The Congo: A new piracy target?

Will West African piracy move in to the DRC?

The Congo: A new piracy target?

By Cassie Blombaum, Guardian Global Resources

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has never been envisioned as a maritime nation, nor has it been described as especially ‘fraught’ with pirate attack groups. Indeed, the DRC is virtually landlocked. It boasts a mere 37 kilometre (km)-long coastline, a diminutive size considering the entirety of the nation’s borders stretches to more than 10,730 kms in length. But with an increasing interest in regional development projects initiated largely by resource-hungry China, and prospects of greater integration with the DRC’s neighbour to the north, Congo-Brazzaville (also known as the Republic of the Congo), is this all about to change? In other words, could greater investment, combined with cooperation along the maritime front between the two “Congos” move the West African piracy target further south near the DRC?

WHY THE DRC?

Its limited seafront aside, there has been considerable interest as of late with regard to Congolese ports – as well as their potential security setbacks. To begin with, the DRC is abound with some of the world’s most coveted resources – diamonds, cobalt, coltan, oil, copper and gold to name a few – meaning that any ease in the accessibility of the Atlantic Ocean would prove beneficial to interested investors. At present, however, the DRC’s lack of viable maritime infrastructure and poor internal roads and railways have led to frustration. The three most utilised ports – Boma, Matadi and Banana – all have insufficient handling facilities and are bereft of appropriate security measures. On land, meanwhile, failing roads and outbursts of largely militia (or Maï-Maï)-led clashes, means that cross-country shipping is often delayed. As a result of these and other stumbling blocks, key stakeholders have essentially been compelled to rely on other African nations, both near and far, to conduct the DRC’s transporting for them. This is to say, trading is usually conducted on a regional basis within the DRC, with the southeastern corner of the nation, for example, forced to turn to Durban, South Africa for the exportation of mineral wealth. These laborious measures have naturally led to an all important question: is there an easier way?

In a word, yes. Increased financial support from countries, namely China, for Kinshasa’s proposed development projects could ease shipping complications. In what has been dubbed the “deal of the century”, China, for example, has already pledged to spend at least USS$6 billion to support the construction of roads, railways and other infrastructure, as well as set aside a considerable sum for the revamping of mining operations in Katanga. Access is also expected to be increased via the so-called “Chinese corridor”, which will likely involve the reconstruction of railways and roads leading from the DRC’s easternmost border with Uganda and Tanzania, south toward the frontier with Zambia, before heading west toward the Port of Matadi. For its part, the Port of Matadi is also slated to receive improvements, including a new multipurpose container terminal, with assistance from the Philippines-based International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI). Of course, these investments take considerable time, and come at a price. In return for Beijing’s generosity, for instance, Sicomines, a consortium of Chinese companies, would be controversially granted a 68% stake in the DRC’s lucrative mining operations in Katanga, compared to 32% ownership by the Kinshasa-based Gecamines. As for the Port of Matadi, even these upgrades will likely not do enough to meet the requirements of Congolese trade. Indeed, some analysts suggest the DRC will also need to renovate its Port of Banana to compensate for any increase in demand. But at a projected sum of US$2 billion, this, too, will prove costly.

An alternative to these expensive and often controversial development projects could be to encourage greater relations with the ‘other Congo’ – that is, Congo-Brazzaville. The idea is that by further linking the bordering countries together, largely through investment in the proposed Kinshasa-Brazzaville Bridge, the two nations could effectively share access to the Port of Pointe Noire. But even this project has its caveats. Indeed, when combined with the skyrocketing expenses involved and the recent disagreements between the neighbouring states stemming from the expulsion of some 50,000 Congolese nationals from Congo-Brazzaville, such ambitions may appear lofty. However, the price of not having a proper connection between the two Congolese capitals – Kinshasa in the DRC, and Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo – may prove far too great. According to reports, due to a lack of competition in crossing services between the capitals, the movement of both goods and people has become inordinately expensive – so much so that a Kinshasa resident may need to set aside up to “80%” of his or her average monthly income to traverse the Congo River via the Malebo Pool. In other words, even if current political conditions preclude the immediate construction of the Kinshasa-Brazzaville Bridge, in the long run closer ties between the ‘two Congos’ may be inevitable – if only to facilitate trade both on land and, ultimately, by sea. Worryingly, however, greater shipping access to the Port of Pointe Noire could also enable the birth of a new Congolese ‘piracy target’ in an already insecure West Africa.

