How to Fight Pirates the African Way
A continent is trying to secure its seas
Africa has more than 26,000 kilometers of coastline—and some of the world’s most important trade routes run through its waters. Its nations’ territorial waters contain vast mineral reserves. More than any other continent, Africa depends on the sea for its economic development.
But the abilities of African nations to effectively police their waters is limited.
Somali piracy first brought naval security in Africa to the top of the agenda. This threat is waning thanks to a massive international effort to counter and apprehend pirates off the Horn of Africa.
But other threats are rising … and finally getting some attention from African governments.
Some of these new threats are arguably more harmful to Africa than Somali piracy ever was. The continent will need to invest considerably more financial and political capital to effectively counter them.
Piracy moves west
Daring hijackings by Somali pirates and multi-million-dollar ship ransoms are “now a matter of the past,” says Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau. The IMB is a subdivision of the International Chamber of Commerce and publishes regular updates on worldwide piracy.
“Since the end of 2012 the attacks have come down dramatically,” Mukundan says. “We used to have something like 49 hijackings per year, today we have zero hijackings.” Off the coast of Somalia, that is.
A broad coalition of navies, including the U.S. to China, patrols East African waters. Shipping companies have invested heavily in private security contractors. Additionally, there have been improvements in governance in Somalia, although Mukundan cautions that the pirates “are still there”—and the phenomenon could well reappear, if international efforts wane.
Despite the improving situation in Somalia, Africa is still the most dangerous continent for ship owners. The threat has shifted from east to west. The Gulf of Guinea is becoming the new hot spot for pirate activities.
“In the Gulf of Guinea, we have had 50 attacks in total [this year],” Mukundan says. Western pirates seized two vessels and 39 crew—and killed on crewman.
In fact, the real damage is likely far great. The IMB estimates that as many as two thirds of all attacks in the region go unreported, because ship owners want to avoid bureaucratic interactions with local authorities.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is fundamentally different than piracy off the Horn of Africa, says maritime security expert Adjoa Anyimadu of the Chatham House think tank.
“The risk mainly comes from Nigeria,” Anyimadi says. But the pirates roam the territorial waters of nearly a dozen different nations that border the Gulf of Guinea.
In the case of Somalia, attacks would happen on the open seas, sometimes geographically closer to India than to Somalia. In West Africa, pirates target ships that are riding at anchor close to shore. The proximity to land makes international intervention “harder to justify,” according to Anyimadu.
More and more, African governments are waking up to the necessity of controlling all economic resources in their territories, including those at sea.
Africa’s coast includes some of the world’s most important fishing grounds—and much of the continent relies on the fish protein for daily nutrition. But the same lack of boats and skilled law-enforcement officers that lets pirates roam freely also deprives African governments of the means to thwart illicit fishing fleets from Europe, Russia and Asia.
With food prices quickly becoming one of the most important concerns for domestic constituencies, African governments are scrambling for solutions to illegal fishing that has gone virtually unchecked for decades.
Huge new natural gas and crude oil discoveries also demand better maritime security. Mozambique and Tanzania, for example, are on the verge of becoming some of the world’s largest producers of natural gas, all of which is found offshore.
Their governments look with trepidation to Nigeria, where the oil and gas sector is the main target of pirates, who abduct and hold workers for ransom and steal oil, gas and supplies.
The increasing value of marine resources is also heightening the tensions around disputed borders, like in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
To counter piracy as well as to secure their economic interests, African countries are starting to invest in maritime security. But Anyimadu thinks that there’s room for improvement. In West Africa, for example, maritime security still suffers from a “lack of prioritization on the national level”—especially in Nigeria, she says.
In Nigeria, the different branches of the security forces fight with each other over resources … with the navy usually losing.
Individual states need to sort out their budgetary and political priorities. In the mean time, international cooperation is becoming more important. Because maritime threats rarely respect borders, navies must cooperate. Especially in the Gulf of Guinea, where many states share a relatively small patch of ocean.
A recent regional summit in Cameroon was a big step forward in this regard, Anyimadu says. But now countries need to make good on the promises they made there. Nigerian leadership would help, because Nigeria has the strongest navy in the region and is also the source of many of the problems.
But because Nigeria is also battling a deadly and high-profile insurgency on land, this isn’t very likely to happen in the near future, Anyimadu admits.
Instead, she says, smaller countries could look to East Africa and the example of The Seychelles for inspiration. The tiny island nation has become a hub for counter-pirate activities around the Horn of Africa.
And as a result, the international community has invested heavily in strengthening the naval and institutional capacities of The Seychelles, to help the country to host military task forces and reconnaissance assets, as well as to enable the judicial system to try and imprison suspected pirates.