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eTN speaks with Seychelles Minister Hon. Joel Morgan

(eTN) - On occasion, an opportunity arises to interview high-ranking officials during my many trips across Eastern Africa or to the Indian Ocean islands, and recently, during a visit to the Seychelles

eTN speaks with Seychelles Minister Hon. Joel Morgan

(eTN) – On occasion, an opportunity arises to interview high-ranking officials during my many trips across Eastern Africa or to the Indian Ocean islands, and recently, during a visit to the Seychelles, the Hon. Joel Morgan consented to be interviewed for eTN’s Executive Talk, discussing a range of issues, including the “Problem from Hell,” aka ocean terrorism, aka Somali piracy, where the Minster expressed strong views, which should be embraced by more and clearly saying that defeating piracy is a matter of national survival for the Seychelles.

eTN: Mr. Minister, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about a range of issues of interest to eTN’s readers. Do explain your role in government, as there is often a lot more behind the title of a ministry than meets the eye, as after all, you hold a wide brief in terms of the portfolio – Home Affairs, Environment, Energy, and Transport.

MINISTER MORGAN: To me it is very exciting in terms of the work that I do, and I personally love it. I find it very, very stimulating to be involved in so many areas and to have a chance to make a difference in so many key areas. For instance, in my work responsible as Minister of Environment I have a chance to steer the whole environmental management sector of our country, and I can make sure that there is continued protection of what we all hold so dear in our hearts and what is basically the mainstay of our tourism-oriented economy, and that is the environment. We are, in fact, moving forward to protect our pristine natural environment even more, with the soon-to-be-made declaration that 51 percent of our territory will become a legally-protected area. Already we lead the world in this regard with 47.2 percent of our territory being protected as marine national parks and terrestrial national parks.In this ministerial capacity, I also deal with all issues of climate change, which is crucially important to a small island state like the Seychelles. It presents a huge challenge to our country in terms of our water resources [author’s comment: the Seychelles depend overwhelmingly on rain for their water consumption, and the changes in rain patterns only recently made it necessary to double their desalination capacity from 2.5 million gallons to 5 million gallons production, courtesy of a gift by Abu Dhabi] but the mitigation of climate change impact on our coastal zones is another big area of concern; sea level rise, subsequent storm flooding, and tsunamis – the latter not connected to climate change but a real concern to us – are very key issues, considering that the largest part of our 86,000 strong population live along the coastal areas. Nature conservation is part of this portfolio’s brief, both marine as well as terrestrial conservation. Here the work that I do, the decisions taken here with other colleagues in government, do make a visible difference about development of some areas and the preservation of others. This all has a significant impact on the future or our country, on our children’s future, and our country’s environment, to maintain it for future generations, so I enjoy being in the midst of it today and being able to make a positive impact.

Another key sector of my responsibility is transport, a key to our economy in both the maritime and aviation sectors. The maritime sector is hugely important for our economy, for imports and exports as we depend a lot on importation of goods but also for our fishing industry. A lot of maritime traffic in our waters is connected with fishing, bringing fish to Port Victoria for processing, and then re-exportation. Being able to set transportation policies for our country and helping shape the future of such an important part of our lives, our economy, is a very exciting aspect of my work here. To improve access to the rest of the world, we are re-developing Port Victoria and also our main fishing port for better maritime services, and to move on to air-transport, we are also in an advanced stage to re-develop our international airport. This is a key for our tourism industry, which depends almost entirely on the airlines bringing in our tourist visitors but also allows our own people mobility, and we are a very mobile people with as many as 35,000 trips undertaken by Seychellois going abroad. Being in the middle of the Indian Ocean, so far away from everywhere else, means we depend on good air access and that we have improved a lot in the most recent past through an open air access policy.

I deal often directly with airlines when we negotiate bilateral agreements, and we had great success in bringing more airlines to Seychelles and others now flying a lot more often than was the case in the past. Emirates will soon be coming here twice a day, Qatar Airways is now going daily, Etihad will start with four flights in November, and our own national airline, Air Seychelles, remains a key partner for our tourism industry and to ensure constant access to key markets and destinations. The immediate plans are to start a codeshare arrangement into the Far East with China to open that market with direct access and, thereafter, negotiating similar access to Korea and Japan.

