Africa has been of growing interest to India for
political and economic reasons, but does it have
security implications for the country?
The answer is “yes,” especially from 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.
There should be “a naval blockade and no fly zone
over Somalia,” he even suggested.
India’s 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 the
The immediate relevance of the threat posed by
piracy was underlined by the latest incident in
which a Bangladeshi flagged merchant ship, MV Jahan
Moni, was hijacked by Somali pirates barely 144km
from the Lakshadweep Islands.
As a quintessential microcosm of Africa, the Horn of
Africa has seen it all: imperialism,
neo-colonialism, the Cold War, ethnic strife,
intra-African conflict, poverty, disease, and
famine. Without its recovery and progress, Africa’s
resurgence would never be complete.
With the headquarters of the AU located in Addis
Abeba, the continent's apex organisation gets a
direct and unhindered view of what happens in its
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 strife and strained
relations with Ethiopia and Somalia, respectively.
Eritrea emerged as an independent state after a
30-year war with Ethiopia, a development that turned
the latter into a landlocked country. Djibouti, the
erstwhile French Somaliland, is a beacon of relative
stability and prosperity, and has contributed to
mediation and peacemaking efforts inside and outside
Somalia today is a geographical expression, not a
united country. Over the past decade, it has had 14
governments. In its northern part, three
quasi-sovereign governments exist in Somaliland,
Puntland, and Galmudug.
The southern part is partly controlled by the
Transitional Federal Government (TFG), but it only
runs parts of Mogadishu. Outside the capital, an
Islamic group, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC),
call the shots. The ongoing armed conflict in the
capital city is reminiscent of a civil war torn
The south has become a veritable hub of Islamic
fundamentalists and terrorist groups such as al-Shabab,
which has links with al-Qaeda. The north has been
the breeding ground of pirates who pose a serious
threat to international shipping. Somalia may aptly
be described as “Africa’s Afghanistan.”
Somali pirates, operating in the waters off the
Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden through which a
massive quantum of the world’s goods and energy
supplies pass, pose a grave danger. The trend now is
for them to take their operations far out on the
In 2008, the attacks numbered 111, and in 2009, they
were 217. The year ending now has seen the problem
Piracy has been growing “in frequency, range,
aggression, and severity at an alarming rate,” the
Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria
found in a recent assessment.
Pirates seem content with extracting ransom, but
their continuing operations and the potential of
building links with international terrorist
organisations are causing widespread worry. The
probability of a major, spectacular attack such as
the sinking of an oil tanker cannot be ruled out.
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 not only to Indian, but also foreign,
merchant vessels. To date, about 1,350 ships
belonging to different countries have availed
themselves of this facility.
During the first fortnight of September alone, INS
Delhi successfully foiled four separate pirate
attacks. In total, 22 piracy attempts have been
averted by the navy. It has discharged “its
responsibilities with distinction,” as Nirmal Verma,
navy chief admiral, put it.
It is worth noting that a considerable degree of
consultation, coordination, and cooperation in
capacity building in antipiracy operations have been
taking place. However, there is a problem about what
to do with apprehended pirates, as Indian laws do
not permit their prosecution by its courts.
The ships of several other countries, including the
US, EU members, Russia, Australia, China, and Japan
are affected. The growing presence of Chinese
vessels demonstrates the country’s reach as an
emerging naval power. It also juxtaposes China’s
undue sensitivity about the presence of other navies
on the South China Sea.
“China is taking a bigger than normal interest in
the Indian Ocean and we are monitoring it
carefully,” S.M. Krishna, minister of External
Affairs, observed recently.
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, and the UN has been
assisting in the process, both on the political and
peacekeeping fronts. However, the 8,000 troops
provided by Uganda and Burundi are inadequate for
The international community “does not take the
Somali problem seriously enough,” Yoweri Museveni,
president of Uganda, complained recently during a
visit to Somalia.
Apparently, moves are afoot to increase the size of
the troops to 12,000, whereas the AU wants to
increase it to 20,000 quickly. Other factors also
help to explain the piracy phenomenon.
“We do not consider ourselves sea bandits,” Sugule
Ali, a pirate leader, has said. “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, the international community
must do more to resolve the fundamental issues,
taking a holistic view.
There is a need to deal with this problem “from the
beach side, in concert with the ocean side,” as
experts have suggested.
What is required is to craft much greater
cooperation among the countries concerned. The
Indian government would do well to become more
active in examining and discussing the complex
problem with the governments in Eastern Africa, the
AU, and other concerned parties so as to be able to
make a meaningful contribution to its resolution.
The navy can only fight with fire, but surely India
is capable of negotiations at diplomatic and
political levels. What happens in the region has a
direct bearing on the country’s security and
wellbeing, and this is becoming clearer and more
urgent by the day.