“Look at me! I am the captain now.” When one thinks of Somalia’s maritime security, people immediately assume protection from Captain Philips-like imagery. However, while piracy tremendously diminished in Somalia in the last years, maritime security in the seas around Somalia is a highly complex phenomenon. It involves a variety of issues as well as a multiplicity of external responders.

To make sense of the impact that external actors have when addressing this complex phenomenon through various maritime capacity building endeavours, Colonel Marco Hekkens gives us his views of the need for a comprehensive approach. It requires daily coordination with the local authorities and international organizations that contribute to the regional maritime capacity building efforts. However, the “distance” between the policymakers in the EU and national capitals and the actual realities experienced on the ground remains a factor and a conscious effort must be made to reduce this gap. In this interview, Colonel Marco Hekkens shares his views on how to narrow the perceived distance between the guidance and policy received from the European Union Member States and the Mission objectives, and balance the local dynamics, constraints and restraints that influence effective and sustainable engagement in Somalia [1]. 

Colonel (Retired) Marco Hekkens  completed his first Common Security  and Defence Policy (CSDP) Mission  ‘EUSEC RD Congo’ in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012. Following his retirement from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps in May 2012 he was commissioned to write a study for Jumbo Maritime & Offshore, a heavy lift shipping and offshore transportation & installation contractor, for future operations in the Gulf of Guinea. On completion he was approached by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to join the EUCAP Nestor Mission. From early 2014 till January 2018 he served with EUCAP Nestor Mission, which was renamed ‘EUCAP Somalia’ on 1st March 2016 to reflect an actual physical presence in Somalia. Initially operating from Nairobi he soon found himself in Somaliland tasked to establish the first Mission Field Office in Hargeisa. In July 2016 he redeployed to Mogadishu to prepare for the establishment of a new Mission Field Office in Garowe, the capital of the autonomous Puntland State of Somalia. His principal responsibilities are directed at self-sustainable maritime capacity building activities of civilian (maritime) law enforcement agencies by providing advice, mentoring and the planning and implementation of projects aimed at achieving Maritime Governance

First of all, can you give a broader understanding of the mission, its mandate and your role as maritime adviser?

In simple terms the mandate of the EU CSDP EUCAP Somalia Mission is to contribute to the establishment and capacity building of maritime civilian law enforcement capability in Somalia, including Somaliland. I like to explain that by saying the aspired ‘end state’ is that Somalia is capable to effectively govern its own maritime space: its territorial waters (TTW) and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This involves an institutional capacity that mirrors, understands (through analysis), addresses (having the tools) and adheres to national and international legal frameworks. It requires adequate quantities of sea-going capabilities (ships and trained crews); and it involves a shore based infrastructure and the human resources that are organised to support and sustain all necessary activities in order to be able to initially police the TTW and coastal areas; and at a subsequent stage all the way to the extent of its EEZ. Perhaps the most challenging part is the latter aspect of ‘infrastructure’.

 Locations EUCAP Somalia (Source: EUCAP Somalia website)

So, what would you say is the most challenging part of the mission?

In order to put that question in context, it is important to first describe how the Mission routinely operates and how ‘things are done in Somalia’. As Maritime Adviser, but together with the other Mission experts that have for instance a police and/or legal background, we engage with local authorities predominantly at the ‘strategic level’. That involves inter alia meetings and workshops with the leadership and staff of so-called stakeholder Ministries that have a primary responsibility to effectively police the maritime space; and the judiciary and other government institutions such as the Ministry of Fisheries and Ministry of Environment. The work is guided by a set of objectives and tasks that are derived from the Mission Operational Plan (OPLAN). Objectives and tasks are ‘translated’ in activities and projects that are coordinated with the local authorities in order to best meet the ‘Needs’ that are articulated in the existing Somali Development Plans. When the Mission itself cannot directly contribute to certain Needs (i.e. EUCAP Somalia, unlike the UN, doesn’t build new buildings, it can only refurbish existing buildings), a conscious attempt is made to coordinate and collaborate as much as possible with other actors such as UNODC [2].

