Piracy in West Africa dropped in 2022, but criminals are moving elsewhere

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Piracy and maritime crime continued to decline in the Gulf of Guinea last year, largely in response to heightened regional and international anti-piracy efforts, but this has pushed pirates into other criminal enterprises, such as oil theft and drug trafficking.

This is according to Dryad Global’s 2022/2023 annual report, which noted that last year’s reduction in piracy in the waters of Nigeria and the wider Gulf of Guinea was a result of governments and organisations working together to carry out joint naval patrols, share intelligence, and coordinate responses to piracy incidents. “Governments in the region also increased their law enforcement presence, deploying more naval vessels and patrol boats to piracy-prone areas. Additionally, counter-piracy legislation and prosecution were strengthened, criminalizing piracy and establishing specialized courts,” Dryad stated.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) reported 115 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in 2022 – compared to 132 in 2021 – with half in south-east Asian waters, particularly the Singapore Straits, where incidents continue to rise. This is broken down into 107 vessels boarded, two hijacked, five attempted attacks and one vessel fired on. In “many cases” vessels were either anchored or steaming when boarded, with nearly all incidents occurring during the hours of darkness.

The continued and much needed reduction in global piracy is attributed to an overall decrease of pirate activity in the highly risky waters of the Gulf of Guinea – down from 35 incidents in 2021 to 19 in 2022. The Gulf of Guinea continues to report a decreasing number of incidents, with just five were reported in the first quarter of 2023, down from eight last year and 16 in 2021, the IMB reported.

Nevertheless, the region remains dangerous: in March 2023 pirates boarded a product tanker off the coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while in April another tanker was boarded about 300 nautical miles southwest of Abidjan, Ivory Coast – all crew were later reported safe with the oil cargo the target.

According to Dr Okafor-Yarwood, a Lecturer in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, the reduction in piracy “is something of a contradiction because, while we’re seeing a decrease in some maritime crimes thanks to increased collaboration and cooperation on regional, national and international levels, criminals are unfortunately moving elsewhere: for instance, when it comes to oil theft and drug trafficking, criminals are having more success as our repulsion efforts drive their creativity.”

Okafor-Yarwood said there is increased collaboration and cooperation between nations on the maritime security front, on regional and international levels but the biggest challenge at a regional level is limitation of assets and not being able to coordinate their use between those who have such assets, and those who do not. However, improved coordination in Nigeria is bearing fruit, notably through the Deep Blue Project run by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).

“When NIMASA and other Nigerian maritime agencies are fully integrated, I think they’ll be able to do far more effective work than they are currently. We’re seeing evidence of the Nigerian navy’s ability to work effectively and actually lead as an example showing that the Gulf of Guinea countries are able to secure their waters when they have the right assets, information and support,” she said.

Less piracy but more attacks in the Indian Ocean

Although piracy has dropped on both Africa’s East and West coasts, in 2022, the northern Indian Ocean witnessed several maritime security incidents that had significant implications for the region. These included the targeted attack on the Israeli vessel M/T Pacific Zircon by Iran in November, a series of incidents involving Houthi rebels offshore of Hodeidah in Yemen and a number of attacks on vessels calling at southern Yemeni ports along the Gulf of Aden coast. Alongside such notable events were a number of smaller but no less tangible maritime security concerns in the form of approaches recorded within the Bab al Mandab and Gulf of Aden, Dryad reported.

“In November 2022, Iran’s role in targeting the M/T Pacific Zircon, an Israeli-owned vessel, stood out as a prominent maritime security event. The attack on the tanker, reportedly carried out by Iranian forces, involved the use of explosive-laden drones. This act of aggression resulted in substantial damage to the vessel’s hull. The incident drew international attention due to its connection to the broader pattern of Iran targeting Israeli-linked vessels in the region.

“Simultaneously, Houthi rebels in Yemen played a significant role in maritime incidents offshore of Hodeidah within 2022, originating with the boarding and subsequent detention of the M/V Rwabee 20nm West Ras Isa Terminal in January. Whilst currently involved in a protracted peace process as well as a protracted conflict with the Yemeni government and its international allies, Houthi rebels continue to employ various asymmetric tactics in their actions. These have included the use of naval mines, coastal defence missiles, and unmanned explosive-laden boats. The targets of these attacks included commercial ships and military vessels, posing threats to maritime trade, the lives of seafarers, and the environment due to potential oil spills.

“Within southern Yemen, several incidents highlighted the threat to vessels calling at ports in the region. These included two drone-driven explosions in close proximity to the M/T Nissos Kea at the port of Ash Shihr, an attack on the al-Dhabba oil terminal by Houthi rebels, and an aerial drone attack on the cargo vessel Ata M at the port of Qena. These incidents underscored the volatile nature of the region and the challenges in maintaining maritime safety, emphasizing the need for comprehensive security measures,” Dryad stated.

“The combined effect of these incidents highlights the persistent challenges faced in ensuring maritime security in the northern Indian Ocean. The targeted attack on the M/T Pacific Zircon by Iran illustrated the ongoing tensions between Iran and Israel and the potential repercussions for states involved in perceived grievance with Iran. Meanwhile, Houthi rebel activities off the coast of Hodeidah highlighted the disruptive impact of regional conflicts on maritime operations, emphasizing the need for robust security measures.”