Piracy: Changing the symptoms of an epidemic


The recent 34th annual celebration of World Maritime Day, held on 29 September 2011, was themed “Piracy: Orchestrating the response.” The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) celebration emphasised the gravity of the divisive issue, aimed towards a rectification of the matter.(2)

Various contemporary writers have reflected on the concerns of maritime piracy, as a manifestation of problems that have developed on shore and that piracy is in fact “a symptom and not the disease,” which has greater social and economic ramifications.(3) The international scourge, that is piracy, economically poses annual international losses valued at between US$ 7 and US$ 12 billion, therefore costing countries immense fiscal setbacks.(4) Most of the stolen resources are siphoned into the Somali region, as most of the African piracy occurs off the Horn of Africa.(5) Various efforts are made to quell this occurrence; however, because piracy is quickly becoming a fruitful illicit enterprise, it is therefore increasingly widespread and difficult to control.

Somali piracy has received the most attention in contemporary explanations of piracy due to a great number of attacks, which the Somali pirates are responsible for. However, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has always had a presence in sporadic pirating activities too.(6) The recent West African pirate insurgence not only instils international concern because of the Atlantic trade routes, but also questions why this recent insurgency has occurred now. With growing insurgency surrounding the vast east and west coasts of Africa, the value of current anti-piracy activities are questioned. This paper will, therefore, serve a two fold purpose: one to explain the trends of East and West coast African piracy and, two, as an overall critical review of the efforts taken thus far, more specifically, the African efforts.


East African pirate trends

As 80% of global trade is recorded to travel by sea, this poses great opportunity to illicit entrepreneurs.(7) Recent 2011 trends have proven to be impervious to global efforts combating piracy, as the number of attacks nearly doubled; the recorded 196 attacks in 2010 were drastically overshadowed by the 266 attacks of this year – a 36% increase.(8) These signalled an overall worrisome global reply as pirate attacks become more violent, widespread, and frequent within specific regions.(9) Its is thus fitting to place emphasis on Somali piracy as their attacks contributed to 60% of global maritime piracy attacks in 2010 alone.(10)

A variety of high revenue yielding vessels and persons are targeted, such as holidaymakers and oil shipping and secondly vessels, which transport food such as fishing trawlers, are also targeted.(11) These results explained that the incentives for individual pirates, kingpins, and benefitting communities remained untarnished, especially with the efforts to quell the frequent occurrence of attacks. The incentive to continue the illicit activity is therefore self-sustained and may be described as a crime of necessity by the Somali peoples. The situation in Somalia is dire; widespread poverty, corruption, and recent famine and disease paint a picture of immense confusion and conflict. BBC News explains that this is because Somalia has not had an effective government or legitimate governing source since 1991, when President Siad Barre was overthrown by opposing factions. However, the factions could not agree upon future leadership, which plunged the country into a constant state of conflict with countless leadership spats involving various warlords.(12) The crime of necessity is further facilitated by the recent drought and severe famine, which has left millions dead and displaced. This state of desperation facilitates piracy factions and, therefore, has developed a criminal economy and a culture of violence, through illicit ventures, proliferation of light weapons, and a great disregard for human rights.(13) This enables the afore mentioned definition of piracy, which explains that piracy was a by-product or a rational movement. It is thus not surprising that a failed state such as Somalia would develop illicit factions in order to attain a better standard of living.(14)

In order to combat a clear threat to international shipping and tourism, especially in the Horn of Africa region, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) retaliated to the piracy scourge by launching Operation Ocean Shield (OOS) in October 2008,(15) which aims to contribute to global anti-piracy through a militaristic focus.(16) The focal action is to “deter, disrupt, and protect against pirate attacks.” NATO then focuses its efforts on the apprehension of suspects, developing and supporting the region, and coordinating its activities with maritime forces such as the European Union’s (EU) naval mission Operation Atlanta and American-based Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151).(17)

The OOS and other NATO coordinated activities have proven to be successful. Other foreign navies have taken separate initiatives, mostly patrolling pirate hotspots to prevent pirate attacks. A regional anti-piracy agreement, the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC), signed in January 2009, expresses that its primary concern is repressing or prohibiting pirate based attacks in the Indian Ocean, which borders the East African coast. This agreement is virtually identical to the OOS aims; however, DCoC stipulates a “conduct of shared operations,” whereby increased cooperation is vital between African, NATO, and foreign navy forces. Participators remain optimistic that DCoC has the potential to succeed because appropriate resources are provided and it provides an African solution for an African problem.(18)

The original crime of necessity, as seen in the case of piracy in Somalia, has now evolved to a crime of opportunity on the West coast of Africa. The recent recorded attacks off the coasts of Benin and Nigeria contribute to the 2011 statistics of piracy and highlight other illicit trading concerns, which contribute vastly.

