Africa Suffers Wave of Maritime Violence


Apr 1, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review on April 1, 2001.

While more than half of maritime piracy occurs in Southeast Asia, there are growing fears that Africa is becoming the new hotspot for such attacks.

Maritime piracy and armed violence at sea — defined by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) as an act of boarding (or attempted boarding) with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the intent or capability to use force in furtherance of that act — remains a pressing concern of the international community. In 2000 a total of 469 attacks were registered by the Regional Piracy Centre (RPC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a 56% increase on 1999's tally and currently the highest figure on record (see Table One).

Southeast Asia and, especially Indonesia, continues to constitute the main area of concern, typically accounting for over half the attacks reported in any given year. However Africa is experiencing an increasingly serious problem, particularly around the Horn on the continent's east coast and the western stretch of waters from Guinea to Nigeria.

The Horn of Africa

Last year a total of 23 attacks were recorded in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa, an area bounded by the northern coast of Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen and the southern stretches of the Red Sea. This nearly doubles the figure for 1999 and represents a rise of 155% since 1998 (see Table Three). Overall, the region accounted for over a third of all attacks recorded in Africa during 2000 (see Table Two).

Ransoms and hostage taking constitute the most common forms of piracy, the bulk of which are carried out by local militias that have virtual free run of the region. Five main groups are known to exist. All are heavily armed, having access both to rudimentary single shot weapons and pistols as well as more sophisticated assault and automatic rapid-fire rifles. Most of these weapons have been procured from Somalia, where a proliferating underground trade in small arms has steadily emerged. The militias tend to operate independently from one another, each within a pre-defined and mutually agreed sphere of influence (although there have been instances where reciprocal 'rights of passage' have been granted).

Assaults around the Horn of Africa generally follow a typical pattern. Militias tend to operate from small, fast and highly manoeuvrable attack craft, which allow them to make rapid and unexpected approaches against potential target vessels. Crew members are quickly rounded up before they can issue a mayday and bound below deck. Captured ships are then sailed back to inlets under militia control, where they are 'berthed' before a ransom is finally issued. Because the primary objective is to secure payments for the release of live hostages, lethal force is avoided as far as possible. However if the pirates do confront opposition, they will show no compunction in carrying out one or two 'example killings' as a way of encouraging a more compliant attitude.

Ransoms — which are usually cast in semi-judicious language as 'fines' that have been imposed for the theft of 'sovereign' militia products — generally start high, with demands of US$1 million not uncommon. In most cases, however, the pirates will compromise and may well eventually settle for a final payment that is between a half and a quarter of this amount.

Negotiations are normally conducted on an indirect basis — using intermediaries chosen by the militia groups — and facilitated by the IMB and other shipping associations/non-governmental organisations. During these discussions it is made clear that, in the event no satisfactory agreement is ultimately reached, crew members will be indefinitely 'imprisoned' and ships/cargoes permanently impounded.

Several factors have encouraged attacks off Somalia and Djibouti, including:

  • the near total absence of coastal surveillance;

  • littoral states that lack any effective system of governance and judicial prerogative;

  • a tendency for ships to sail within the 50km safety limit recommended by the IMB — a risk undertaken in order to reduce overall journey times; and

  • frequent use of unsecured radio VHF communications, which has provided militias with an accurate and on-going picture of ship movements and planned routings.

In addition to these considerations, the fact that one of the world's busiest maritime choke points lies off the coast of Djibouti — the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which forms the southern 'gate' of the Red Sea — has ensured that a high volume of ships pass through the region. Roughly 5,000 ships are estimated to transit through Bab el Mandeb en route to the Suez Canal and Europe, which is superseded only by the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Bosphorous/ Dardanelles in the Black Sea. Ships are extremely vulnerable when transiting through this area, often having to slow down considerably in order to ensure safe passage and execute navigational turns.

This concentration of potential targets has not been lost on the Somali/Djibouti militias. Over the past 12 months there has been a major increase in reports of attacks and attempted attacks being directed against vessels awaiting transit time slots at designated anchorages off Djibouti. The IMB expects that these types of opportunistic assaults will continue to proliferate — their frequency aided and abetted by the general lawlessness apparent in this part of eastern Africa.

