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Levels of piracy are a function of poverty multiplied by the will to subdue it

Munro Anderson, is a partner at the security consultancy Dryad Global, which is involved in the monitoring and advising of shipping lines and local maritime authorities on all aspects of security.

As we approach the halfway point of 2020, the global downward trend in maritime crime and piracy seen in 2019 seems to have reversed: global maritime security incidents in the first 5 months of 2020 have increased by over 30% against the same period last year.

Incidents in South East Asia have increased by 93%; incidents in West Africa are tracking 3% higher than in 2019; and in the Indian Ocean there has been a 214% increase. The increase of activity in the Indian Ocean in 2020, which had decreased significantly in previous years, has largely been driven by a surge in incidents in the Gulf of Aden.

The narratives that surround these regional increases are complex, and whilst the impact of Covid-19 is likely a factor, it would be simplistic to say this has been main driver. A key factor attributed to Covid induced increases in piracy activity, centres around the delays caused at ports and the increased volume of vulnerable vessels at anchor and drifting offshore.

Despite this, the number robberies at anchor in West Africa, for example, has continued to decline whilst the number of deep offshore attacks on vessels underway has increased. Within the Gulf of Aden there has been a significant increase in reported events, however only four incidents have resulted in warning shots being fired by an armed security team (AST) and there remains a distinct lack of persistent approaches and boarding attempts.

The drivers of maritime security are complex and require detailed analysis of the thematic conditions as well as accurate contextualisation of the data. A closer look at the development efforts ongoing in West Africa can show how the region is configured for the challenges posed by maritime crime and piracy going forward, beyond the current impact of Covid-19.

Whilst counter piracy efforts across West Africa remain embryonic, the trend in overall incidents had, until the first five months of 2020, mirrored the wider global downward decline. This trend has been observed since 2016.

The downward trend in overall events, however, was undermined by a stark uptick in the severity of incidents, most notably kidnappings, which have increased by 68% since 2016. When we look at the numbers of personnel involved, the picture is even more alarming. 177 people were kidnapped in the waters off West Africa last year. Beyond Nigerian waters, West African Piracy saw a number of notable incidents and trends in 2019. Last year there were 13 attacks in the waters off Togo and Benin and an 83% increase in incidents off the coast of Cameroon.

Nigeria is the epicentre of piracy in West Africa.  A confluence of poverty, violence, underdevelopment, pollution, corruption, high levels of unemployment, and a lack of good governance have created a climate where piracy and robbery flourish.

These conditions continue despite government initiatives, such as President Buhari’s anti-graft legislation and pro-business efforts. In Nigerian territorial waters, the Niger Delta is the focal point of maritime crime. The presence of global oil in the region has exacerbated social tensions between communities and private companies, which has resulted in militancy, illicit bunkering and fuel theft.

Maritime communities have been further impacted by widespread illegal and unregulated fishing. In 2019, Nigeria took tangible steps towards developing more formalised mechanisms to tackle piracy. These include the ‘Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Bill’ and the ‘Deep Blue’ project.

The Suppression of Piracy Bill saw Nigeria become the first state in West Africa to introduce a specific law to fight piracy. The bill also fulfils international requirements for distinct legislation against piracy set by the IMO. Additionally, it introduces explicit legal terminology and measures for the prosecution of maritime crimes and grants increased powers to seize vessels or other vehicles used to conduct maritime crimes. The Nigerian Navy has also announced that they intend to use specifically established ‘Maritime courts’ to expedite the prosecution of maritime crimes.

The Nigerian Maritime Administration Support Agencies (NIMASA) ‘Deep Blue’ project, aims to implement integrated surveillance and security architecture to address maritime crime. Nigeria has also increased the hardware at its disposal to combat maritime crime, including purchasing helicopters, Damen FCS 3307 Patrol vessels, and speedboats from the Israeli security firm, HLSI Security Systems and Technologies Ltd. HLSI are also contracted to provide training and mentoring to the Nigerian Navy and Maritime Police, as part of the agreement.

Preventative anti-piracy measures taken by West African governments outwith Nigeria include Benin and Cameroon introducing the mandatory embarkation of guards when calling at ports. The outbreak of Covid-19 has, however, led to the many of these measures being suspended.

Wider regional initiatives to tackle piracy include the Djibouti Code of Conduct, the African Union’s Lomé Charter and the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, which function as the basic structures for anti-piracy efforts across Africa. Governments from beyond the region have also announced security measures, which indicates heightened international concern about the maritime security environment in the region.

Last year the Indian government announced that it would ban all Indian nationals from serving as mariners in West Africa following the kidnapping of 45 Indian personnel in three separate incidents.

Despite the regional and international activities to reduce maritime crime in West Africa, Dryad Global expects it to remain the global epicentre of maritime crime, with Nigeria accounting for most of the incidents. The immediate and future socio-economic implications of Covid-19 are likely to hamper efforts to tackle maritime security issues across the region and a steady increase in incidents is anticipated in the medium-to-long term.

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