African Piracy Goes West

Piracy off Somalia has dropped to a new low, but is on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea

African Piracy Goes West African Piracy Goes West

Uncategorized October 25, 2013 0

counter-piracy troops intercept a suspected Somali pirated vessel. U.K. Ministry of Defence photo African Piracy Goes West Piracy off Somalia has dropped to a... African Piracy Goes West
counter-piracy troops intercept a suspected Somali pirated vessel. U.K. Ministry of Defence photo

African Piracy Goes West

Piracy off Somalia has dropped to a new low, but is on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea

Only 11 attacks by Somali pirates — resulting in only two hijackings — were recorded in the first three quarters of this year. This is down markedly from last year, when the International Maritime Bureau recorded more than 70 attacks by October. Between 2008 and 2010 hundreds of ships annually were attacked around the Horn of Africa by Kalashnikov-wielding pirates in skiffs.

Experts attribute this development to several causes, but mainly to the deployment of armed guards on merchant ships plus the counter-piracy mission of an all-star team of navies. Also, piracy is no longer the low-risk affair it once was for Somali men: several pirates were killed by international forces, most famously nearly the whole group that attacked the Maersk Alabama in 2009. Captured pirates are now routinely tried in European and African courts. Today 1,148 pirates are imprisoned.

Of course, all these countermeasures cost money, but with ransoms for merchant ships running into the millions of dollars and insurance premiums spiking, it’s probably still cheaper to fight pirates than to let them maraud unchecked.

Ghanaian naval forces train with U.S. sailors. Naval Surface Warriors/Flickr photo

The action moves west

The world’s attention is shifting to the Gulf of Guinea and especially the territorial waters of Nigeria. Like the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea is a hotspot for international shipping, with thousands of ships passing the region every year. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest oil producers: many of these ships carry crude or refined petroleum products or valuable supplies for offshore oil operations.

This makes for a lot of potential bounty and the region’s pirates, said to be mostly of Nigerian origin, know it: 40 ships were attacked this year and seven captured, according to the IMB — making the Gulf of Guinea three times worse than Somalia for shippers and seafarers.

Of course, the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea aren’t nearly as bad off as Somalia and holding a merchant vessel for ransom for months at a time is impractical for the pirates. So their emphasis is on straight-up robbery, targeting the crew’s belonging and the cargo of the ships.

Bandits steer captured tankers and supply ships into one of the many makeshift harbors on the Nigerian coast. There the oil and fuel is pumped into waiting tanker vehicles and goods are unloaded. The pirates then let the ship go, although members of the crew are sometimes taken offboard and held for ransom — another lucrative business in Nigeria’s Delta region.

Local governments and the international community are beginning to use many of the same strategies that have been successful off Somalia. The navies of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana are stocking up on small patrol craft and are coordinating their deployments. Western nations are giving support in the form of training and financing and could also deploy their own warships to the region, should the situation deteriorate further.

Members of a U.S. boarding team during practice in the Gulf of Aden. Naval Surface Warriors/Flickr photo

The same recipe doesn’t work everywhere

But there are important differences between East and West Africa, which make it impractical to use the exact same approach for both situations. Off the Horn of Africa, one of the first strategies to counter the threat posed by Somali pirates was to move the shipping routes farther out to the high seas. This made it harder for the pirates to track and approach the ships.

In West Africa, this is not an option, because most ships come to the region to load or unload at one of its ports. At any given time, hundreds of ships can be seen lying at anchor off the harbours of Cotonou or Lomé. If attacked, these ships cannot perform evasive maneuvers while waiting for help. There is also a lot of legitimate travel in small boats going on, making the identification of a pirate skiff very hard.

Once a ship has been boarded by pirates, it is often too risky to make a rescue attempt — not every country has a SEAL Team standing by. It would be a logical step to intercept the pirates on land, when they try to unload their loot, but this too fails in the face of reality. Law enforcement in the region and especially in Nigeria is highly corrupt and probably receives a cut of the proceeds in return for turning a blind eye. The practice that has been pervasive for decades.

Most Nigerians, like many Somalis, probably don’t have a problem with piracy per se. Despite having produced oil for over six decades, the region is still devastatingly poor and oil spills have ruined the traditional livelihoods of fishing and farming for large parts of the population. Tapping pipelines and robbing boats are two of the few ways for ordinary Nigerians to participate in the wealth generated in their country.

Piracy off West Africa will require a more refined strategy than simply throwing money and warships at the problem.