The sordid tale of the Puntland Maritime Police Force should remind the industry, once and for all, that it will do well to not rely on the international community to solve its security problems in future. Instead, it should fall back on the use of armed guards whenever marine assets are threatened in the first instance. Because the ineffectual initiatives of global powers and the UN are hostage to either a head in the sand attitude, cupidity or stupidity- or all of the above. We in shipping could have saved ourselves considerable heartburn had we put armed guards on our ships more than a decade ago. We should, in fact, place armed guards on all our ships off East and West Africa today and wherever else tomorrow without second thought and without delay. It will be safer, more effective, straightforward and cheaper.
This, then, is the short and bitter history of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), about five hundred of whose soldiers are today abandoned in desert camps, unpaid for months- and sitting on an arsenal of assorted weaponry. No doubt they will gravitate to the highest bidder in that failed State- Al Qaeda’s Al Shabaab, pirates or assorted warlords. Take your pick.
Starting 2010, the PMPF was ostensibly created to fight pirates on land. Millions of dollars of UAE money was spent and mercenaries from shadowy companies - the South African Saracen and, later, Sterling from Dubai- were flown in to train and arm local recruits. The involvement of the ex US Navy Seal and CIA linked Erik Prince- of Blackwater infamy, who now lives in the UAE- was never in doubt; he is supposed to have made many trips to the PMPF training camps.
Quizzically, the UN first praised the PMPF and then- later- cried foul, saying that Sterling was creating the force in a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the arms embargo in place on Somalia. Stories of torture and killings of a few PMPF Somali trainees started doing the rounds. In April, a South African trainer was shot dead by a Somali trainee; three months later, Sterling abandoned Puntland, taking its people and equipment but leaving an arsenal and dissolute semi-trained gunfighters behind.
Sometime while all this was going on, President Faroole of Puntland was being feted as keynote speaker in an antipiracy conference in London last November. The same Faroole was accused by investigative journalists in Africa of sharing in pirate booty, by the way, but since when did that all matter to the morality of the British?
Governments count on falling back on the cushion of plausible deniability. The United States would have us believe today that the formation of the PMPF was at the behest of the UAE and that the US State Department and the CIA had nothing to do with it. They would have you and I ignore the dots connecting recent US history of mercenary involvement- in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, for a start- with the PMPF in Somalia. Ignore the fact that Erik Prince’s Blackwater has got 1.6 billion dollars from the US government since 1997 for covert operations- it is its biggest private security contractor. Ignore that a former CIA Mogadishu station chief was enrolled to support the PMPF. Ignore that the PMPF was using some of the same facilities of Faroole’s Puntland Intelligence Service that “has been trained by C.I.A. officers and contractors for more than a decade”.
For shipping’s security issues, the situation is exasperating for other reasons. For example, the blind eye that has been deliberately turned by Western governments to the involvement of the Al Shabaab terrorists with pirates. Acknowledging these links would mean that ransom payments would become illegal, and there would go, for example, the billions that the British insurance and security companies make off the so called anti-piracy business. That aside, acknowledgement would mean taking the lid off a Pandora’s box of legal and foreign policy problems.
The “war on terror” is actually what all Western actions connected to Somalia are really pretending to be about. What they are really about, behind the pretence, is control of Somalia. Therefore, the recent victories of their proxies- the Kenyan and African Union forces- against Al Shabaab in south Somalia and their own drone strikes in the wider region must be heartening for them. But for shipping, Western actions have collateral advantages at best; nothing more. Nothing that changes the game.
The bottom line is that the international community is fighting a different war than one that shipping needs it to fight. The war being fought may, if won, ease the piracy problem somewhat, but that is not good enough.
They will not change the war for us, it is clear. Not now, and not in future either. Their response to West African piracy, for example, is more likely to be determined by self-interest than the need to protect ships, seamen or trade. The PMPF experience is just one proof of this. The experience will not teach shipping anything new if it is repeated elsewhere.
Which is why I say armed guards at the first sign of trouble, anywhere in the world in future.
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