With more than 30 000 kilometres of coastline, the fortunes of the African continent are inextricably bound to safety and security at sea.
From Senegal to Angola, nations are working to deter pirates and thieves who ply the waters of the Gulf of Guinea for oil, fish and ransoms. In the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean — all the way down to the Mozambique Channel — nations and international forces combat Somali pirates, who have staged something of a resurgence recently.
Seventy percent of Africa’s nations — 38 out of 54 — border the sea and depend on it for travel, trade and livelihoods.
In short, a secure maritime domain is a vital part of national stability. A vibrant economy depends on a stable nation, and vice versa. Lt. Cmdr. Ghislain M. Moussavou of the Gabonese Navy said in advance of exercise Obangame Express 2018 that “if you have a maritime area that is not safe and secure, there is a negative impact on the livelihood of local communities, and then that can destabilize the country.”
Piracy is as old as seagoing itself, but the scourge has been a constant African security problem for close to two decades now, first in East Africa and later off the coast of West Africa.
Codes of Conduct
East and West African regions each have codes of conduct that set standards of cooperation among nations in the fight against piracy and other maritime crimes. East Africa’s Djibouti Code of Conduct came first in 2009, enacted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO told ADF in 2012 that the code was intended to promote information sharing, regional training, national legislation and capacity building.
Now, after years of success, the IMO says the code has been amended to cover illicit maritime activity beyond piracy and armed robbery, such as arms, drugs, human and wildlife trafficking; illegal waste dumping; illegal fishing; and crude oil theft. This happened in 2017 during a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The result is the Jeddah Amendment to the Djibouti Code of Conduct 2017.
West and Central African nations in 2013 signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in Cameroon, which similarly commits them to cooperate on maritime security by sharing and reporting information, interdicting vessels suspected of illegal activities, apprehending and prosecuting criminals, and caring for and repatriating seafarers subjected to illegal activity.
Exercises Solidify Cooperation
African nations and their international partners come together in each coastal region to practice and perfect the goals and mandates laid out in the codes of conduct. US Africa Command sponsors three regional “Express” series exercises off African coasts to test and improve the capacities of African and international partner nations and organizations.
In East Africa, the Seychelles hosted Cutlass Express 2018, which used the Jeddah Amendment to the Djibouti Code of Conduct as a framework for conducting information-sharing drills and other exercises. Participating nations were Australia, Canada, Comoros, Denmark, Djibouti, France, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Seychelles, Somalia, South Africa, Turkey and the United States.
In West Africa, Gabon hosted Obangame Express 2018, the eighth iteration of a naval exercise that plays out all along the West African coast, including the crucial Gulf of Guinea region. Nations participate in boarding and search-and-seizure drills at sea, and land bases work on communications and information sharing. The exercise is intended to help African nations counter all types of illicit trafficking, illegal migration, piracy and illegal fishing. The 2018 iteration of the event included maritime operation centres in five areas and covered 2.36 million square kilometres.
Participating were Angola, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Morocco, Namibia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Portugal, the Republic of the Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, The Gambia, Togo, Turkey and the United States, as well as the Economic Community of West African States and the Economic Community of Central African States.
Although East and West Africa are best known for piracy and maritime crime, the coast of North Africa has its own set of maritime issues. Phoenix Express 2018 helped improve regional cooperation, increase maritime domain awareness, information-sharing, and operations to promote safety and security in the Mediterranean Sea.
Phoenix Express, which began in 2005, was headquartered in Souda Bay, Greece, but included operations throughout the Mediterranean Sea, including territorial waters of North African nations. The exercise tested the ability of European, North African and U.S. forces to respond to irregular migration and to combat illicit trafficking and the movement of illegal materials.
Participating were Algeria, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, the Netherlands, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States.
Piracy and other maritime crimes endanger lives, livelihoods and national security. The connection between land- and sea-based crime is well-established, and African nations on all coasts will have to continue to be vigilant in building their individual capacities while cooperating with each other. Even so, progress is being made across the continent.
Dr. Ian Ralby, adjunct professor of maritime law and security at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, said because of the attention paid to piracy in recent years, a lot of countries have “turned to face the sea” more directly to address maritime concerns. This was clear during the Whole of Africa Maritime Dialogue in Victoria, Seychelles, which focused on enhancing African maritime security.
The weeklong event in March 2018 had nearly 50 people from 26 countries and 13 regional organizations meet to discuss an array of topics, including cooperative responses to maritime issues, developing a maritime strategy, technological surveillance, developing a “blue economy” and prosecuting sea-based crimes.
Participants visited the Seychelles’ piracy court and appeals chamber. They also boarded and inspected an Iranian dhow captured during a drug-trafficking case. The boat now is used as a training tool. “A pier-side talk about the dhow and how the drugs were hidden helped participants grasp, first-hand, the operational challenges facing the region,” according to a program summary of the dialogue. “In boarding the vessel, participants could see what searching such a ship would require.”
