It would be an amazing development on several levels, if it turns out to be true: The speaker of the Russian fisheries agency alleged that the "the army of the sovereign Republic of Senegal is acting under Greenpeace orders," in stopping the Russian trawler Oleg Naydenov and arresting its crew.
The spokesman went on to accuse Senegal of "piracy on a state level" and the Senegalese charge d'affaires in Moscow was called into the Russian foreign ministry to explain the behaviour of his country.
Much of the hyped up language that this affair has produced can be attributed to the fact that the Russian media and general opinion didn't take kindly to have its economic interests and the freedom of its nationals challenged by a tiny (in comparison) and seemingly unimportant African country. But underneath it all lies an interesting political conflict over the use of Senegal's marine resources that has been a long time coming. And yes, Greenpeace plays an integral part in that story.
The plunder of African waters
Senegal's authorities have charged the Oleg Naydenov and its crew with an offence well known in African waters: illegal fishing. Despite possessing long coastlines and rich fishing grounds, African states have notoriously week navies and coast guards. For decades it has been common practice for fishing trawlers from the Americas, Europe and Asia to use this circumstance to their advantage, fishing African waters without permits and refusing to share the profits with the nations owning the territorial waters.
Additionally, single powerful nations or organisations like the European Union have often pressured African states into unfavourable fishing agreements that legalized the overuse of Africa's marine resources.
Apart from the obvious loss of government revenue, these practices also led to economic hardship for thousands of African fishermen, who saw their catches dwindle. In extreme cases, like in Somalia, illegal fishing has also contributed to violence by creating the conditions to bring forth piracy and other illegal activities.
Senegal has for a while been at the forefront of asserting its national sovereignty and economic interests over its marine resources. In 2006, it cancelled its fishing agreement with the European Union and last year, the new government under president Macky Sall went a step further and asked 26 trawlers from eastern Europe, Asia and the Americas to unload their catch in Dakar and leave Senegalese waters.
And this is where Greenpeace comes in. The environmental NGO has increasingly put its resources into Africa, in no small part due to the fact that it for the first time has an African at its helm, South African national Kumi Naidoo. While South Africa also has the strongest Greenpeace presence on the continent, Senegal has been another important hub for its activities. There is now a permanent Greenpeace office in Dakar and a strong financial and professional cooperation between Greenpeacers in Senegal and Germany, the organization's strongest national outlet by far.
Greenpeace has staged its trademark protest in support of stronger protection of Senegal's marine life in 2012, approaching illegal fishing trawlers in small motorboats and painting them with slogans. This is also, says the NGO, the first time that it noticed the Oleg Naydenov fishing illegally in Senegal's water.
From the distance one can't judge how much of an effect the Greenpeace campaign had, but even if it didn't cause official awareness of the problem, it at least correlated nicely with Senegalese policy priorities. It should also be noted that several Senegalese fishermen took part in the protests organized by Greenpeace and that local voices were very vocal in supporting the ban of foreign trawlers.
The case of the Oleg Naydenov
By taking the drastic step of arresting the Oleg Naydenov and its crew, Senegal's government was bound to incur the ire of Russia. But the involvement of Greenpeace, even though the allegation that the move was "ordered" by the organisation is clearly bullshit, raises the stakes further.
Just a few weeks ago, it was Greenpeace's turn to accuse the Russian government of piracy, when 30 of its activists were arrested in international waters after staging a protest against Russian oil exploration activities in the Arctic Sea. The Netherlands, the country where the Greenpeace vessel that carried the activists was registered, quickly petitioned the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, which ordered the Russian authorities to free the activists and their ship.
Ironically, Russia now wants to ask the same Tribunal to secure the freedom of the Oleg Naydenov. The outcome of this case will be interesting, as Senegal's authorities claim that the Russian vessel was clearly in their territorial waters and also a "repeat offender".
Implications for Africa's marine resources
Senegal's actions could send a strong signal to international fishing companies and other African nations alike. Ideally, if the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea supports Senegal's charges, it will tremendously strengthen the legal position of African nations in such circumstances. This in turn will make it increasingly likely that other nations take action as well, investing in their naval patrol capabilities and securing their territorial waters from illegal fishing activities.
For fishing companies, having a trawler and its crew arrested is a nightmare scenario. The Russian claim that the Oleg Naydenov loses 30,000 dollars a day can't be confirmed independently, but should offer an impression of the financial stakes involved.
On a larger scale, the incident shows the increasing self-confidence that African nations display when it comes to the protection of their economic interests. And even more positively, the increased willingness of Senegal's authorities to protect its resources can at least in part be attributed to popular pressure and NGOs like Greenpeace. This is important, because it means that Senegal's civil society is gaining the strength and competency to play the important role of a watchdog of corporate and government activities in the resource sector.
Full disclosure: I acted as a volunteer spokesperson for several local Greenpeace chapters in Germany and also took part in several protests supporting Greenpeace positions against environmental destruction. I have a strong positive disposition towards the organisation and its demands.