MARITIME CRIME: A CONGOLESE LOOK

Greater investment and closer ties between Kinshasa and Brazzaville may prove beneficial in the long term, nevertheless, concerns have already grown regarding the potential influx of maritime criminal activity along the shared Congolese coastline. At present, maritime crime in the DRC remains a complex issue. As aforementioned, due to the DRC’s small shoreline, threats are often perceived as non-existent, or merely limited to inlets connecting to the vast Congo River, often described as the country’s “lifeblood”. Attacks along the DRC’s border with the Atlantic, in general, also appear minor when compared to that of more piracy-prone Congo-Brazzaville. Case in point: in 2011, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded only 4 incidents in the DRC, whilst in 2012 just 2 cases were confirmed. Aside from the recent boarding attempt near Matadi Inner Anchorage on 04 August 2014, the situation in 2014 also appears relatively quiet. The DRC’s northern neighbour, Congo-Brazzaville, meanwhile has incurred an even greater tally of attacks and robberies along sea ports. For example, thus far in 2014, at least 4 robberies, or attempted robberies, have been reported near Pointe Noire, with some assailants brandishing weapons and threatening crew members in order to steal the ships’ stores. This was noted on 04 February 2014, when 2 men armed with knives boarded and robbed the UAL LOBITO, a Netherlands-flagged general cargo ship. Cases like these are believed to be even more prevalent, but some victims fear retribution from assailants and are therefore reluctant to publicise attacks. It is no wonder then, that some remain apprehensive over a possible increase in armed robberies and other more serious maritime crime should the ‘two Congos’ share their maritime operations.

THE WAY FORWARD: A NEW PIRACY TARGET?

Given the already uncertain security situation within both the DRC and Congo-Brazzaville, could attacks like these grow even more prevalent if the two nations increase their usage of the Port of Pointe Noire? Of course, a direct correlation between a stronger Congolese relationship and the rate of pirate attacks cannot be determined at present. However, it is likely that with increased access to shipping via improved maritime access, there will be a greater incentive for some pirates to ramp up their operations closer to the DRC and Congo-Brazzaville. The potential for such a change in operational location should not be discounted. The lucrative goods, particularly oil-related cargo, which could be on board vessels transiting the area may prove just too enticing for assailants. Moreover, one only needs to understand the increasing range, capability and overall brazenness of pirates, particularly those based in Nigeria, to see that some assailants may even be willing to travel far beyond the Congolese coastline to seize such coveted items – and ships. To be sure, a Liberia-flagged oil tanker as far south as Luanda, Angola, was already seized by Nigeria-based pirates in January 2014. Making matters worse, after taking the ship – known as the MT KERALA – the Nigerian pirates reportedly sailed toward Congo-Brazzaville, where they sold their first batch of stolen diesel, before eventually releasing the vessel on 26 January 2014. This attack not only illustrated the ability of Nigerian pirates to access Angolan waters; it also demonstrated the apparent lack of security along the shared Congolese coastline. Unfortunately, further attacks of this nature are conceivable. Like that of Nigeria, where an increase in oil production and exportation helped encourage the targeting of oil product tankers and other related assets, Congo-Brazzaville, the DRC, and Angola are also home to significant energy reserves and oil-related shipping. Consequently, when combined with the threat of emboldened Nigerian assailants and the possibility of greater cooperation along the maritime front, there is no question the West African piracy target could soon be pushed further south near the DRC.

Used with the permission of the author, Cassie Blombaum.

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