But my work as Transport Minister does not end there, I am also responsible for national transportation, public transport on and across the islands, where we have overcome past problems and modernized our bus fleets, added a lot more vehicles, responded to demands for new scheduled, new routes, and now offer reliable and affordable public transport to our citizens and our visitors, too.

Energy is another part of my portfolio, and here we are again set to become a global leader in the way we will introduce sustainable energy uses in the future when we implement our new policies. We want to move progressively away from the use of fossil fuels and tap into renewable energy sources like solar, ideal on our island with so much sunshine across the year. This is a passion of mine, a personal passion. We will start with the island of La Digue, which we intend to remodel into an island of pure sustainable and renewable energy use. There we are looking at wind energy, solar energy for lighting and hot water production, and going further by introducing and eventually only using hybrid or electric vehicles for transportation, replacing conventional diesel and petrol engines.

eTN: But the oxcarts on La Digue will remain?

MINISTER MORGAN: Yes, the La Digue oxcarts will remain in place. We intend to champion the use of renewable energy sources globally and will shortly install, with the help and financial support from our friends in the UAE, an 8.5 MW wind turbine plant, which should come on line by the end of this year and is then followed by a solar installation feeding electricity during day hours into the national grid. But we are not stopping there. We are pursuing a policy to encourage our households to install solar water heating and solar panels to get their own electricity from and will, with the help of international finance institutions, create a fund to give grants to Seychellois willing to convert to fully renewable energy use for their homes.

eTN: Have you already mandated the use of energy-saving bulbs to save electricity?

MINISTER MORGAN: We, in fact, did this a while ago already through incentives to consumers to switch to compact fluorescent bulbs by handing out replacement energy savers while at the same time removing all taxes and duties on the import of such energy savers to promote a “greener Seychelles.” That went hand in hand with promoting the use of LPG gas cookers to reduce electricity use during peak hours, and there, too, we took out taxes and duties for equipment to make it affordable for our people, for hotels and resorts, and restaurants.

All these measures are aimed to keep Seychelles green and reduce our carbon footprint in coming years; we want to spearhead it globally where we can to show that here, where climate change will have its first big impact, we are doing what it takes and what we can to play our part in the global fight against climate change. And holding the portfolios of both energy and environment also made another project easier for which I pushed very hard, as we are now starting to move from pure landfills for rubbish disposal to converting part of it into energy, which again will produce electricity in the future.

And the last key area of my responsibility, which I have taken on since last year and which is very challenging, is Home Affairs, comprising national security, police, prisons, border control and immigration, civil status, and, of course, the issue of piracy, which overlaps with Foreign Affairs and Defense.

eTN: You have at times been described as the “anti-piracy minister;” do you think this media slogan does your work any justice?

MINISTER MORGAN: I think is does do my work justice, yes I do. I am dedicating a lot of my time, nationally and internationally, to this problem and to combat it. I am doing it because it threatens my country, it is putting my country at risk, and the President has given me this responsibility. I am giving it my heart and soul to bring on board the international community, to sensitize our partners, to mobilize and galvanize support for Seychelles. Our President, in fact, championed the fight against piracy, and he was the first and remains at the forefront of our active diplomacy around the world to build a coalition with our partners to fight this menace. Piracy today is the single biggest threat to the entire region, and, in fact, not just to our region but to the entire international trade, which passes through our waters, our region using ships to import and export goods from around the world.

eTN: A major naval coalition was, of course, formed a few years ago to combat ocean terrorism, which is the phrase I use to describe the menace…

MINISTER MORGAN: I entirely agree with that!

eTN continues: …which is perpetrated by a very small section of Somalis and their financiers and middle men, which has led to the unjustified broad condemnation of the Somali people as a whole. What has the naval coalition done for the Seychelles to secure your waters, to protect your economic exclusion zone, and what significant material support like naval and aerial assets, training, and other measures have friendly countries given to Seychelles to allow the country to also mount its own defense?