West African pirate trends

The 22 attacks experienced by the beginning of August 2011 in Benin and Nigeria is staggering, as zero attacks were recorded in previous years.(19) Oil and chemical tankers were specifically targeted, as they hold greater revenue value.(20) The sharp rise in the occurrence of piracy attacks off the coasts of these two countries has ranked those countries at a similar risk to that of Somalia. This high-risk classification has had increasingly detrimental affects on trade, as ships are quickly vacating the economic hubs of Cotonou, Benin, and in Lagos, Nigeria.(21)

Assuming west coast piracy subscribes to similar preconditions, the reasons for this high-risk status can be explained when investigating the conditions of Benin and Nigeria. Upon investigation, it becomes evident that these conditions are not congruent with the conditions given thus far for piracy, which subscribe to dire political, economic, and social conditions (as in Somalia). Benin, in spite of recently experiencing electoral disputes, is more-or-less stable and has a low-level risk status.(22) Nigeria, too, is relatively stable in spite of its domestic and ethnic risks.(23) These conditions are explicitly not as dire as those experienced in Somalia.

The relative stability of both Benin and Nigeria therefore explain that the piracy occurrences are not related to the perilous conditions in the country. This discrepancy between the previous preconditions for piracy arises as a new trend in piracy, portraying a new sophistication in the illicit activity. Benin and Nigeria responded to the recent attacks by launching Operation Prosperity, whereby military personnel form joint sea patrols in order to prevent pirate attacks.(24) Although they admit to not having the capacity to apprehend culprits,(25) they show greater capacity and initiative when being compared to other countries plagued by piracy such as Somalia. The Maritime Organisaton for West and Central Africa (MOWCA) primarily advocates commercial shipping interests for the West African region. The organisation, however, branched out to include maritime security by supporting Beninoise and Nigerian efforts, which are expected to continue for the next six months.(26)

The regional trend of piracy experienced on the west coast of Africa emerged from the Gulf of Guinea.(27) This contributed to periodic pirate attacks on the commercial shipping industry, focusing specifically on products such as fuel, oil, etc., as they yield high revenue. This is exceedingly understandable as the west coast of Africa is particularly oil-rich, and while it only contains 10% of the global oil reserves, it remains under-invested. As such, it holds great potential for both investors and illicit entrepreneurs such as pirates, as the region has little industry security and even fewer monitoring systems.(28)

West African piracy becomes a crime of opportunity because at the cost of shipping industries, many shipping routes originally passing the Horn of Africa are re-routed to avoid high-risk areas. This re-routing subsequently passes the West coast of Africa instead.(29) Past reports of pirate attacks off the Gulf of Guinea have been described as an escalated occurrence of low-level armed robberies and cargo thefts. However, the appearance of hijackings and large-scale robberies denote a movement towards more violent means to achieve goals.(30)

Piracy in West Africa has had an increasing trend in violence, due to reports of Nigerian attackers beating and killing their captors to get what they want;(31) the general behaviour among West African pirates is to focus on high-scale robberies similar to a ‘hit and run’ scenario.(32) It is evident that piracy is a crime of opportunity in West Africa, as it has drawn inspiration from the Horn of Africa and Somalia in specific.