The aforementioned ‘Maritime Governance’ implies that the Federal Somalia and its regional states (like Puntland and Galmadug) have the means to effectively plan and conduct the so-called Coast Guard functions [3]. EUCAP Somalia actively contributes to programmes to mature the most pressing Coast Guard Functions through advice, assistance and minor equipment donations linked to training. It does this – where possible – through close cooperation with EU NAVFOR Atalanta, UNODC, AMISOM (Maritime Unit) and of recent with support from AFRICOM through sponsored exercises.

Throughout all engagement it is important to exercise perception management. Unfortunately, although understandable, local actors do not always fully understand why ‘the rich EU cannot do this, or pay for that’ on the spot; or that larger projects require a long procurement process that follows very rigid rules and procedures. These hurdles to rapid implementation and ‘delivering local effect’ have been addressed for several years and are certainly not unique to EUCAP Somalia only. With the new Mission mandate being broadened it may now offer increased opportunities to achieve that ‘local effect’ in a more responsive manner thus also contributing to enhancement of the (local) credibility of the Mission and its personnel [4].

To answer your question, I believe the most challenging part is to seek the best approach or modus operandi for constructive engagement which recognises the unique Somali factors and the European way of doing things, based on legitimacy, due process, transparency and so forth. To be more precise, and let me quote “Somali security institutions are managed according to clan interests that are the basis on which resources are distributed in an ongoing process of hybridisation with no set beginning or end. Understanding the intricate relationship of clan identity and principles of governance and administration in Somalia is central to the political reality that will shape the intervention of any outsider” [5]. And to be fully clear, I am not passing any judgement; but failing to align these ‘concepts’ at the political level (where ‘state’ and ‘clan’ are intertwined) may prove detrimental to project implementation at ground level.

Speaking about hurdles, do you experience any effects of new emerging international challenges?

The international dynamics are visible on a daily basis but do not – as yet – directly interfere with our work. Major actors like the US, China [6], Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar all contribute to capacity building, humanitarian aid, scholarships, assisting the Somali National Army (SNA) fight Al Shabaab and IS; and by providing direct funding and equipment donations. Whilst I am prepared to say that in general terms the European assistance is of a higher quality and based on a more long-term, step by step systematic approach, any assistance by foreign donors is welcome, at least in theory. To enhance the effectiveness of such support and to counter disruptive and harmful influences [7], more emphasis must be placed on the synchronisation of all assistance programmes [8]. Mechanisms to achieve exactly that do exist: under the auspices of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) very detailed, and periodically prioritised overviews for (strategic) maritime capacity needs and activities have been prepared by Oceans Beyond Piracy. The reality however demonstrates that such alignments are still not taking place sufficiently and perhaps more importantly, in a coherent and phased fashion. Somali authorities, through existing political and strategic mechanisms [9] must also articulate and phase their realistic priorities; and avoid accepting ‘everything’. 

The effects of – for instance – US drone strikes against senior Al Shabaab leadership; or Mixed Migration may affect Mission engagement, especially when the security environment starts to impose additional restrictions. Then again, there may be new opportunities, for instance a closer cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) or the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). I think that the scope, breadth and reach of ‘Maritime Security’ capacity building activities, and by consequence the many requirements, is underestimated. Maritime Security, or countering Maritime Crime is a multifaceted undertaking, both on land and at sea (and in the air). It requires an integrated regional approach to ensure that ‘all angles’ and disciplines are covered; it requires patience and stamina. That is, and will remain difficult for foreseeable time due to different regional priorities, a mismatch between the existing and necessary infrastructures and institutions, degrees of ‘mistrust’ and a security environment that is not yet conducive to tangible assistance on the ground, especially there where it matters most.

To me, the Yemen conflict [10] gives cause for particular dynamics and (in)direct political instability. According to the International Crisis Group Somalia has become a chessboard in the power game between Qatar and Turkey on the one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies on the other [11].

