Piracy in West Africa

Oct 7, 2014

by Douglas B. Stevenon, Director, Center for Seafarers’ Rights

Somali pirates appear to be under control—at least for now. Pirate attacks off Somalia have fallen to the lowest levels since 2007, and Somali pirates have not captured a seafarer or a merchant ship in more than a year. Yet, pirates have held more than 5,000 seafarers hostage since 2007, including 37 seafarers from 3 abandoned vessels still held hostage. The drop in Somali piracy seems to stem from four major factors: merchant vessels following the maritime industry’s best management principles; aggressive, coordinated naval anti-piracy patrols; information and intelligence sharing by piracy reporting centers; and merchant vessels deploying private maritime security teams when transiting high-risk areas in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean region.

Attention on piracy is now shifting to West Africa, where it continues to happen at dangerous levels. I recently participated in two meetings in London to examine West African piracy and its effects on seafarers. The private foundation Oceans Beyond Piracy sponsored both meetings. (SCI collaborates with Oceans Beyond Piracy on several projects.) In the first meeting—a forum on violence against seafarers moderated by Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent, I joined a panel of maritime experts including Pottengal Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau, Tim Hart of Control Risks, and Peter Swift of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program to address the human cost of West African piracy. The second meeting was a high-level, “off the record” West Africa working group of government, international and non-governmental organization leaders exploring ways to tackle piracy-related violence.

Piracy and armed robbery against ships in West Africa differs from Somali piracy and requires different measures for suppressing it. In East Africa, Somali pirates capture ships and their crews for ransoms. In West Africa, piracy takes three different forms: robbery, kidnap and ransom, and oil theft. Pirates steal ships’ equipment and seafarers’ personal property. They kidnap a few crewmembers from vessels and hold them ashore for ransoms—normally for much shorter times and lower ransoms than in Somalia. They capture tankers and offload their valuable oil cargo. In general, West African pirates arm themselves heavily, and reports show they engage in extreme, violent behavior. Because of a primary interest in stealing cargo and property, West African pirates often show little regard for seafarers’ welfare.

Differing legal requirements of the seventeen countries that border the Gulf of Guinea make it difficult for ships to use private armed security teams, and sovereignty concerns of those countries prevent intentional naval patrols in their waters. We do not know the true magnitude of West African piracy, as some experts in the region estimate that up to 70% of West African piracy and armed robbery against ships goes unreported.

This scenario creates stressful conditions for seafarers calling at West African ports. Dangerous pirates threaten their safety; seafarers feel very vulnerable and unprotected. (To date, no West African pirates have been prosecuted for their crimes.)

SCI’s Piracy Study Guidelines, developed in our clinical study of the effects of piracy on seafarers’ mental health, can prove especially useful for seafarers sailing in West African waters. We also urge ship operators to report West African piracy incidents to regional and international piracy reporting centers. Because shipping companies have raised legitimate security and economic reasons for not reporting pirate activity in West Africa, reporting organizations must work to establish a level of trust in the maritime industry. Reporting pirate activity to the various reporting organizations and sharing information is important so information and real-time intelligence can protect seafarers and help those affected by piracy incidents get the help they need.

The following infographic from Oceans Beyond Piracy entitled “The State of Maritime Piracy: West Africa 2013” examines the human and economic costs incurred as a result of piracy occurring in the Gulf of Guinea.

Oceans Beyond Piracy West Africa Piracy Infographic 2013