Pirates are attacking ships in Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, and coastal nations will have to work together to stop them.
In February 2016, 14 Nigerian and Ghanaian pirates hijacked the Maximus, a Panama-flagged oil tanker, about 100 kilometres off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire. Eighteen crew members, representing six countries, were aboard. The pirates planned to sell the ship’s 4,700 tons of diesel fuel on the black market. The pirates even changed the ship’s name to Elvis 3 to avoid being tracked.
The navies of several countries in the region, including Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo, tracked the Maximus for a week, and in a daring nighttime attack, Nigerian Sailors boarded the ship. One hijacker was killed, six were captured, and the rest escaped, taking two crew members with them. The two crew members were rescued later.
Authorities said it was the best example of the potential power of a cooperative interregional maritime security framework put in place in June 2013. In other words, navies in the region had pooled their expertise, intelligence and ships to rescue the ship and crew.
The American nongovernmental organization (NGO) Oceans Beyond Piracy reported that there were 95 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2016, compared with 54 the previous year. The pirates are going after cargo and kidnapping for ransom. In 2016, 96 crew members were taken hostage, compared to 44 in 2015.
West Africa has a somewhat shallow coastline, making oil and gas extraction relatively easy — and therefore, making tankers easy targets for pirates. East Africa’s off-coast oil and gas reserves are deeper and farther out to sea, making tankers operating there less accessible to pirates. Even so, piracy is increasing off the Horn of Africa.
In the first three months of 2017, armed pirates hijacked two ships off the coast of Somalia, where no ship had been hijacked since 2012. At their peak in 2011, Somali pirates attacked more than 200 ships and held hundreds of hostages. The attacks stopped after ship owners began posting armed guards on their ships and avoided the Somali coast. The return of the Somali pirates in 2017 was partially caused by the severe drought in Somalia. “The resurgence coinciding with an economic downturn occasioned by the drought is not a coincidence,” Raymond Gilpin, academic dean at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said. “Socio-economic and governance investments are both urgent and vital.”
As pirates continue to operate in the Gulf of Guinea and off the coast of Somalia, there has never been a time when cooperation among Africa’s navies was more critical. Dr. Andre Wessels, head of the Department of History at the University of the Free State in South Africa, said piracy is just one of the challenges facing Africa’s navies.
“Piracy has become a problem in several regions,” he said. “Drug smuggling and other forms of criminality have expanded to the oceans, and in several places refugees use boats to flee conflict areas to seek a better life in another country.”
There are other reasons for improving Africa’s fleets. Illegal fishing remains a major problem. And Hein van den Ende, of the defense company Saab, said new offshore oil and gas discoveries are driving the need for better maritime security, while the drop in oil prices means protecting the supplies is more important than ever, because “there is less margin for loss.”
Wessels said Africa’s navies need a particular type of ship. In a study titled “Building Right-sized Navy Capacity,” Wessels outlined the direction Africa should pursue to improve its naval capacity.
“Although cruisers, destroyers, frigates and support ships (and even submarines) can be used in carrying out counter-piracy patrols to intercept smugglers and illegal immigrants, and to render assistance to refugees at sea, it is very expensive to keep these sophisticated ships operational,” he wrote. “Smaller and less-sophisticated ships can indeed be deployed just as successfully. Consequently, there has been a greater emphasis on designing and building many new types of patrol ships across the globe, with many navies expanding their fleets of offshore patrol vessels, or, for the first time ever, acquiring this type of ship.”
HISTORICALLY SMALL NAVIES
In 1998, Col. Louis du Plessis, then director of the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, said there were legitimate, explainable reasons for Africa’s small navies.
“The maintenance of a navy, by its very nature, is a capital-intensive and technology-intensive undertaking,” he said. “The intense civil strife in African societies that threatens state security is rooted in economic causes. Armies and air forces are needed to maintain domestic order, whereas the irrelevance of navies in this context has made them appear a somewhat less-pressing national priority to many national policy-makers.”
Wessels noted that when most African countries gained independence in the 1960s, they invested in their land forces. Because of its close ties to the then Soviet Union, Egypt built up a sizable naval force in the 1960s and 1970s and later acquired some ships from the United States. The Soviet Union supplied ships and submarines, mostly secondhand, to Algeria, Ethiopia and Libya. Most of the vessels were patrol ships.