MINISTER MORGAN: Our partners have been very positive in the help they have provided to Seychelles, because they have seen that we are very proactive in our stand and reaction. We have taken and continue to take a very strong stand against piracy and to protect our national integrity and our rights, the rights of shipping to peacefully use the sea lanes, and as a result of President Michel’s leadership and his policies, the global community has come together and helps us, supports us. Our closest friends and allies have responded to our needs very well. For instance, the UAE have donated 5 naval assets to us, 5 ships our coast guard uses to patrol our waters alongside the naval coalition vessels to improve safe passage and security for ships. Previously, the UAE also donated an aircraft to us for surveillance, doing daily flights to gather information and direct surface vessels. India has just donated a new Dornier surveillance aircraft to Seychelles and has underwritten the use of another one until the new aircraft comes off the assembly line for delivery, also allowing for training of our own personnel. This aircraft is actually armed and contains state-of-the-art equipment assisting us in pinpointing positions and comes to the aid of vessels in distress. In addition, India has donated to us 2 big navy vessels, which we use alongside the others to patrol and safeguard our waters, our fishermen, and our islands.

The UAE is also assisting us in building a totally new major coast guard base for our ships and as a control and command center complemented by a radar surveillance system covering all our key islands to allow for early detection of any threat to our national waters and our national security, be it pirates or other groups.

China is delivering to us 2 Y12 aircraft, also fully and state-of-the-art equipped, which will very much expand our reach and allow for constant around-the-clock airborne monitoring, surveillance, and directions for NavFor and Seychellois surface ships.

eTN: Is it a matter of national survival for the Seychelles to defeat the ocean terrorists?

MINISTER MORGAN: It is a matter of national survival for some of the key aspects of our national economy, tourism, fishing, and trade. We depend heavily on ships moving freely across our waters, into our port, and transiting with their cargos to Asia, to Africa, and beyond.

eTN: I was pleased to see a large cruise liner calling on Port Victoria today, and I understand this is now a very rare event compared with the old days when Port Victoria was a “must visit” destination for any cruise ship sailing the Indian Ocean. Security assessments have changed the classic Indian Ocean cruises from or to the Seychelles via Mombasa, Zanzibar, Mauritius, and South Africa, and all the exotic places in between, and the cruise companies are very afraid of one of their cruise liners coming under attack or even being captured, especially in view of several pirate groups being closely linked with militants like Al Shabab, sharing proceeds, and in case of a cruise ship capture, likely sharing the hostages.

MINISTER MORGAN: I agree with you there, about the links and the sharing of proceeds.

eTN: What options does the Seychelles government have to secure the sea lanes to bring the cruises back, to return 10 of millions of US dollars in tourism and related revenues to the Indian Ocean ports from Victoria to Mombasa and along the Eastern coastline of Africa. Is it possible to “shadow” the passenger cruisers from when they enter critical waters to the time they reach port?

MINISTER MORGAN: This is not viable, the area is vast is huge, which the different forces patrol and the naval assets are spread out already, so allocating additional surface assets is not possible. However, what has proven to be very, very effective and which has been pioneered here in the Seychelles, is the “vessel protection detachment,” which is putting trained and armed personnel on board of these ships until they reach safe waters again. We started this with fishing boats, our own boats, but also the Spanish and the French, and it has proven an effective deterrent against pirates capturing any of those boats so protected. After analyzing the results, we are now pushing for more such detachments to be placed on ships because the deterrent does work – not one of the ships so protected was captured by pirates.

We are now talking to cruise lines and are telling them that as they are losing a lot of market and revenue by avoiding our area, avoiding calling on the Seychelles, that with the right measures this is doable. Yes, there is an ongoing risk, but it can be minimized, reduced to almost zero, with the right precautions.

eTN: It is our understanding that you have UAVs based at the Mahe International Airport, none of which are presently armed. They could be armed?

MINISTER MORGAN: Yes, they could be armed.

eTN: Do you have any plans in that direction to increase your deterrent and ability to respond to incidents or prevent incidents, increase the risks for pirates to actually come out from their own territorial waters and try it on?