Another issue of concern that has begun to surface is the illegal discharge of cargo in the region. This is now a serious problem in Somalia, where internal instability and anarchy have fed into a highly viable 'no questions asked' commodity market. Most goods traded are non-metal and food-related, originating either from vessels captured by the militias or extra-regional 'phantom ships' registered with false identities (and generally sailing under Panamanian, Liberian or Honduran flags), which come to the country explicitly for the purpose.

The West African coast

A close second behind the Horn of Africa in terms of piracy and armed violence at sea is the western stretch of coast running from Guinea to Nigeria. A total of 20 attacks were recorded in this vicinity during 2000, 29% of all incidents reported for the continent during the year. The bulk of activity took place in the territorial waters off Nigeria (9), followed by Ghana (6) and the Ivory Coast (5) (see Table Three).

Harbour attacks and thefts directed against ships at anchor represent the most common form of piracy in this part of Africa. The IMB defines these types of assault as low level armed robbery (LLAR) — opportunistic attacks mounted close to land, carried out by maritime muggers and typically involving an average theft of between $10,000 and $15,000. Items most commonly targeted include cash, high-value personal articles such as jewellery and cargo commodities that are light and easily transportable.

Lax port security and a general lack of sophistication with regards off-coast resources have both fed into the scale and incidence of piracy in this part of Africa. Maritime bodies and shipping associations have been especially critical of the protective measures currently brought to bear at major ports in the region such as the Lagos complex, Abidjan and Conakry and continue to pressure coastal states to institute more effective and standardised systems of harbour law enforcement and control.

Compounding the problem has been the paucity of legitimate employment opportunities and the general lack of regional economic development. In common with other parts of the world such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, this has proven to be an important 'pull' factor in the sense that it has encouraged coastal inhabitants to engage in a range of illicit activities, including maritime piracy.

Typical of the type of incident (and lack of coastal response) that takes place off the West African coast was one that occurred in Guinea between May and July 2000. On 17 May, a Maltese registered cargo ship, the MV Venezia, arrived at the port of Conakry to discharge its cargo of bagged rice. Under normal circumstances, this operation should not have taken more than 14 days to complete. However, the vessel spent a total of 59 days at the port, suffering regular cargo thefts carried out by pirates operating from small, contiguously moored attack craft.

Matters reached a head on 2 July 2000, when the master and crew were shot after they turned fire hoses on men attempting to board their vessel. A Mayday signal, which was immediately sent out to local port officials, was never responded to, necessitating those on board the MV Venezia to take refuge in the ship's accommodations and engine room. The Netherlands' coastguard eventually picked up the SOS calls and passed them on to the Guinean authorities and eventually to the flag state itself. No representatives from the Guinean Foreign Ministry were ever sent to the port to render assistance.

Addressing the threat

In many ways the Horn and west coast of Africa represent the near perfect environments in which to engage in illicit maritime activities. There exists a ready supply of potential targets; ineffective mechanisms for coastal/port surveillance; economic underdevelopment; and limited opportunities for legal prosecution in the event that a group is ultimately compromised.

Addressing the problem of piracy in these waters will not be easy, particularly given the absence of an integrated system of maritime sovereign jurisdiction around Somalia and Djibouti and what amounts to official indifference along the continent's West Coast. However, there are several practical and diplomatic measures that can be taken:

  • ships should avoid sailing within a 50km radius of the Somali coastline whenever possible and should maintain an around-the- clock anti-piracy watch when travelling in these waters. Particular attention should be paid to vessels making a sudden deviation in course as this generally signifies an intention to intercept;

  • all crews should be kept fully abreast of basic anti-boarding procedures such as the use of fire hoses to repel attackers and ensuring high, on-deck visibility. There should be no moves, however, to arm ships — a measure that several masters have called for — as this would almost certainly encourage a greater predilection towards violence on the part of the pirates themselves;

  • shipping associations could also take greater advantage of some of the commercially available satellite technologies currently available. One particularly promising device, which has been endorsed by the IMB, is ShipLoc. The system involves a tiny transmitter, which can be powered either by mains or battery that beams a ship's position to a specially dedicated IMB webpage up to 15 times a day. If a vessel fails to radio in its daily report, owners merely have to log onto the Internet to ascertain where their vessels are and to determine whether a major departure in scheduled course has taken place. The device can be rented for as little as $280 a month and is now commercially available for general distribution.

