In this age of globalisation, there are more
treasure-laden ships than ever before on our
oceans’ maritime highways. Inevitably, where
there is treasure there are pirates, especially
in and around the coast of Somalia, which has
become a notorious modern-day pirate lair.
There’s good news, however: the fight against
Somali piracy is being won, and the same
tactics might work elsewhere.
Last month – on 19 September, to be precise – was
International Talk Like a Pirate Day. It’s a real thing,
celebrated mostly by drunken freshmen on
university campuses in South Africa and across the
world. Except, if you’ve been donning the old
eyepatch and peppering your conversation with Jack
Sparrow-esque ‘Arrs’ and ‘Ahoy there, mateys’,
you’ve been doing it all wrong.
These days, pirates are more likely to sling an AK-47
than a scabbard, and Jack Sparrow would be
completely incomprehensible to them – unless, of
course, he was accompanied by a Somali translator.
For the last eight years, the waters off the coast of
Somalia have been the most dangerous place in the
world for global shipping. At its height, in 2011, there
were 199 actual or attempted attacks attributed to
Somali pirates – an epidemic of high-seas brigandry
which caused panic in the boardrooms of the great
maritime trading companies (pirates have pushed
global trade costs up by about $18 billion per year).
The attacks targeted people as well as goods, with
hostage-taking sometimes proving more lucrative
than the cargo itself. There are still 97 foreign
hostages being held by Somali pirates.
But amidst all the doom and gloom coming out of
Somalia (pirates are, after all, relatively low on that
poor country’s long list of priorities), some good
news: piracy is on the wane.
The latest report issued by the International Maritime
Board which monitors pirate attacks worldwide notes
that there have been just 10 attacks attributed to
Somali pirates – a precipitous decline.
Donna Hopkins, the US government’s anti-piracy
coordinator, summarises the four main reasons
behind the drop:
“One is the willingness of private ship owners and
commercial maritime companies to arm their ships
and to adopt best management practices that
prevent pirate boardings in the first place. I give the
commercial industry a great deal of credit for that
enlightened self-interest. I know it is expensive and
difficult but it has proven completely effective and
that no ship that carries armed security has been
hijacked, ever, to date. The second is the extremely
good and close cooperation between the naval forces
from many nations who are working together
productively off the Horn of Africa to disrupt and
repress the pirate actions…Third, I would say the
increased willingness of countries to prosecute
pirates in their national courts. Right now there are
1,148 pirates either suspected or convicted in
custody in 21 countries. We have put a significant
dent in the prospective pirate population in that
respect. So no longer can prospective pirates count
on impunity from prosecution. Fourth…Somali
communities along the coastal areas of Somalia
themselves have grown disgusted by the toxic and
corrosive effect of pirates in their communities and
they are starting to run the pirates out of town.”
Although it is encouraging, this does not mean that
the threat from Somali pirates is over (nor its impact
on trade). As long as the Somali state remains so
dysfunctional, there will be space for pirates to
operate and places for them to spend their ill-gotten
gains – and piracy, with its potential for multi-milllion
dollar rewards, will remain an alluring prospect.
Constant vigilance is required, and that means the
multi-national naval force won’t be going anywhere
soon, nor will the armed guards on board ships.
As Somali piracy has been contained, however,
attention is turning to the other side of the continent,
where west African pirates are becoming
dangerously bold. Although Togo, Benin, Cote
D’Ivoire and Guinea are also affected, Nigeria in
particular has seen a sharp increase in attacks over
the last few years, with International Maritime Board
figures showing 29 actual or attempted attacks in
the waters off Nigeria this year alone – nearly three
times as many as off Somalia.
West African piracy tends to be quite different from
the Somali version, observed Timothy Walker, a
researcher specialising in maritime security issues at
the Institute for Security Studies. “West African
piracy incidents revolve around oil, either the
attempted hijacking or extraction of the oil from a
ship, or else the hijacking and ransacking of support
vessels for oil drilling platforms and tankers,” he told
Daily Maverick.
Nonetheless, there are lessons that West Africa can
learn from the multilateral effort to secure shipping
in east Africa. “The most important of these lessons
is the need for an integrated approach and response
to piracy. West Africa (through regional body
Ecowas) and East and Central African States
(through ECCAS) have or are busy finishing the
development of integrated maritime security
strategies. Piracy is an important issue, but the focus
is shifting towards an integrated approach to
securing the maritime domain. These strategies,
when thoroughly implemented, are going to have a
great impact upon maritime security in the regions.
Moreover, there is great emphasis on a nuanced and
holistic approach to attaining maritime security. For
instance the Gulf of Guinea Code of Conduct,
correctly noting the importance of counter-piracy
initiatives, nevertheless also focuses on issues such
as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which
poses a tremendous long term threat to maritime
security unless serious efforts aimed at preventing
environmental abuses and crimes are undertaken
soon.”
Piracy has been around for centuries – millennia, even
– and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But the
Somali example has shown us that sensible
precautions and international cooperation (as well as
some serious financial investment) can go a long way
towards neutralising their threat. Perhaps Jack
Sparrow won’t be needing that Somali interpreter
much longer

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