MINISTER MORGAN: The UAVs belong to the Unites States Army, and they are here under an agreement we have with the United States of America to operate missions for anti-piracy surveillance. They principally gather intelligence information, which they feed back to the US and share with us here in the Seychelles and NavFor members about locations of suspected pirate motherships and skiffs. The agreements we have in place right now with them does not provide for the arming of the UAVs at this point in time.

But what Seychelles now has is our own aerial assets, aircraft which are armed like the Dornier we have from India, and the new one we are getting from them. And under our own rules of engagement, we can and will use armed force against pirates when our own aircraft are involved in surveillance or coming to the assistance of vessels in distress and when the crew deems it necessary to either deter or neutralize the threat posed by such pirates.

eTN: This week the Seychelles Regatta takes place using catamarans, not the “tall ships.” It is a big business elsewhere in the world and before ocean terrorism became an issue, many round-the-world regattas stopped over in the Seychelles, bringing visitors and revenue. Will you in the future actively promote a return of the big regattas to Seychelles and will you be able to secure them from the air?

MINISTER MORGAN: We would like to see a return of these ships to our waters, however, at present, with the limited assets we still have at our disposal, ensuring the complete safety of yachts and their crews would be difficult to assure right now, but for the future, we want to be in total control of our waters and are working towards that objective.

eTN: You mentioned you have your own rules of engagement here in the Seychelles. Under these rules you have staged several successful rescue missions for which you must be congratulated, of course. It must have taken some courage to actually give your commanders on site the go and leave it to them to act as they were trained to do. You used your new naval and aerial assets well and were widely praised for your robust response, but you were also criticized, including by a few members of the naval coalition calling it a “risky strategy.” One particular source of criticism suggested it would cause a hardening of actions by pirates when they have captives on board after seizing a vessel. Will you in the face of such critiques continue with your robust handling of pirates when they are encountered on the ocean?

MINISTER MORGAN: Most definitely we will continue with our line of robust responses. In fact, we will not only continue, but intensify, our responses and actions. Our message to the Somali pirates is very clear: you come into our waters, you come to threaten us, our territory, our citizens, our livelihood, our economy – the consequences will be deadly.

eTN: Why, in your opinion, then are certain members of the naval coalition so loath to engage the ocean terrorists as decisively as you do? A few have stopped pondering and diddling about and equally started to engage them robustly, too, but generally with the vast superiority of assets and equipment, for monitoring and surveillance they have, they let the Chandlers be taken hostage standing by watching as London did not give the commander on site the approval to move in and prevent it. Doesn’t that show that the naval coalition needs to sit down and agree on a new set of robust rules of engagement, leaving the decisions to their commanders on site rather than making political decisions in the European capitals?

MINISTER MORGAN: I believe so, in fact, I have been propagating a change of the rules of engagement by the different partners in the naval coalition and amongst naval detaches directly deployed to the area to safeguard the shipping of that particular country. We must stop pondering and must move on to action. Had we done that a year ago already, I firmly believe that the Somali pirates would have seen a really strong deterrent and it would have had a big impact on the level of attacks we have seen since then. They would have known very clearly, if they take innocent people hostage at open sea, then they would face deadly consequences. The fact that this has not happened yet has been like an open door…

eTN: Has it encouraged the ocean terrorists?

MINISTER MORGAN: Of course it has, of course, it has been like an open door for them, and even if they are captured at sea, caught in a skiff, they are disarmed and put ashore in Somalia, they are back on the ocean within a week. Here in Seychelles, we have evidence that people we have captured were involved in previous hijackings, got caught and were released back to Somalia and went back out to sea again.

eTN: Uganda, where I come from, has the most troops based in Somalia under the AU’s peace keeping force, and our President has on several occasions demanded that Somalia has to be under a total sea and air blockade to have the mission succeed first before embarking on the economic reconstruction of Somalia, create jobs for young people instead of see them join Al Shabab or the pirates. Do you think a naval and air blockade would help you in your fight on the ocean when the militants and pirates are actually uprooted from their safe havens on land?

