Sea Transportation: When Governments Turn to Piracy


February 12, 2006: Sometimes, governments carry out acts of piracy. A case occurred last month when a Ukrainian ship, carrying fifteen Belgian Pandur wheeled armored vehicles, on loan to UN peacekeeping troops from Benin, stopped at a port in Equatorial Guinea. There, on January 3rd, officers from the Equatorial Guinean navy boarded the ship, arrested the four Beninese soldiers guarding the vehicles (and other military equipment). Shortly there after, the stuff the Beninese soldiers were guarding was removed from the ship. The Ukrainian ship was actually carrying a hundred vehicles for the UN, all painted white, with UN markings. The UN is trying to get Equatorial Guinea to explain what is going on, and get the vehicles and equipment back. The Ukrainian ship and its 23 man crew is still being held. Belgium had loaned all that gear to the UN, and insists that the UN get it back.

This sort of thing is not unusual for Equatorial Guinea. Last year, Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was forced to pay Equatorial Guinea a $500,000 fine to get out of the country. Thatcher had earlier been arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the government. There's certainly a need for that. Equatorial Guinea has been ruled, since 1979, by dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (who inherited the job from his uncle, via a coup.) Obiang has grown increasingly paranoid and unstable of late. That's because oil was discovered in the 1990s, and that produced more money than has ever been seen before in the tiny country of only 600,000 people. Obiang has stolen most of the $700 million in annual oil income, handing out enough of it to cronies to keep himself in power. But, in a situation like that, who can you really trust? So when a ship comes by, with a hundred UN peacekeeper vehicles on deck (worth some $20 million), what do you do? After all, the army of Equatorial Guinea consists of only three battalions, and the stuff on the ship would equip one of those battalions with better gear then they have now.

In any event, it's not uncommon for government officials to collaborate with pirates. In the last decade, it's happened in China and Southeast Asia, and elsewhere as well. The dictator of Equatorial Guinea is carrying on an ancient tradition, that still lives on today. UN leader Kofi Annan has been in touch with Obiang, and has admitted that this has not produced any results. Obiang has the stuff, and the UN has admitted they are short of peacekeeping troops in Africa. There's going to be a temptation to just look the other way, warn ships to be careful when entering the area, and move on. The situation in Equatorial Guinea is likely to resolve itself, as Obiang appears to be losing control, and members of his armed forces apparently want to get their hands on the oil money bank accounts. The United States has long protested the corruption in Equatorial Guinea, actually closing its embassy from 1995 to 2003 because of the atrocities committed by the government. The United States has dealt with this sort of thing before, as the U.S. Marine Corps hymn points out (" the shores of Tripoli.") But Equatorial Guinea is a miniature version of Iraq, and who needs another dysfunctional country to repair.


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