Ralby said he hopes the dialogue will become an annual fixture on the continent. There should be many ideas and viewpoints to share, as Ralby said progress is being made across the continent:
Morocco and Algeria are cooperating, despite their differences.
The Seychelles, Africa’s smallest nation, is leading the way on piracy prosecutions and harnessing its maritime domain to secure economic wealth.
Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe can successfully undertake combined operations at sea every day of the year. Their information sharing through the Economic Community of Central African States’ Zone D, one of five such zones in West Africa, is a model for others.
Senegal has been successful at fighting illegal fishing.
Ghana’s Navy works and shares with neighboring countries.
São Tomé and Príncipe are working to replicate the Seychelles’ fish traceability policies. The nation also in February 2018 published an integrated maritime strategy, and Sierra Leone was close to doing the same. Côte d’Ivoire published its maritime strategy in 2014.
“There’s something to celebrate pretty much everywhere,” Ralby said.
An old foe returns to East Africa
Although piracy is not new to East Africa, the seeds of modern piracy were sown off the coast of Somalia after the collapse of the national government in 1991. With no navy to patrol the Gulf of Aden, Somali waters became vulnerable to international fishing vessels, which plundered fish stocks and were accused by locals of dumping toxic waste into the ocean.
A 2009 Time magazine report indicated that piracy rose in response to indiscriminant foreign trawling, which took plentiful mackerel, sardines and tuna from the ocean at a pace that “would virtually empty the world’s oceanic stocks by 2050,” quoting a 2006 study in the journal Science. As Somali piracy ramped up, outlaws could capture vessels and count on a quick ransom because shipping companies didn’t want to draw attention to fishing practices.
In 2003, Southeast Asia — notably the area around the Strait of Malacca — still was the prime location for maritime piracy. It was not until 2007 that piracy incidents in East Africa surpassed Asian totals. A year later, East and West African piracy incidents each doubled those in Southeast Asia, according to The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies Piracy Database.
Somali pirates typically attacked vessels using either dinghies or larger boats called “mother ships.” Ships were boarded and directed back to mainland Somalia, where pirates would issue ransom demands for crew members and craft.
After gaining international attention in 2008, Somali piracy peaked around 2010 and 2011, but the number of attacks plunged soon after. Three international naval patrol efforts, in addition to security efforts by private shipping companies, began to stave off piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and beyond. By 2015, the total number of incidents had dropped to 16 from a high of 239 in 2011.
However, in 2016, the number of incidents increased 69 percent to 27, and then by 100 percent a year later to 54, according to OBP. The spike in incidents, which includes failed attacks, hijackings, kidnappings and suspicious activity, can be attributed to a few things. First, continuing conflict in Yemen, which is across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, adds to instability in the region. Second, international naval coalitions have scaled back presence in the gulf and Red Sea. NATO ended Operation Ocean Shield in December 2016. Independent deployers, not coalition forces, were the main naval presence in the region, and both had reduced their time patrolling. Finally, pirate groups retain the intent, ability and opportunity to launch attacks.
Oil and ransom in West Africa
Piracy in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea ramped up later and took on a different character than piracy in East Africa.
Pirates and maritime criminals in West Africa mainly sought to steal oil from tankers, a process called bunkering. However, there have been more instances of kidnapping for ransom in recent years that The Maritime Executive attributes to two causes: First, increased naval patrols in the gulf mean that thieves and pirates don’t always have the time to pull vessels alongside oil tankers and drain them of crude. Second, a dip in global oil prices makes bunkering less profitable. Kidnapping for ransom promises potentially high payoffs with less time and risk.
Oceans Beyond Piracy reports that kidnapping for ransom continued in 2017, despite rises in oil prices. Its report indicates that there was only one incident of hijacking for cargo in 2017, but early data for 2018 showed criminals may be returning to that practice.
The overall number of piracy incidents stayed level in the Gulf of Guinea for 2017, but the number of successful kidnappings increased, OBP reported. Total incidents logged in at 54 in 2015 and were nearly doubled to 97 by 2017. Gulf of Guinea attacks were centred off the coast of Nigeria between eastern Ghana and São Tomé and Príncipe.
Starting in 2016, OBP noted the trend of robbers hitting vessels anchored near major ports. That trend continued in 2017 and 2018. Early in 2018, attackers hit three ships anchored off Cotonou, Benin’s, port. Two ships disappeared, and the third was involved in a gunbattle between criminals and Benin Navy personnel. OBP noted that the Port of Cotonou has grown recently, largely because of increases in maritime trade and the danger of operating off the coast of Nigeria. Cotonou handled twice as much cargo in 2017 as in 2007. As traffic increases, ships spend more time anchored and waiting for a berth, which makes them more vulnerable to attack.
“These recent attacks show that pirates are following the merchant traffic and moving their operations to where easy targets can be found,” according to OBP.
Written by Africa Defense Forum and republished with permission.