MINISTER MORGAN: We need to be smart how we tackle the problem of Somalia and the problem of piracy. It is clear that the state of anarchy in Somalia has to be brought under control, and the structures of government have to come in to stabilize the country, to have governance, to have infrastructure rebuilt to have the economy restart, create employment and opportunities, although this is a long-term process.

The immediate problem we have is dealing with terrorism from Al Shabab within Somalia and its links with Al Qaida, which have now been proven and, of course, also the problem of piracy, which in my mind is also linked to financing Al Shabab. I am convinced that one way or another the proceeds or part of the proceeds from piracy, the ransom payments, not only go to the businessmen who are behind the piracy, but they are also paying Al Shabab for various favours, for protection, for their rackets and their scams. What we need to do is to stop the flow of arms into Somalia. This is big money! Big international companies, which supposedly offer security services within Somalia are in my opinion involved in the arms trade into Somalia…

eTN: In arms trafficking?

MINISTER MORGAN: In arms trafficking, both small and big arms. I think the international community, especially the countries of the EU, the United States and other countries like Russia, for instance, need to tackle this problem, take it very seriously, as well as the UN, of course. They all need to clamp down on the supply of arms into Somalia. The second thing which needs to happen is that international institutions involved in combating financial crimes need to go after the money flow, after the people who finance piracy. Because piracy has become a business. It has become a business for people anywhere, they sit in Europe, they sit in all four corners of the globe. They are putting money into financing piracy because it provides huge returns. It is no longer just a question of pirates getting into skiffs, going on the ocean to hijack ships for ransom, it has become an “organized crime.”

eTN: The capabilities exist to do this, there are global agreements to disrupt and end the financing of terrorism…

MINISTER MORGAN: Yes, this is just another face of terrorism! The money which ends up in the hands of financiers of piracy is used to traffic narcotics, to traffic arms, to traffic humans – it fuels the international terrorism process. We must not be naïve and say these are just people making money, yes, they are making money, they are profiteering from piracy, but they are using such money to pay for other things, as organized crime syndicates.

eTN: So you think those syndicates and godfathers have a clear agenda?

MINISTER MORGAN: Evidently they do, and whoever believes otherwise must be naïve!

eTN: In recent months, pirates have landed and been arrested in Tanzania and other parts of Eastern Africa, even Indian Ocean island it has been reported. Those in Tanzania were spotted and arrested as they came ashore trying to commandeer fuel and supplies. The Seychelles with 115 islands and the extensive geographical spread across the Indian Ocean is a vast area to secure. Can you assure the public that your islands are safe and you have put all measures in place to ensure no pirates are going to land on your shores, your islands, and that your own people and the tourist visitors are safe?

MINISTER MORGAN: I can assure you that our people and visitors are safe. We have in place all required plans and taken measures to effectively and efficiently tackle any attempted landing by any pirates on our inhabited islands, and even on uninhabited islands we now have measures in place to prevent such. I am not saying it is impossible, please let that be very clear, but we have done everything humanly possible to prevent such an incident from happening in the Seychelles, and we are confident we have the ability to deal with such situations.

eTN: You mentioned earlier on that you are also responsible for transport, in particular air transport. Is the government, your ministry, giving any incentives to foreign airlines like 5th freedom rights to have them come to the Seychelles, to fly more often into Mahe? Emirates are now at 12 flights a week, soon going to double daily, Qatar Airways coming daily and Etihad planning to start with 4 flights a week from November. And, of course, the inevitable question on Air Seychelles, will the airline be privatized as has long been speculated or will it for the time being remain in the hands of government as a strategic national asset..

MINISTER MORGAN: We are presently studying the issue of 5th freedom traffic, mainly because we had requests from certain airlines to be granted such rights as part of renewals of existing bilateral air service agreements. We have to look at that very, very carefully, because we cannot compromise and endanger the viability and financial ability of our national airline, Air Seychelles. We believe in fair competition here, we believe in an open air access policy here in the Seychelles, but we still have to be very careful about giving 5th freedom rights to other airlines.

