Published in Information (Denmark)

27nd January 2004

Posted at



Unguarded ports open for any business




The fight against illegal arms dealers and terrorists should be fought from small boats - and in ports, experts say. Wide open ports make it possible to land anything on the shores of East Africa

By Bjørn Willum,
Correspondent of the Danish daily Information




BRUSSELS - It is no wonder that the big costly warships, which currently patrol the East African coastline in the name of the global war on terror, have found virtually nothing, two UN experts on arms dealing and arms transport said.

The reason, they said, is that maritime transports in the region are primarily taken care of by primitive, single-masted, Arab boats, so-called dhows, which for generations have been used for sailing goods all along the long coastline of East Africa.

A high-tech frigate with 200 seamen can easily catch up with the primitive dhows that often heavily loaded - up to 700 tons at a time - chug along by the help of a simple engine.

"But trying to put people on a dhow and searching it while at sea is extremely difficult," said Edward Howard Johns, who worked as a navel expert for the panel of experts that was authorised by the UN Security Council to investigate why an 11-year-old arms embargo against devastated Somalia is still being violated, almost on a daily basis.

"If someone has put weapons and stuffed a lot of Coca-Cola boxes on top of it, you have to take the cargo off to see what is underneath," he said and explained that there is simply no space for this.

"What do you do with it? Dump it into the sea?"

"Another problem is sheer magnitude", Edward Howard Johns added. "Six-man dhows 3-400 of those can arrive over a period of a few days."

Therefore, it would be more effective, Johns believes, to have more and smaller boats - not to mention carrying out controls in ports where the cargo can be put on the quay.

The warships do not have authorization to force other ships to go anywhere, but suspicious ships can be escorted to their destination harbour where the local authorities in question can be asked to look into the cargo upon arrival. However, this takes a long time and very rarely takes place. For all practical purposes, dhows are left to their own devices and to the attention of the port authorities wherever they arrive.

Wide open harbours
If there are any such authorities, that is. The ports along East African coasts are by and large open for any kind of trade. It has been like this for a long time, but after terrorists in November 2002 blew up an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya's old port and holiday town Mombassa, the US and the UK started warning against travel to Kenya.

While the British Foreign Office does not warn its citizens against travelling to Kenya anymore, the continued US warning has caused severe discontent in tourist-dependent Kenya whose Tourism Minister, Raphael Tuju, last month declared that "all our security systems are on high alert and ready to respond to any threat, real or imagined."

But even though the Kenyans promptly arrested lots of foreigners, primarily Somalis, in the days following the Mombassa attack, little has in reality been done to improve the security in the country, a western intelligence official told Information.

"The Kenyans are under a lot of heat from the Americans to do something", the official said, adding that Kenyans are "more than happy to arrest Somalis by the truckload and present them to the Americans as terrorists."

On the other hand, the flow of smuggled arms from amongst others Somalia to Mombassa has more or less continued unabated, the official said.

The same impression had Johan Peleman who as chairman of the UN panel of experts visited the port area in Mombassa. "They have an anti-terrorist intelligence taskforce, but they basically did the same as us. They hang around in the old port and talk to some of the sailors."

The Kenyan intelligence officials in the harbour had no computers and, as far as John Peleman and his colleagues were able to establish, no contact to port authorities in surrounding countries either. "In the old ports of Mombassa, where most dhows arrive from Somalia, the Mombassa coast authorities don't have a speedboat," Peleman recalled. With the slow patrol boat, the coast authorities have, they "can't go out to check dhows once they are in international waters," Peleman said.

No incentive
Even in Djibouti where the US has been granted permission to establish a permanent base with 2,000 soldiers as a kind of African spearhead in the war against international terrorism, millions of tons of goods pass by the harbour every year without being checked.

"It is basically considered a free zone. Anything coming in for export is not checked," said Peleman who pointed to the fact that the most advanced port in the area, Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, was the only one capable of supplying the UN panel with a transcript of which ships and cargo that had passed through the harbour.

And the X-ray machine that Dubai Ports Authority had bought to scan containers for their contents broke down two weeks after being installed, Peleman said.

He did not believe that the ports authorities have incentives to step up controls. To them, the overriding goal is expediting as much cargo in as little time as possible - because this increases profits.

"The drive is commercial. Holding goods is a costly matter," Peleman said.

So that is what Dubai Ports Authorities, which in 1999 took over the management of Djibouti's at that time poorly administered harbour, has done. Increased volumes. By more than 100 percent - to the great delight of the authorities in the poor and tiny little state of Djibouti.












Meagre arms seizure off the Horn of Africa
Half-hearted anti-terrorism efforts