  • greater international pressure should be put on West African coastal states to institute more effective port security. If this is not forthcoming, boycotts of particular facilities should be considered, a course of action that has been used with some effect in other parts of the world such as Hong Kong and the Rio and Santos port complexes in Brazil; and

  • Flag states, particularly more developed polities such as the US, UK, the Netherlands and France, could usefully help to alleviate some of the problem by providing resources and funds to augment coastal surveillance and monitoring.

All of this requires greater political will and foresight than is currently being demonstrated in the region. In the absence of a more forcible and proactive stance, Africa may well emerge as the major new piracy 'hot spot' of the 21st century, exemplifying what the IMB is already referring to as the epitome of warlordism and anarchy at sea.

1. Actual/attempted pirate attacks in global waters: 1991-2000

1991 107
1992 106
1993 103
1994 90
1995 188
1996 228
1997 247
1998 202
1999 300
2000 469
Source: ICC International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships. Annual Report: 1 January — 31 December 2000 (London: CC-IMB, January 2001).

2. Actual/attempted pirate attacks in African waters: 1991-2000

1991 0
1992 0
1993 7
1994 6
1995 20
1996 25
1997 46
1998 41
1999 55
2000 68
Source: ICC International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships. Annual Report: 1 January — 31 December 2000 (London: CC-IMB, January 2001).

3. Actual/attempted pirate attacks in the Horn of Africa and West African waters: 1991-2000

1991 0 0
1992 0 0
1993 0 2
1994 1 2
1995 14 2
1996 8 10
1997 12 16
1998 9 6
1999 14 24
2000 23 20
Source: ICC International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships. Annual Report: 1 January — 31 December 2000 (London: CC-IMB, January 2001).

Latest incidents of piracy as of the 22 March 2001 as reported by the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre

18.03.2001 at 0300 LT in position: 04:49S — 011:39E (1.2 nm from Pointe-Noires), Congo. Two pirates, one armed with a knife, boarded a general cargo ship and lowered mooring ropes into the boat. When they were spotted by anti piracy watch, the pirates jumped overboard and dropped the ropes into water. Port control was informed. A police boat arrived and retrieved the floating mooring ropes.

17.03.2001 at 0345 LT at Bontang anchorage, Indonesia. While at anchor, three pirates armed with long knives boarded a LPG carrier and stole four mooring ropes along with other ship's stores. Master believes that pirates were monitoring local VHF channels and heard instructions given that the ship was to berth at 0700 that day. They would thus have been aware that moorings would be prepared prior to this.

15.03.2001 at 2200 LT at wharf 305, Tg. Priok, Indonesia. While berthed, pirates armed with knives and guns boarded a RO RO ship and stole cash and crew belongings.

15.03.2001 at 1955 LT in position: 00:37.0S — 05:25.04E off Riau island, Indonesia. While underway, armed pirates boarded a general cargo ship and hijacked her. Soon after, pirates tied up and blindfolded the 22 crew members and dropped them on Pulau Sayap, an uninhabited island in Riau waters. Local fishermen picked up the crew on 17.03.2001 and took them to Riau Island landing them at 0400 on 18.03.2001. The ship along with her cargo of tin plates plus concentrates and pepper worth US$2.1 million are missing.

15.03.2001 at 0230 UTC at Semangka port, Indonesia. While at anchor, two pirates armed with long knives boarded a tanker. The alarm was raised and the pirates jumped overboard and fled. No loss of property or injuries to crew.

14.03.2001 at 0350 LT at Lagos anchorage, Nigeria. Three men armed with jungle bolo boarded a bulk carrier. The crew locked themselves in the accommodation, raised the alarm and informed port control. The pirates left after 15 minutes taking with them three mooring ropes.

14.03.2001 at 0001 LT in position: 00:58.5N — 105:11.6E, east of Pulau Bintan, Indonesia. Eight pirates armed with long knives and guns boarded a container ship from a speedboat. They robbed the ship's cash and left in their speedboat. No injuries to crew.

Further updates on piracy events can be found on the Piracy Reporting Centre's website:

Dr. Peter Chalk is an expert on transnational crime and terrorism at the RAND Corporation in Washington, USA.

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