Where are maritime pirates most active?

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A UN resolution last week condemned piracy in the Gulf of Guinea – the most dangerous piracy hotspot in the world. In 2020, more than 40% of hacking incidents occurred in West African waters. And 95% of all abducted crew members were abducted from ships transiting the Gulf of Guinea.

Can maritime security efforts help reverse these trends? While global maritime piracy generally decreased from 2015 to 2020, piracy incidents increased significantly in the Gulf of Guinea. Our research finds that incidents of piracy in West African waters also tended to be more violent than elsewhere, as fighting on land, particularly in and around the Niger Delta, seemed to spill over to the water, as shown the figure below.

One January 2021 incident involving the Liberian-flagged ship MV Mozart near São Tomé and Príncipe caused the death of a sailor. The pirates kidnapped 15 other sailors in this attack and ransomed them for an undisclosed sum. The incident occurred approximately 180 kilometers off the island of São Tomé and 375 kilometers from Nigeria, making it one of the most distant offshore attacks to date in the Gulf of Guinea (see map).

Yet the attack on the MV Mozart was followed by a dramatic drop in piracy off Nigeria, with incidents in 2021 dropping almost 50% from 2020 levels. In fact, piracy incidents seem now be at their lowest level in six years. The 57 sailors abducted from ships in the Gulf of Guinea in 2021 were significantly lower than the 130 crew members seized in 2020.

This decline is good news for governments in West Africa who feared continued high costs from continued maritime insecurity. In 2021, there were six hacking incidents per month, a 33% decrease from the monthly averages for 2019 and 2020. There were five incidents per month in the first quarter of 2022. what has changed, if anything?

Improving maritime safety

The Gulf of Guinea contains valuable oil and gas reserves, as well as rich fishing grounds, which are exploited by organized criminal groups and violent armed groups. London insurers continue to find the waters between Togo and Gabon at heightened risk of war, piracy, terrorism and related perils – especially crew kidnappings. But international aid, regional cooperation and local investment in maritime security capacity building could finally pay off.

The United States and Europe contribute to maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. Funding for improved port security, information sharing, law enforcement training and capacity building are all aimed at securing peace and promoting economic prosperity.

EU countries and the United States have increasingly ships deployed in the region to combat organized crime groups targeting commercial shipping vessels. The Danish Navy sent a frigate to the area in November 2021. France, Spain and Portugal regularly patrol West African waters. The United States welcomes multinational naval exercises in the Gulf of Guinea aimed at improving anti-piracy operations and preventing illegal fishing.

At the regional level, West African governments have collaborated in efforts to secure the Gulf against transnational organized crime. In 2013, 25 governments from the region met in Cameroon to sign the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. This agreement produced a new maritime security architecture, built around the sharing of information and intelligence as well as coordinated naval operations. The purpose of the pact is to identify and apprehend criminal groups, protect seafarers and deter potential pirates.

Fighting for sea borders creates safe zones for pirates

Five West African countries have established multinational maritime coordination centers, with additional operational offices set up in each of the 19 countries bordering the Gulf. While maritime borders once protected illegal fishers and pirates from capture, improved information sharing and subsequent coordinated actions by West African navies now make cross-border escapes more doubtful.

The Nigerian government has separately pursued a strategy to secure Nigeria’s own waterways, but this effort can also help protect the wider maritime environment. The Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure Project, commonly referred to as deep bluecommits substantial resources to combat piracy, oil theft, smuggling and illegal fishing.

Deep Blue funding provided coastal patrol vehicles, interceptor boats and reconnaissance aircraft which all contribute to a ship protection mission. In July 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari also ordered a Surveillance system to provide a comprehensive picture of Nigeria’s maritime environment to inhibit criminal activity. Additional troops deployed on land in Nigeria could help pursue criminal groups and their assets.

Will Deep Blue work? Bashir Jamoh, Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Security Agency, credited the deployment of Deep Blue assets for the decline of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in 2021. He also acknowledged the assistance of regional governments, maritime industry and foreign navies. Nigeria’s Piracy Suppression Act 2019, despite its limits, further ensures that captured pirates and other criminals will be prosecuted. In August 2020, a Nigerian court sentenced the first three pirates under this law for the hijacking of an Equatoguinean freighter.

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Still, recent counter-piracy operations by European warships do not appear to have involved the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Security Agency – somewhat troubling if Nigeria’s new strengths and closer communication are key to maritime security in the region. Attacks on ships and kidnappings of crew may be down in West African waters, but the decline can only be partly attributed to Deep Blue. European and American naval deployments, as well as improved regional collaboration, probably matter more when it comes to combating maritime crime.

Of course, better policing at sea does not solve socio-economic challenges on land who contribute to piracy. tackle Corruption, poverty and environmental degradation across West Africa, but particularly in the Niger Delta, remains essential to reducing the demand for maritime piracy and other types of crimes at sea. But to address these broader challenges, experts point out, will also require the assistance of the international community.

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Brandon Prins (@bcprins) is a professor of political science and a researcher in global security at the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He is the co-author of “Pirate Lands” (Oxford University Press, 2021). Funding for this project was provided by the US Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research, through the Minerva Initiative, award #N00014-21-1-2030.

Aaron Gold is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Anup Phayal is an assistant professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Simon Rotzer is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Curie Maharani is a faculty member of the Department of International Relations at Bina Nusantara University in Indonesia and a researcher at CSIS-DMRU.

Sayed Riyadi is Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and Border Management at the Raja Ali Haji Maritime University in Indonesia.

Kayla Marie Reno is an undergraduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.


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