costs and time. Some shipping lines have returned to the extremely vulnerable route between Somalia and Socotra Island, in the Arabian Sea, that is commonly known as the Socotra Gap. In fact, the MT Aris 13 was seized by pirates as it attempted to sail through the Socotra Gap at low speed.
It would be in the interest of global forces to reinvigorate patrols on this key route to prevent a fresh escalation of piracy. This has been done before with wonderful results.
Military incursions in the Somali region have helped stem piracy attacks on key shipping routes around the Gulf of Aden since 2012, bringing hope for efficient freight services and the lower cost of goods entering and leaving the East African market.
More effort must also be made on land to weed out militant groups that may be using piracy to bankroll their activities. Almost two decades of lawlessness in Somalia, without a substantive government, provided a breeding ground for extortionist groups that resort to illegal means to stay afloat. With Somalia’s economy still in ruin, the urge for militant groups to take up activities such as piracy to make ends meet remains high.
Troops, backed by the United Nations and African Union, battling the Al-Shabaab militants should be supported to end the despair caused by these crooks.
Until they are stopped, East Africans will feel the pain.