Where do you think these levels of mistrust come from?

In broad terms one could define mistrust within Somalia; and mistrust between Somali actors and non-Somali actors. There are other forms of mistrust (and perhaps distrust) such as between the returning Somali diaspora and those that could not afford to leave the country after the civil war and the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991.

When comparing Somalia with – for instance – the Netherlands, the Somali society is more closed, has a much more stronger developed respect for the older generation (which represents knowledge and wisdom); and is much more ‘secretive’. The prevailing thinking is more based on seeking advantages over another individual and/or clan, not necessary with malicious intent. So any transaction, new ideas and proposals will be initially viewed through this lens. 

The motion of no confidence against the speaker of federal parliament’s lower house, which started mid-March till 9 April, continued to expose the political fragility and mistrust in the current government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (‘Farmajo’) [12]. The intervention by AMISOM in this matter on 5th April is a telling story; and it did not come as a surprise that Al Shabaab exploited this political impasse in Mogadishu with several attacks. Equally, the military stand-off between Puntland and Somaliland in the disputed Sool region near the ‘tax village’ of Tukarak is already  lasting over five months and is another example of (the many) ‘unresolved issues’ that persist in Somalia [13]. It will not come as a surprise that these issues are closely watched by the regional powers as their vested interests in Somalia may be affected; or exploited by ‘friend or foe’ alike.

How are these regional powers affecting the mission, is it like a new ‘scramble for Africa’?

An interesting development that may have future implications for European maritime capacity building efforts in the Horn of Africa (HoA) region is what I call ‘The Race is On – Port development and military basing in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the West Indian Ocean’. In the recent months media widely reported the controversies surrounding the port development ($442 million) in Berbera, Somaliland, and in Bosasso ($336 million) in Puntland by the DP World / P&O Ports firm based in the UAE. Djibouti nationalised the management of the former DP World managed container terminal; Qatar announced it signed a partnership agreement worth 4 billion dollars that would assist Sudan to develop Suakin Port in eastern Sudan on the Red Sea. China is looking at developing ports in Puntland and Turkey is heavily involved in modernisation plans for the port of Mogadishu; Ethiopia is acquiring stakes in the ports of Djibouti, Somaliland and Sudan; and the list goes on. On first glance such port infrastructure development work certainly has enormous potential to benefit the wider development of Somalia and its neighbouring countries. But when such ports and supporting infrastructures are also suitable to support regional power projection by the ‘benefactor’, one must consider the strategic implications and whether any future EU assistance is still welcomed (by the benefactor). I believe this is something that needs to be watched very closely [14] [15].

Copyright Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On a different note, the Horn of Africa has tremendously suffered from extensive and prolonged droughts and brings particular sets of challenges with it. Does this affect the mission at all?

The drought has a profound impact on the livelihoods of both the traditional nomadic tribes as well as the pastoralist that rely on periodic rain to grow their crops. Much of the national revenues also relies on the steady export of livestock (and crops) to Saudi Arabia and Oman but with much of the herds killed by drought (or the livestock no longer of export quality), these revenue streams are under significant stress. Not unlike the current situation where it concerns Maritime Security, the agricultural sector must also deal with underdeveloped institutions, insecurity, a persistent insurgency, dilapidated infrastructures, increasing environmental degradation and climate change, all of which have produced a low crop yield [16]. Clan confrontations as a result of access to grazing land and water just add another layer of complexity. Reduced yields will necessitate more imports which in turn negatively influences the limited public funds available for ‘nation building’, social services and structural investments in the security sector.  

The severity of the situation is also reflected in that farmers have started to turn to fishing instead, which is also a local attempt to try countering ‘illegal foreign’ fishing through legal national fishing. Of note is that the United Nations Security Council has formally recognised climate change as a destabilising factor in Somalia. The Council noted “the adverse effects of climate change, ecological changes and natural disasters among other factors on the stability of Somalia, including through drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity”.

