Two Sundays ago the new European Union naval force deployed to East African waters escorted its first food ship to Somalia from this sweltering port town. The two-day dash by the MV Semlow and the HMS Northumberland marked the beginning of a planned yearlong U.N.-E.U. effort to feed as many as 4 million Somalis. That’s nearly half the country, for those of you counting.
Somalia has depended on U.N. food aid for more than 15 years, ever since the brutal 1991 civil war and a subsequent famine. An unprecedented peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s designed to protect the food distribution effort ended in bloodshed when 18 U.S. troops were killed in a disastrous October 1993 raid, recounted in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.
Today the demand for food is only growing, but without a large military force on the ground to protect distribution. So the U.N. has concentrated its food program on the ports of Merka and Mogadishu, avoiding Somalia’s lawless, bandit-infested roads. Freighters making the run from Mombasa bring in around 12,000 tons of food to these two ports every month.
Things were going swimmingly until pirates began attacking and seizing the food ships. In 2007, the U.N. asked for naval protection. The current E.U. force is the latest chapter in that partnership. No U.N. food ship under naval escort has been successfully attacked by pirates. “We feel secure that the vessel will go safely and come back safely,” said Tariq Farooqi, the caretaker of MV Onega I, the 8,000-ton vessel slated to make the second E.U.-escorted food run Tuesday.
In contrast to the first food run with MV Semlow, this second run will be a true convoy. A second humanitarian ship, hailing from Tanzania, will link up with Onega and her escort, a Greek frigate currently serving as the E.U. flagship, and the three will sail straight into Mogadishu, where a small Ugandan peacekeeping contingent waits to throw up a protective cordon. After unloading, the ships will turn around and backtrack to Mombasa.
The Somalia food circuit is just one facet of the escalating piracy war in East African waters, but it’s easily the most successful. While pirates continue to attack and seize commercial vessels deep in the Indian Ocean, the food ships are safe, as long as the E.U. is riding shotgun. The operation’s success speaks volumes about the viability of World War II-style convoys in today’s piracy war. It’s not for no reason that some Mombasa-based shippers are calling for the various naval contingents to pool their resources, put their heads together and come up with a convoy plan for all shipping in the region.