Nigeria portrays a direct example of the frustration, which arises because of the “widening gap between oil wealth and poverty.”(33) From this one may draw a similarity between Somali and Nigerian origins of piracy. However, some analysts remain optimistic that the brutality of East African piracy will not be duplicated on the West coast because there is less of a focus on hijacking vessels, holding hostages and taking ransoms, and murders.(34) Other analysts remain reserved, as they explain how the initial piracy situation in Somalia presented itself and, therefore, Nigeria should take pre-emptive solutions before the situation escalates.(35) The second factor prohibiting the widespread presence of pirate ships is the inability to dock in West African ports. If piracy may benefit a handful of corrupt officials facilitating these illicit activities, there is still a legitimate structure of power, which directly denies access to West African ports. This presence of legitimacy and lawfulness is absent from Somalia, where pirate syndicates benefit wholly from all country resources without consequence.(36)

Reasons for greater concern

It is undeniable that the efforts, contributed to by NATO, the EU, other foreign navies, regional organisations, and individual countries, have been arduous and, in return, their efforts have yielded considerable results, which contribute to the eradication. However, because piracy methods are growing in complexity and gaining sophistication, such efforts are comparably superficial and, in the long run, they do not address the key points of origin. Somali pirates have reportedly widened their reach as preventative patrols have increased their patrolling efforts. Pirates own technology and have a territorial logistical advantage in comparison to anti-piracy forces.(37) The pirate’s current and evolving means of facilitating their activities allow them to probe and test their boundaries, thereby gaining more intelligence of their capabilities.(38) This creates a frustration and confusion regarding the patterns and movements of pirate activities, and therefore a stymied consequence may take hold over anti-pirate forces, leaving them with only the possibilities of relying mostly on previous intelligence and continuing with patrolling the (known) areas.

Logistical problems to the recent attacks – in Benin and Nigeria – have left those involved to criticise the shortcomings of Operation Prosperity to be lacking in cooperation, as confusion may arise when who is to do what.(39) International involvement also contributes to confusion when combating piracy. The presence of too many international actors in one point of interest, for example in individual ransom and hostage situations, will exacerbate the situation to a degree, because of confusion and a lack of cohesion.(40) Anti-piracy forces have since realised this and explained that there is a greater need for coordination and cooperation. NATO forces have added that, in addition to all concerted efforts and continuous support, they recommended that Africa, the African Union (AU), and other African countries in particular, should take the leading position.(41) The fast and violent proliferation of African piracy on the vast East and West coasts of Africa emphasises the need for action and cohesion between future and existing regional and sub-regional maritime organisations.

Thirdly, piracy remains largely unrecorded and unreported. It is speculated that as many as half of the global pirate attacks are not recorded for various reasons. Reasons include shipping countries not wishing to risk their embarrassment, individuals not wanting to risk unemployment, and there are many commercial liners, which avoid official taxes and tariffs and, therefore, carry illicit cargo.(42) The costs of countries and their shipping industries subsequently multiply exponentially because of insurance and contributions made to finance the prevention of piracy and the apprehension of culprits.(43) Country costs are thus contributed to as well as the ramifications of anti-piracy policies cost regional trade, increased inflation, and lower foreign revenue.(44)

The success story of the eradication of piracy is in the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Malaysia, which experienced disdain and mistrust among one another, therefore giving way to pirate activities. However, their means of eradication gives rational recommendations on how to fight piracy. The Strait of Malacca is used by 40% of sea faring trade, which connects routes from the Middle East and the Suez Canal. There were only two reports of attempted pirate attacks in 2008, compared to the previous years’ 38 attacks. This was a remarkable finding because the rate at which pirate attacks were occurring globally did not hint to a decreasing trend. The solution was both land and sea based; Government cooperation, similar policy orientation, and maritime cooperation and coordination efforts decreased the occurrence of attacks.(45) These solutions may be tailored to fit the cases of East and West Africa. Because piracy is a crime of both opportunity and necessity, it is vital to note that it may be almost impossible to eradicate piracy, “but it can be greatly reduced if local and regional efforts are broadened.”(46)

Concluding remarks

This extensive reach with irregular reports of attacks surrounding the whole of Africa as well as the regular reports of regional African attacks begin to question the safety of the north and south coast lines of Africa. North Africa has a frequent commercial and security maritime presence; however, is still susceptible to illicit trade.(47) Southern Africa too, and while there are fewer interactions, the lack of cooperation and the occurrence of pirate attacks in both Angola and Mozambique create a greater susceptibility to the presence of pirate factions. Therefore, the trends of both East and West African piracy remain an ever-growing concern, as no force is yet able to deal with them effectively.