Personally I am not well sighted whether the ongoing drought and famine caused a noticeable increase in the routine illicit activities. But with thousands of people seeking ways to survive, it is not unlikely that some have no other choice than to resort to means which we perhaps would label as ‘illegal’. To quote Mrs Janina Vivekananda [17] when outlining three interlinked impacts climate change is having on Somalia: “The sharpening of pre-existing grievances over access to already scarce resources, the rise in terror group recruitment, and the increased complications in migration. Extreme weather conditions decrease the viability and quality of land and risks access to already scarce resources,” said Vivekananda. This makes it easier for militant groups to recruit. “Young people working in farming, pastoralism, and fishing face a future of unemployment, so are more susceptible to alternatives which provide food security, livelihood and a daily wage.”

Paradoxical perhaps, and unlike in 2017 when the rains were poor, the above average Gu rains in April this year are already worsening conditions in the overcrowded IDP settlements and displacing more people along riverine areas due to severe flooding. More than 427,000 people have been affected (as of 26 April) and of these nearly 175,000 have been displaced as a result of the flash and river flooding in Hirshabelle, South West and Jubaland states as well as Banadir region.

There is obviously a difference with European values and the local culture in Somalia, in what ways are you trying to bridge this gap?

The European Union is founded on the shared values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Furthermore the European Union is the leading institutional actor and largest donor in the fight against death penalty worldwide. It will come as no surprise that these values need to be part and parcel of our constructive engagement in the region. That said, it pays to be judicious when addressing these values and take into account traditional law, practices and beliefs deeply rooted in Somali history and culture which may differ from these values in their application [18]. 

As such it is important that Mission experts possess a cultural sensitivity, and seek the right moment to table the more controversial aspects. Abolishing the death penalty is an example, as this still happens in Somalia. Being able to listen – and learn – is another quality that pays off, as opposed to ‘banging the EU drum’. Simply put, a fine balance is to be struck to gradually nudge towards the interpretation and application of our shared values. This is especially relevant when discussing gender equality. As an example, to expect from one day to the other to have a 30% female representation across Somali institutions is simply not achievable. A more gradual approach is much more credible, especially when one considers that this ‘30%’ isn’t achieved across the board in Europe as well. Therefore, in summary, we must strike an intelligent balance between leading indigenous and the western thinking, in particular in crosscutting themes, such as political legitimacy, gender and transitional justice reform processes. Put differently our engagement must be guided by “Principled pragmatism” [19].

I believe social media (apart from the abundant fake, twisted or incomplete news being circulated in Somalia) and linked to a strong civil society engagement can be a contributing factor and enable (EU) bottom-up approaches that originate from within the Somali society. In that context it is reassuring to see many local initiatives that try to encourage change across many of the thematic areas. In particular mainstreaming the issues in the area of Gender and Gender Based Violence, ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, and the prosecution of rapists can be delivered in a context specific and sensitive manner in the local language. The EU, UN and other IOs can continue to provide access to field and academic research and funding; but perhaps observe and assist from a more discreet position, not always in the limelight [8]. The recent EUCAP Somalia’ Human Rights and Gender Strategy is a perfect example how to ‘operationalise’ the guidance derived from the Mission OPLAN.

Part 2 of the interview can be read here. Part 2 is focused on the lessons and possible solutions aimed at improving the effectiveness of the EU engagement in Somalia.


