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Find an alternative to the Suez Canal

OPINION
By Macharia Munene | April 5th 2021

Ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, is seen after it was fully floated in Suez Canal, Egypt March 29, 2021. Suez Canal Authority/Handout.

For almost a week, a Taiwanese registered ship owned by the Japanese, and carrying Chinese cargo to Europe blocked the Suez Canal and virtually held 12 per cent of world shipping hostage.

MV Ever Given is one of 15 vessels in the world that measure 1,300 feet long and 200 feet wide and is equal to six and a half acres of land. It had to pass through the canal that is only 300 feet wide, thereby leaving only 50 feet room on both sides for maneuvre. The ship blocked the canal after going diagonal, thus creating a shipping crisis beyond expectation.

The blockade revealed structural weaknesses in Egypt and the management of the Suez Canal as a global common good. “The accident”, General Osama Rabie of the Suez Canal Authority explained, “is mainly due to lack of visibility resulting from bad weather conditions as the country passes through a dust storm, with wind speed reaching 40 knots.”

He also acknowledged that “a technical mistake or human error” could be responsible for the blockade. Since this deviation from the sailing path has happened several times before, the blockade was probably due to design deficiency or piloting incompetence.  

Of the previous blockades, three were related to war. In 1956 Abdul Gamal Nassir nationalised the canal to end control by “imperialists”. When Britain, France, and Israel invaded, Cold War antagonists United States and Soviet Union forced them to retreat. The next two wartime blockades were in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. 

Other types of blockade involved ships deviating from the right path. In 2004, an oil tanker called ‘The Tropic Brilliance’ was stuck for three days before it was refloated. In 2006, high winds and a sandstorm forced the ‘Okal King Dor’ to drift and block the canal for eight hours. In 2016, the CSCL Indian Ocean was grounded for five days. Then in 20l7, a Japanese vessel, the OOCL Japan malfunctioned and blocked the canal.

The Ever Given’s blockade was the latest in the canal. Its impact, partly due to the size of the vessel, is to send geopolitical strategists back to the drawing board on issues of maritime commerce and security. The blockade hurt many countries that ship to and from the Mediterranean zone and Europe through the Suez Canal. They agonised over the long alternative route of going around Cape Town, a throwback to the 19th Century before the 1869 opening of the canal.

The throwback forces countries in the region to re-examine relations and rekindles geopolitical rivalries. This makes over-reliance on canal shipping lanes detrimental to security and the commercial interests of other countries, which then need to redouble efforts to find alternatives to the Suez. The immediate alternative is to revert to the expensive and time-consuming 19th Century Cape Town route, but it is not viable.

Getting stuck

As the Ever Given was refloated and Egyptian President Al Sisi warned Ethiopia over its Grand Renaissance Dam, the need for geo-strategic rethinking for each state increased. In Eastern Africa, including Ethiopia, there is a viable alternative across Central Africa that awaits serious commitment.

The actualisation of the continental infrastructural opening up the Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia transport (Lapsset) corridor would do it. Lapsset faces challenges that are internal and external to each country and the region. It seemingly threatens entrenched interests in the Mediterranean/Red Sea area in the north and in Southern Africa.

With Lamu in Kenya and Douala in Cameroon as alternatives and cargo redistribution points where mega ships can dock, reliance on either the Suez or the Cape would be reduced. The two regions might not be happy.

The Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez, given that several ships had been stuck before, forced various states to rethink interests. First, it revealed that designers failed to cater for rough weather and ship steadiness.

Second, it forced countries that use the Suez to reflect on possible alternative routes for their shipping. In Africa, it increased the value of developing trans-continental infrastructure and connectivity, Lapsset, and how countries relate to each other. While this would not eliminate the Suez, it would provide sense of security comfort. 

Prof Macharia is a senior associate, Horn International Institute for strategic studies

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