Opinion: America builds partnerships to tackle piracy

The United States and other international partners are helping African governments confront piracy and improve maritime security on two coasts of Africa.
While the waters off the coast of Somalia rank number 1 in the world for piracy and armed robbery at sea and the Gulf of Guinea on Africa’s west coast ranks closely behind in the number 2 spot, the two regions have different scenarios and different types of crime.
Jun Bando, the maritime security coordinator and U.S. Africa Command liaison for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, made that point February 19 in an interview with America.gov.
Looking at the problems in the two regions, Bando said, “What we are seeing off the coast of Somalia [is] … acts such as ship hijacking, which is often committed on the high seas or international waters. In the Gulf of Guinea, the balance leans toward criminal acts that happen within a country’s territorial waters.”
In the Gulf of Guinea, Bando said, “We are seeing hijackings, kidnappings, considerable levels of violence” in criminal acts that are “typically more violent than what we are seeing in the Horn of Africa.”
Small armed groups in the Gulf of Guinea tend to commit their crimes along the coastline, offshore and on offshore oil rigs as well.
“We have seen an increase in attacks” in the Gulf of Guinea, she said. “We are seeing a number of criminal activities that are happening not only in international waters but also within the territorial waters of countries, and involving everything from drug smuggling to trafficking in both arms and persons.”
Turning to the situation off the coast of Somalia, Bando said there “the international ‘actors’ have come to play a very visible role in combating piracy.” That, she said, “is a reflection of several factors, the most important being that Somalia has not had the capacity to deal with the situation on its own and has asked the United Nations Security Council for help.
“If we are talking about the Gulf of Guinea, it is a very different scenario where certainly international cooperation has a role to play” in prevention, she said, “but it would be hard to envision the same type of international reaction that we would see off the coast of Somalia” because there are governments in the Gulf of Guinea capable of acting, although they may require technical or other support.
Six months to a year ago, she said, the U.S. Department of State was reminding everyone that maritime security in Africa is not just about the Gulf of Guinea; the Horn of Africa is important as well. “We have since seen a shift in the attention to the situation in the Horn of Africa,” she said.
Overall, she said, the United States and its African partners are very concerned about maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea and other regions in sub-Saharan Africa and therefore are interested in working with those partners to improve maritime security around the continent.
“We recognize that the maritime security issues that are of greatest concern in sub-Saharan Africa are really those that have to deal with natural resource development and management.
“We are not only talking about piracy and armed robbery at sea, trafficking or counterterrorism or law enforcement or other security issues, we are also talking about helping African countries to build capacities to combat illegal fishing, which is a huge issue,” she said.
“Port security is a priority because it has huge ramifications for trade — for the flow of goods and the costs of shipping goods through African ports. When we look at the set of maritime security challenges, even though there might be a lot of attention focused on piracy, what we are really trying to do is approach this as a comprehensive problem set that includes fisheries management, law enforcement and port security programs as well.”
African Partnership Station
US maritime engagement with West Africa recently has increased, she said, particularly through the African Partnership Station (APS) initiative, which has provided a platform for both military and nonmilitary cooperative activities that relate to African coastal security.
APS is an international initiative developed by the United States Navy, which aims to work cooperatively with U.S. and international partners to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. APS is a strategic program designed to build the skills, expertise and professionalism of African militaries, coast guards and mariners.
APS is not limited to one ship or platform, nor is it delivered only at certain times. The program is delivered in many forms including ship visits, aircraft, training teams, and Seabee construction projects throughout most of the year. APS is part of a long-term commitment on the part of all participating nations and organizations from Africa, the United States, Europe and South America.
Additionally, Bando said, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has provided fisheries with observer training from the decks of APS vessels. More traditional military-to-military engagement activities have also been conducted as part of APS and other bilateral programs such as training in small-boat operations or training in small-boat maintenance.
Additionally, she said, the United States has worked to enhance maritime security by supporting regional cooperation efforts both in West and East Africa and helping the African Union strengthen its capacity to take a leadership role in this regard.
Bando said the United States is “very encouraged by the strengthening of cooperation of countries in the Gulf of Guinea in maritime security and other fronts as well.”
On the East Africa piracy situation, Bando said the United States is “optimistic that the international community is coming together to address this challenge in a coordinated way,” but she cautioned that piracy off the coast of Somalia “is a reflection of broader challenges on land.
“There is no durable solution to the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia without a political solution in Somalia. The lack of security and stability in Somalia is the root cause of the piracy problem,” she said.