[1] In this interview ‘Somalia’ includes Somaliland; the author is cognisant that Somaliland views itself as an independent country.
[2] EUCAP Somalia and UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme HoA share an annually revised Joint Work Plan for enhanced collaboration. The Work Plan recognises the need for close coordination and potential for joint engagement and synergy between the initiatives of EUCAP Somalia and UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP) in Somalia. The joint Work Plan seeks to identify common end-state objectives for improved maritime security in Somalia with a preliminary division of labour based on the competencies of each organization. The present focus of the joint engagement is directed at the Maritime Police Unit based in Mogadishu.
[3] The Coastguard Functions are Maritime safety, including vessel traffic management; Maritime, ship and port security; Maritime customs activities; The prevention and suppression of trafficking and smuggling and connected maritime law enforcement; Maritime border control; Maritime monitoring and surveillance; Maritime environmental protection and response; Maritime search and rescue; Ship casualty and maritime assistance service; Maritime accident and disaster response; Fisheries inspection and control; and activities related to the above Coast Guard Functions (http://www.ecgff-trainingporta…).  
[4] Framing or anchoring the EU in a less positive sense due to prevailing cognitive biases (based on emotions and less rational processes) carries the risk that the very positive results achieved by the EU do take more time to be fully recognised. Hence the importance of strong and factual narratives that equally support achievements but also regrettable delays in implementation. “Pre-suasion” is another approach that might be explored; the term was coined by Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. He defines pre-suasion as “the practice of getting people sympathetic to your message before they experience it. It’s the ability to cause people to have something at the top of their consciousness that makes them receptive to your message that’s yet to come.” (PBS Newshour, September 22, 2016). [5] The interplay of interventions and hybridisation in Puntland’s security sector by Peter Albrecht, Danish Institute for International Studies (April 2018).
[6] China and the EU in the Horn of Africa: competition and cooperation?’ Clingendael Research Unit Policy Brief (April 2018) by Anca-Elena Ursu and Willem van den Berg.  The authors make three recommendations for EU policy makers and private sector actors who seek further engagement with the Horn: Make accurate and balanced assessments; Seize complementarity; and Play to the EU’s strengths.
[7] Spoiler activities can comprise misinformation, disinformation and malinformation to serve a particular, not conducive agenda with regard to capacity building efforts. It creates information chaos. Certain nations that maintain bilateral relations are hesitant or outright reluctant to share information and cooperate with other actors.
[8] In 2014, the author coined the expression “The centre stage in Somalia is not big enough for all the prima donnas”, referring to a lack of cooperation and at time competition between actors that operated in the same geographical area.
[9] Such as the National Security Architecture, Maritime Security Coordination Committee (MSCC) and the National Maritime Coordination Committee (NMCC).
[10] Russia may open a naval base in Somaliland,….
[11] Statement by Mr Rashid Abdi, director of the Horn of Africa project at the ICG.
[12] The [former] speaker Mr Mohamed Jawari resigned on 9 April. On 30 April Mohamed Mursal Sheikh Abdirahman was elected as the 11th Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament; and was inaugurated on 10 May. Before entering his candidacy he served as Minister of Defence. In 2011 he served as Ambassador to Turkey. Rumours are rife that Qatar and the UAE fought over whose man got to be the new Speaker of Parliament; with ‘money flowing like water’ ( of date 8 May).
[13] UN Special Envoy to Somalia brokered talks took place in Nairobi, Kenya on 9 April which may lead to the withdrawal of Somaliland forces from Tukarak. Note: this still hasn’t happened as of date of publishing.
[14] Russia may open a naval base in Somaliland,….
[15] Riyal Politik, The political economy of Gulf investments in the Horn of Africa, Clingendael Research Unit Report by Jos Meester, Willem van den Berg, Harry Verhoeven (26 April 2018),….
[16] ‘Rebuilding Resilient and Sustainable Agriculture in Somalia’, a joint report by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.…
[17] Mrs Vivekananda is senior project manager and climate expert at consultancy firm Adelphi.
[18] Mali makes an interesting comparison with Somalia, especially through the lens of legal reform activities. ‘Between ideals and needs: is Malian customary justice incompatible with international human rights standards?’ Clingendael Research Unit Policy Brief (April 2018) by Anca-Elena Ursu makes recommendations for policy makers and practitioners who aspire to support customary systems in overcoming their weaknesses and to remedy the profound need for justice.
[19] ‘A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy’ (June 2016); and an ‘Upgraded Generic Standards of Behaviour for CSDP Missions and Operations’, dated 7 March 2018.

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