Tanzania’s President John Magufuli caused heads to roll a few days ago by temporarily closing the country’s ship registry and ordering a review of 470 ships that fly the Dar flag.
Two ships had just been arrested in the international waters. On January 8, Tanzania-flagged Andromeda was allegedly found with a load of explosives on its way to Libya. Days earlier, Zanzibar-registered oil tanker Kaluba was intercepted off the Dominican Republic, reportedly with 1,570kg of cocaine in its hold.
Somehow, Dr Magufuli had to send out an unequivocal message to vessels “that tarnish the name of our country”. In a continent where investors dangling loads of hard currencies are used to being handled with kid gloves, there are some people who would see such a policy move as rather un-African.
But to the maritime world, the action came as a no surprise. While the arrest of ships flying its flags has not been as frequent as the DRC-registered ones, Tanzania has for some time been on the spot.
Its ships, especially the Zanzibar-registered ones, have been in the news for all the wrong reasons including allegation of violating UN sanctions on Iraq and North Korea.
Here is the general dilemma for Africa. Owning and operating a ship is a an expensive affair that the continent’s private sector has avoided like the plague. Apart from Ethiopia’s State-owned merchant ships, majority of Eastern Africa including Kenya that receives one million containers every year do not own merchant ships.
Africa’s claim on ships that ply its waters is normally limited to collection of registration fees, a formality that confers to a foreign ship the same artificial citizenship that local incorporation hands a multinational firm on the continent.
On paper, an ocean-going vessel which chooses to be registered in a country other than that of its true owner effectively commits to observe all the laws and international conventions of the country.
Through its Merchant Shipping Act 2009, Kenya has been addressing these weaknesses despite slow implementation.