Senegal’s navy acting on orders of Greenpeace?

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.

Changing tides

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.

Arms deals in Africa

Update: This article was just picked up and republished by A Peace of Conflict. You can find the (largely identical version) here, but be sure to check out the excellent "this week in conflict" reports on their page as well!

SIPRI just published a new report on arms deals and weapons flows in sub-saharan Africa (SSA). The report offers little news for those who are familiar with the weapons market in SSA, but this actually makes it only more important. I don't want to summarize the whole report here (it has a good two page summary included), but discuss some issues in more detail that I think are crucial to the arms transfers debate in Africa.

A Ugandan soldier trains with his foreign supplied assault rifle. Photo by Flickr user US Army Africa, CC-BY

Transparency of arms transfers

This is a main point of the report and with good reason. The SIPRI is considered the best source on arms transfers and deals which is accessible to the public, but even they can only estimate the amount and types of weapons which flow into SSA each year. The reason for this is simple: neither the delivering countries, nor the recipients have a great interest in making their transfers public.

While the report stresses that some arms transfers are legitimate and actually have the potential to improve the security situation, I think it is safe to say that most arms flows in SSA are ambiguous at best and outright dangerous at worst. The report confirms that it is common for African countries to meddle in each others affairs by delivering arms to the government or rebel groups. Western and Eastern nations frequently use preferential arms deals as a means to gain political favors. And while the total value of the African arms market is little (only 1.5% of the global market), it remains a lucrative business to deliver arms to those places where they are actually used: the 20 or so African states that experienced conflict over the last five years.

The lack of information about arms transfers is also contributing to a lack of knowledge on how exactly fresh arms influence security in volatile regions. This makes targeted political actions close to impossible, if one tries to influence conflicts through providing or limiting arms supply. So from a policy perspective, the most important step would be to have the principle exporters (China, Russia and Ukraine) and ideally the African states sign up to a weapons transfer database. But as even the EU has difficulties providing timely data on arms deals, I have little hope that we will see progress in this quarter soon.

Effectiveness of arms control regimes

Sometimes, the UN security council actually gets its act together and issues an arms embargo against a state or individuals. This is great in theory, but these embargoes (and other arms control regimes) are often beset with so many problems, that one has to ask oneself if they are worth the paper they are written on.

Take the arms embargo against the region of Darfur for example. The SIPRI report details that it had little practical effect, as the government in Khartoum was still allowed to receive arms transfers as long as it guaranteed the sender that these arms would not be used in Darfur. I imagine this looks something like this:

Chinese/Russian/Ukrainian arms dealer: Thanks very much for your order Mr. Bashir. We will be happy to provide you with the AK-74s/MIG bombers/tanks you requested. Just one last formality; We will need some form of guarantee that you won't be using these weapons in Darfur.

Mr. Bashir: Oh no problem. I'll give you my word that we will only use these shiny new killing machines when parading around in our baracks and in case Egypt tries to invade us!

Arms dealer: Great! That's settled then.

The deadliest of all good-will gifts

While a huge motivation for arms transfers is still monetary gain, the SIPRI report also points out to the frequent practice of using preferential arms deals as political gifts. This is common for the main arms exporters (think China's interest in Sudanese oil) as well as for African states (who frequently support one party of a conflict for ideological/political reasons).

Western powers are not above using arms as a political tool as well. This is showcased by the recent support of the (former) rebels in Libya (though not SSA), as well as by the acceptance of western allies Ethiopia and Kenya arming militias in Somalia in their fight against islamists.

This aspect is probably one of the most worrying issues. The current situation in Syria shows that political patronage (in this case by Russia) can have disastrous effects on the possibility to resolve conflicts. African countries are no strangers to political maneuvering by foreign powers and African elites have repeatedly shown that staying in power through the use of guns is an option they will gladly consider, if it is made available to them.


Especially when it comes to small arms and light weapons (SALW, like AK-74s), decades-old thinking needs to be revised. We finally need a political push - probably on UN level - for a comprehensive treaty on transparency in arms transfers. This would be the first step towards more effective arms control regimes, which could reign in the use of weapons as political gifts.

For this to succeed, western nations would have to push this topic onto the international agenda. It remains to be seen if the recent experiences of the Arab Spring (where western sourced weapons were used to fire on peaceful demonstrators) provide sufficient reason for policy makers to rethink stance on arms exports. Only if the West manages to agree on ethical standarts and tight control of their arms exports, getting others to sign up to such rules will be realistic. For Africa, it would be a good development.

For those of you who want to dive deeper into the details of arms deals in Africa, you can find the main report here and various other reports, detailing the role of South Africa, Ukraine, Israel, Somalia and Zimbabwe here. If you can read German, you can find an interesting article on the German weapons company Heckler&Koch and its shady business here.