Patrol ships are at least 32 feet long and are generally classified as fast-attack craft — small, agile warships armed with missiles, guns or torpedoes. They are generally operated close to land because they lack deep-water capacities. Patrol ships designed to operate in blue water are called offshore patrol vessels. By the mid-1990s, Africa’s navies had about 200 patrol ships, none of which had deep-water capability.
The increase in piracy has served as a wake-up call to Africa’s militaries, particular Nigeria’s. Since about 2004, Wessels said, Nigeria has acquired 15 small “Defender” response boats, 20 small patrol ships, two large (but old) cutters, and at least 14 other patrol ships, including two built in Nigeria. Kenya and Mozambique also have dramatically expanded their navies in the 21st century.
For decades, Wessels noted, the South African Navy was underfunded compared to other branches of the armed forces. After a 1998 arms deal, the Navy acquired three new submarines and four new frigates, all from Germany. The frigates restored the Navy’s blue-water capability, but it became clear that the country’s aging patrol ships would need to be replaced.
South Africa is trying to become a hub for ship maintenance and repair to augment its ports industry. It has invested heavily in its ports, which require harbor security and the ability to track vessel movements along the coast.
IMPROVING MARITIME SECURITY
Gilpin wrote a study in 2016 titled “Examining Maritime Insecurity in Eastern Africa.” In it, he made recommendations for improving the region’s navies, and said that the suggestions apply equally well to other parts of the continent. They included:
Strengthen regional capacity to prevent and deter maritime crime: “Naval and coastguard capacity should be strengthened by focusing on training, doctrine, equipment and human resources,” Gilpin wrote. “Current approaches focus on a ‘train and equip’ model that is often short-sighted and short-term. National governments and their international partners should embark upon a long-term transformation of naval capacity that would ensure effectiveness, efficiency, flexibility, accountability and sustainability at all levels.” He added that the strategy would “expedite the sharing of information, doctrine and assets.”
Support regional organizations and initiatives: The African Union and the continent’s regional organizations, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in East Africa, have taken “bold steps” to lead maritime reform in East Africa, Gilpin wrote. “It is important to distinguish maritime crime from piracy,” said Gilpin. “They require different remedies. Maritime crime demands much more attention to the maintenance of law and order on land and sea — not just naval security.”
Africa’s countries should make their codes and regulations compatible and implement them: East African countries are signatories to most relevant maritime codes and conventions but need the political will to enact them. “Harmonization is a useful first step, ensuring that all parties are on the same page,” Gilpin wrote.
International support must be adequate, coordinated and time-bound: International support for maritime security in East Africa has included capacity-building help, economic development programs, security assistance and naval deployments. But some of the international partners might have conflicting objectives. Coordinating international support would help minimize gaps and ensure that essential functions are maintained for as long as necessary. Gilpin recommended establishing a coordination and communications cell, preferably in a regional organization. And, he added, “External partners should consider articulating an exit strategy, so they are not viewed with suspicion as a permanent fixture.”
By necessity, Africa is already sharing naval resources, as evidenced by the patrols of the Gulf of Guinea. Throughout 2016, Oceans Beyond Piracy reported, at least 60 Nigerian Navy vessels were deployed in the Gulf, joined by vessels from Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo. At any given time, the NGO said, there were six regional vessels on duty. Although the true costs of the counterpiracy operations cannot be known, the NGO said that, at minimum, the cost of the operation was about $20 million per year.
But money and ships alone won’t open the door to regional cooperation. Africa’s coastal nations also will need the proper maritime laws and agreements in place for true teamwork.
Rear Adm. Henry Babalola of Nigeria directed the Maximus rescue in 2016. He told The Associated Press at the time that the operation was made possible by a maritime agreement allowing Nigeria to patrol São Tomé and Príncipe’s waters. When his Sailors challenged the pirates, he said, they responded that they were in international waters with the law of the sea on their side. But the agreement allowed the Nigerians to storm the ship after eight hours of negotiations.
“International cooperation is the new mantra for maritime security,” Babalola said. “We cannot go it alone.”