The recommendations made to combat the occurrence of African pirate attacks show that actors are proactive; however, the underlying commentary of African regional and sub-regional organisations is that they are not sufficiently addressing the problem. There is a greater need for the Western part of Africa to develop its maritime organisation, and for the AU to take greater leadership. Although African countries are compliant and forthcoming in setting up organisations, it seems as if they cannot or do not support them effectively. Africa has the tools, why not use them?

It should be intolerable to consider an issue such as piracy a symptom of a disease, as the solution most anti-pirate forces contribute to is fighting the symptom and not the cause of the disease. As seen in Somalia, piracy was a product of a lawless state, which permitted the problem to flourish and become a crime of necessity. The second type of piracy, the crime of opportunity, has slight resemblances to the crime of necessity, as Nigeria’s piracy is attributed to the divisions in wealth distribution. Piracy is not to be tolerated and, similarly, not to be equated as a symptom of a disease. This comparison is perhaps the stigma or excuse, which hinders the suppression of pirate-free regions. Because there are different causes to piracy, not only attributed to state failure, piracy should be looked at as its own issue. Perhaps once African piracy is given a greater platform, innovative and active steps may be taken by Africa to resolve this issue.



This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com.

(1) Contact Arina Muresan through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ([email protected]) .
(2) ‘Piracy: orchestrating the response’, IMO, 29 September 2011, http://www.imo.org.
(3) ‘Without Foreign Coverage, We Miss More Than News’, International Crisis Group (ICG), 18 May 2009, http://www.crisisgroup.org.
(4) ‘The Economic Costs of Maritime Piracy’, One Earth Future, 1 December 2010, http://oceansbeyondpiracy.org.
(5) Ibid.
(6) ‘Piracy attacks “bigger, bolder”‘, News 24, 14 July 2011, http://www.news24.com.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Ibid.
(12) ‘Somalia profile’, BBC News, 4 October 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(13) Ibid.
(14) ‘Piracy off the Horn of Africa: Shifting incentives to induce behavioural change, Part I’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 2 May 2011, http://www.consultancyafrica.com.
(15) ‘Operation Ocean Shield’, NATO website, http://www.aco.nato.int.
(16) ‘OOS Background’, NATO Shipping Centre, 14 October 2011, http://www.shipping.nato.int.
(17) Ibid.
(18) IMO website, http://www.imo.org.
(19) ‘Piracy off west Africa increases sharply’, The Guardian, 12 August 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(20) Ibid.
(21) ‘Benin, Nigeria – Joint pirate patrols’, News 24, 28 September 2011, http://www.news24.com.
(22) ‘Benin country profile’, BBC News, 30 April 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(23) ‘Nigeria country profile’, BBC News, 19 April 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Ibid.
(26) ‘Joint Patrol with Benin Will Curb Piracy’, This Day Live, 14 October 2011, http://www.thisdaylive.com.
(27) Ibid.
(28) ‘Vying for West Africa’s Oil’, Council on Foreign Relations, 7 May 2007, http://www.cfr.org.
(29) Ibid.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Ibid.
(32) Ibid.
(33) ‘Pirates of the Atlantic: Africa’s Other Coast Gets Its Share’, Time Magazine, 7 September 2011, http://www.time.com.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Ibid.
(36) Ibid.
(37) ‘As Patrols Increase, Somali Pirates Widen Their Reach’, Time Magazine, 27 April 2010, http://www.time.com.
(38) Ibid.
(39) ‘West Africa piracy rivals Somalia’s’, News 24, 11 August 2011, http://www.news24.com.
(40) ‘Fighting Piracy: Coordinated Action Still Missing’, Time Magazine, 13 April 2009, http://www.time.com.
(41) ‘Africa must lead anti-piracy fight, says Nato chief’, Gulf News, 20 November 2008, http://gulfnews.com.
(42) Ibid.
(43) Ibid.
(44) Ibid.
(45) ‘How to Defeat Pirates: Success in the Strait’, Time Magazine, 22 April 2009, http://www.time.com.
(46) Ibid.
(47) ‘NATO and North Africa: Piracy Prevention and Prediction Conference’, Maritime Security Review, 5 October 2010, http://www.marsecreview.com.