Persistent and high-profile acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia prompted no fewer than four meetings of the UN Security Council in the second half of 2008. The goal, pushed by major powers, was to begin reining in the growing threat to commercial activity in one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. But as Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa’s UN representative, told a council meeting last year, piracy in Somalia is “part of the larger problem of the lack of peace and stability.”
Piracy, moreover, is not limited to Somali waters. It affects other shipping routes, especially where policing is inadequate, as in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, which saw 40 pirate attacks from January to November 2008.
Farther and more brazen
But there has been a dramatic increase in attacks by pirates off the coast of Somalia this year. Of the more than 440 attacks off Somalia recorded after the International Maritime Organization began keeping records in 1984, 120 took place in the first 10 months of 2008. Somali pirates also sailed further into the Indian Ocean from their bases in Puntland, in northern Somalia. One vessel, the Sirius Star, a supertanker carrying two million barrels of oil, was hijacked 450 nautical miles (833 kilometres) southeast of Kenya’s port, Mombasa, further south than any previous attack.
With a poorly functioning government; long, isolated beaches; and people who have become used to war and are becoming desperate, “Somalia is a perfect environment for piracy to thrive,” states an October 2008 report by Chatham House, a UK-based think tank.
Within Puntland, the area in Somalia where most pirate attacks originate, the hijackings are seen as an important source of income and jobs for hundreds of people, including those who supply fuel and equip the pirates’ boats. So many people benefit that local officials are unlikely to intervene.
Successful anti-piracy efforts do exist. Until 2004, the Malacca Straits, a narrow passage through the waters of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, was the world’s most pirate-prone region. The three countries mounted daily joint air and sea patrols and eventually reduced the attacks by about two thirds.
After June, when the Security Council authorised some countries with large navies to make similar patrols off Somalia, warships from countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union, as well as Russia and India, have taken turns policing the waters. Now, more hijacking attempts fail. In August, 53 per cent of attacks were successful. In October, that number fell to 31 per cent.  While, only three ships were seized in January, compared with seven in November, and none has been taken this month. This is pursuant to last December’s UN Security Council Resolution 1851, which authorises states to use armed forces onshore to defeat piracy in the Gulf of Aden.  But, the fact is that the area is too vast — an estimated 6.5 mn square kilometres — to police effectively.
African countries themselves do not “have the money for fuel, never mind the hardware, to run adequate surveillance at sea or port security,” argues Chris Trelawny, IMO’s chief of maritime security. To be effective against piracy, Africa’s coastal countries would need “effective early warning and intelligence services, credible deterrent and reaction forces … high mobility … and the ability to sustain operations for long periods,” says Len le Roux of the South African Institute of Security Studies. Those are precisely the capabilities “sorely lacking in Africa.”
Oil-rich Nigeria, where most piracy in West Africa occurs, has the best navy in the region. But in 2005 its former commander told the local media that “in its present state” it could not protect the nation’s territorial waters because it was “ill equipped and underfunded.” Pirates also work in the waters off Cameroon and Angola and their navies are even less well equipped to protect shipping.
The international community is helping West African countries make their waters safer. The US and European countries are helping to build stronger African navies and are policing territorial waters with African assistance. Such partnerships are partly driven by the area’s strategic interest as an oil-exporting region, as well as concern over the recent use of West African waters by traffickers of cocaine and immigrants to Europe.
Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia have received equipment and training from the US and Europe in recent years. The UN, through the IMO’s security division, is also helping 24 West African states link their coastguards with the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), local naval forces and insurance companies which have suffered losses in order to share information.
But training navies, providing better equipment and strengthening law enforcement will not be enough, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In a 2005 report, it argued that strengthening the “legitimacy of governments,” “tackling corruption” and addressing endemic poverty will be vital if criminals are to be denied an environment that is favourable to illegal activities.
“Regional cooperation is essential,” adds UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa. In December the Security Council called for African countries to cooperate in placing law-enforcement officials, so-called “ship riders,” aboard warships in Somali waters and to bring pirates who are captured to justice in national courts, a system that has been successful in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, African leaders speaking at the council meeting strongly argued that tackling piracy must not be taken without also resolving Somalia’s broader peace, security and humanitarian challenges. This, they said, offers the only long-term solution to the problem.
Ms. Mary Kimani is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.