Piracy Off Africa’s Coast Sees Increase in Attacks on Mariners

“Their actions cost the world economy $7 billion and earned the pirates some $160 million in ransom, according to the bureau.”

After five years of no major attacks on merchant vessels, piracy around the Horn of Africa seemed to be on hiatus.  Acts of piracy in those treacherous waters have fallen sharply since 2012, according to statistics released by the United States Navy.  The Navy credits aggressive patrolling by international forces and increased vigilance by the commercial shipping industry for the decrease.

Between 2008 and 2011, more than 700 attacks on vessels took place.  In early 2011, 758 seafarers were being held hostage by pirates.  At their peak in 2011, attacks were taking place almost daily.  Pirates launched 237 attacks off the coast of Somalia, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and took hundreds of hostages.  Their actions cost the world economy $7 billion and earned the pirates some $160 million in ransom, according to the bureau.


The last hijacking of a merchant vessel occurred in May 2012.  Until now.  In the past month, Somali pirates have intercepted five ships, raising concerns that piracy has returned to the Indian Ocean, beginning with the kidnapping of a Sri Lankan crew from the Aris 13 oil tanker on March 13th (they were later released without a ransom).  Nobody thinks the problem will end until a stable government is restored in Somalia.

Piracy is also on the rise on the other side of Africa.  Armed groups based along Nigeria’s coast have made that region the most dangerous for seafarers.  That coast is also a major oil shipping route.  Now that oil prices have dropped, pirates there have taken to kidnapping crew members for ransom rather than siphoning off oil – the abductions have proved more lucrative.

The nature of piracy is quite different on the two sides of the continent.  Factors driving the resurgence in piracy include drought, famine, corruption, and a surge of smuggled weapons as well as the influence of the Islamic State.

Around the Horn of Africa in the East, Somali pirates seek to seize ships and crews for ransom, and have ventured deep into the Indian Ocean.  In the Gulf of Guinea in the West, attackers are more intent on stealing cash and cargoes of fuel, such as diesel, from ships coming in to port.

Incidents have stretched all the way from the Ivory Coast to Angola, but the root of the problem lies in Nigeria.  Most acts of piracy are committed in Nigerian seas, by Nigerian criminals.  The trouble at sea is ultimately tied to the country’s dysfunctional oil industry and the violent politics of the Niger Delta, where most of the oil is produced.

Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil producer; nevertheless, it suffers from shortages of refined fuels.  After all, about 12% of Europe’s imported oil comes from West Africa.  Despite the oil, sea traffic around West Africa is small compared with the arteries connecting Europe and Asia through the Suez Canal.

Operation Atalanta

Piracy has to be understood as organized criminal activity occurring at sea.  It is organized on land, with kidnapping crews and ships for ransom as the business model.  Prosecution of piracy suspects is a key component of the overall fight against piracy.

EU NAVFOR Somalia, also known as Operation Atalanta, is a current counter-piracy military operation at sea off the Horn of Africa and in the Western Indian Ocean. It is the first undertaken by the European Union Naval Force.  The EU NAVFOR seeks, where possible, a legal finish.  Transfers of suspect pirates for trial to competent authorities remain necessary to put an end to impunity in the Indian Ocean.  It is suspected that many more incidents go unreported.

Years of anti-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa have strained navies.  On the plus side, they have led to unprecedented international co-operation: for the first time since the Second World War all five permanent members of the UN Security Council have deployed forces on the same side.  Among those guarding these sea-lanes are forces operating under national, EU and NATO commands.

Some of the smaller countries in the region have appealed for help from the world’s navies.  The success of various task forces, including the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, in dealing with criminality off east Africa leads people to ask why they should not repeat the job off the West coast.

Piracy in Somalia has long been a menace, and has its roots in local fisherman protecting their fishing grounds.  Fishermen started by commandeering international fishing vessels and levying fines due to the weight of their catches.  Soon after, they found it more lucrative to go directly into piracy, kidnapping and demanding ransom for captive crews and vessels.

Nigeria and the West coast of Africa are following this exact same pattern.  The coastal countries of West Africa are commandeering fishing vessels and levying fines just as the Somali pirates did.  They are quickly moving into piracy as it is much more lucrative.

West African states, realizing the history in Somalia, are trying to strengthen their coast guards with Western help, and efforts are being made to share information on shipping and attacks.  But if there is to be a halt to piracy, Nigeria will have to take the lead in patrolling its own waters and curbing illegal activity.  Given the country’s inability to deal with an insurgency by Boko Haram militants in the north—there is little reason to think that it will have much success in protecting its waters.

Until piracy ceases to be an attractive business opportunity it will remain a plague on both sides of the African continent.

Dr. Katherine Harris

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is an OpsLens contributor, a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany.
Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.

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