Africans face new peril on the seas

Given that up to 28-million Africans were sold and shipped to the Americas, and that a fifth of that number died en route, it's not really a surprise that some of the continent's most pressing problems are being played out on the open seas.

In early October, 360 Africans drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa while trying to get to Europe. As if oblivious to the fate of the hundreds who had drowned on October 3, another 38 drowned just more than a week later. The BBC reported this week that five died of thirst in Agadez, Niger, in a stretch of the Sahara desert used by migrants on their way to Europe; another 35 were missing, feared dead.

In fact, since this migration started about two decades ago, the International Organisation for Migration estimates that at least 20 000 people have perished in the Mediterranean Sea. Most of these unfortunate people set sail from Libya – which, since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, hasn't had a functional central authority.

Somalia is a classic example of what happens to a country that has been without a central government for two decades.

Since the overthrow of Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, two regions have broken away to form Puntland and Somaliland. The country itself has been torn apart, as  Somalia's fledgling authority and its proxy backers, Ethiopia and Kenya, wage war on al-Shabab – the al-Qaeda franchise – and assorted warlords.

Off the coast of Somalia, in the troubled country's calm territorial waters, a different drama has long been playing out.

At 3 300km, Somalia's coastline is the longest in Africa. States big and small plundered its waters of marine life before the country became notorious as the world's piracy centre. It was the site of choice for European organisations, which used its waters to dump chemical and nuclear waste.

'In support of pirates'
This explains the statement by Somalia-born rapper K'naan a few years ago: "A lot of people don't like me for saying this, but I'm in support of the pirates. Massive Western companies would come to Somalia and dump nuclear toxic waste containers on the shore because there was no government controlling the shoreline. The pirates initially went into the ocean to make them pay for that sort of thing. They just take everything for ransom. That actually helped us clear our environment."

You won't get this nuanced view from watching Paul Greengrass's recent new action movie, Captain Phillips, based on the actual hijacking of a Maersk liner. But you can be sure that global ­capital was not about to cede to the sea robbers important waters on which a significant chunk of global trade depends.

Piracy has been reduced in the Gulf of Aden in the past year, as ships hire armed guards and install razor wire, and international navies increase their patrols. And so, as if paying heed to some internal need for balance, even pirates are migrating – westwards, to the Gulf of Guinea, where a number of attacks have been recorded.

Apart from the war in Somalia, Egypt's dictatorship and terrorism in northern Nigeria, it's irregular immigration to Europe that I consider to be one of the biggest problems Africa faces at the moment. Yet what topped the agenda of African leaders when they met in Ethiopia a few weeks ago? It wasn't the young men and women perishing in the Sahara desert and Mediterranean Sea.

It was how to pull out of the International Criminal Court, or, failing that, how to defer the cases of serving African leaders at The Hague until they have left office.

Call it the Kenyatta-Ruto clause, after the two Kenyan leaders, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice-president, William Ruto, now facing charges at the ICC of organising violence during and after the elections of 2007.

But it is too hopeful, perhaps, to ask the spiritual descendants of those kings and princes centuries ago who sold our brothers and sisters to the Americas to do anything about this modern-day passage.  

Percy Zvomuya writes on arts and culture for the Mail & Guardian

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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