Air Seychelles is our backbone, our kingpin as far as air connections are concerned for our tourism industry, so we must be careful not to put our own national airline at risk. This is why we are taking our time to comprehensively study the implications of 5th freedom rights for other airlines, for the routes they want those rights for, and I believe we are right in taking our time to look at all aspects and implications. As to Air Seychelles and privatization, at this point in time, we have no plans to privatize or divest of our national airline.

Air Seychelles, as far as government is concerned, can seek out or go into strategic partnerships with suitable other airlines, and this can involve even a strategic investment in Air Seychelles, but we have no plans to divest ourselves from our national airline. For us, Air Seychelles is so important to our economy, so we cannot say you are privatized, go fend for yourself financially, and otherwise, this is not possible. Air Seychelles is a strategic asset to us just the same way as our public utility corporation is a strategic asset which, too, we will not divest of or privatize.

eTN: How far would a “strategic investment” go, 24 percent?

MINISTER MORGAN: It would be a minority investment, of course, because government wants to maintain a majority stake in Air Seychelles for reasons of having the national interest prevail.

eTN: The Seychelles Tourist Board, after restructuring and re-organization, has put “Brand Seychelles” on the map, on the global map…

MINISTER MORGAN: Yes they have, they have done an excellent job…

eTN: Are the government’s structural changes and reforms working, and what more is needed to build the Seychelles of tomorrow, considering the example of the tourist board and the experience drawn from that major reform?

MINISTER MORGAN: I think the way for the Seychelles of tomorrow, the way President Michel has explained his vision for Seychelles in his re-election manifesto, in his program, is an expansion of economic activity in our country. Basically, Seychellois, alone or even with partners from overseas, need to become the main actors in the development or our country. Government will provide conducive policies, will facilitate through appropriate mechanisms, will act as an enhancer of what the country’s private sector is involved in, and will provide infrastructure. What we want to see, and taking the example of the tourist board, the people of Seychelles take ownership of the future development of their country, and we will be there to help, facilitate, and support, and they are doing that already in many sectors of the economy.

eTN: You talk of the President’s vision; President Michel was just re-elected for another 5-year term with a very convincing majority giving him the mandate to carry on with economic and social change. The Seychelles Tourism Academy (STA) is maybe a good example to further that thought. STA is being expanded considerably, is being given a completely new campus, to train young Seychellois to get jobs and start a career in the tourism industry. Are you planning similar initiatives for other sectors of the economy like fishing or trade to empower your young citizens, give them the skills and abilities to build a future for themselves?

MINISTER MORGAN: We are doing this with the Concessionary Credit Agency and the Development Bank of Seychelles, we are, for instance, helping the food production sector, the farmers, the fishermen, and we are doing a huge amount for the small business sector in all forms like repairs and maintenance contractors, cleaning contracts in our districts, the people involved in graphic art, music. The entire private sector’s small busineses, including catering, take aways, or the craft sector, you name it, and government is putting in place, the President and his team are putting in place the right structures and so we can tell our people about the opportunities which now exist in the private sector, here is available financing, go for it.

eTN: Minister, in closing, you have been described to me as a rising star in politics, very well respected, and one person said even admired. Is the sky the limit for you?

MINISTER MORGAN: I am a very humble person; I dedicate myself to my President and to my country. I made a decision many years back to work for my country, in all humility.

I am not ambitious in the sense that I aspire to higher political calling and office, and I would rather let my work and action speak for themselves.
Would sometime in the distant future come the possibility for higher office, I would consider that with all the humility, but what drives me is not that, I am not driven by power or an agenda of self advancement, but I am driven by an agenda to work for my country based on service. This comes from my heart.

eTN: Thank you for your time Minister, on behalf of the entire team at eTurboNews.

MINISTER MORGAN: And I thank you and eTurboNews for the support you extend to the Seychelles – it is hugely important what you put out there and has a huge readership, and it is fair and balanced in their views and presents a picture of Seychelles as it really is. I personally believe in fair and balanced reporting and for that I am very grateful indeed.