Curbing the excesses of maritime piracy in Africa


It may be reasonable to assume that piracy has existed for as long as the oceans were plied for commerce. For some decades, the trend in piracy has been observed to be cyclic in nature with its peak occurring when there is global economic recession in which the perpetrators of this heinous crime enter the sea to steal. It is on land pirates plan, thereafter undertake acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea. Accordingly, when there is economic recession and political instability on land, pirates turn to the sea for survival. This situation is reversed when the nation’s economy is booming. This viewpoint is arguable but, reports on maritime piracy as they occur in various parts of the world and its deadly effect on shipping and ultimately national economies have been of grave concern to ship owners and governments. It has been observed that a number of geographic and economic characteristics of the classical world produced an environment practically necessitating piracy. However, piracy has become a threat to maritime security and global economy and this has compelled me to contribute to existing debates on piracy.

The re-emergence of global economic crisis in 2008 coupled with political instability in some parts of the World and indeed Africa, escalated piracy situations in the Horn of Africa off the Somali coast. Reports of Somali pirates seizing vessels and crew were not infrequent. Hostages were taken, while lives were lost. Additionally, hundreds of millions of dollars was paid out in ransom. Shipping was disrupted globally while the threat to safety and commercial shipping raised an alarm that drew an international response. By the end of 2011, about 3500 seafarers were held hostage for ransom, while their ships were hijacked by armed criminal gangs. Consequently, the Indian Ocean was ceded to pirates, while ships were diverted to other areas. This was confirmed by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre statistics which stated that piracy in the Gulf of Aden is diminishing with only 75 vessels reported attacked in 2012 compared to 237 ships in 2011. Accordingly, this accounted for 25 percent of incidents worldwide, while Somali hijackings dropped significantly from 28 in 2011 to 14 during the same period.

Piracy has equally been at its peak in other parts of Africa. For instance, it was reported that in the Gulf of Guinea, piracy is rising with 58 incidents in 2012 comprising 10 hijackings with 207 crew members taken hostage. In 2012, Nigeria recorded 27 incidents with 4 vessels hijacked 13 vessels boarded, 8 fired upon and 2 attempted attacks. Togo has also seen an increase from 5 reports in 2011 to 15 in 2012 including 4 hijackings. The story is the same off the Coast of Ivory Coast where one incident recorded in 2011 rose to 5 in 2012 and in the last quarter of the same year, suspected Nigerian pirates attacked a Panama tanker off Abidjan. Within 9 months of 2013, worldwide incidents of piracy include 176 reported cases and 10 hijackings out of which Nigeria has 28 cases of piracy and 2 hijackings, while Somali has 10 cases and 2 hijackings. Late in 2013, it was reported that ‘’pirates attacks off Nigeria’s Coast increase three folds’’, while 2 US sailors were kidnapped from an oil supply vessel off the nation’s coast within the year. West Africa’s coast has become an increasing target for pirate attacks. In 2014, the situation has not changed significantly as maritime scholars and stakeholders are perturbed by the character and nature of this crime. These are the excesses of maritime piracy despite various countermeasures applied. However, in most cases confusion abounds as to whether an attack is piracy or sea robbery.

Between piracy and sea robbery

Attacks on ships within sovereignty, landward of the 12 nautical miles limit or landward of the territorial sea boundary are armed robbery and only the territorial state has the arrest of power. Beyond the 12 nautical mile limit, it is piracy and the principle governing ships on the high sea is the exclusive jurisdiction of the flag state. The same principle applies to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is between 12 and 200 nautical miles, in which jurisdiction of the coastal state extends to resources within the area but not to attacks on ships. The general principal governing the sea beyond the 12 nautical miles is that foreign ships cannot be boarded by any other country’s warship without consent of the flag state. The exception is piracy. That is, outside the 12 nautical miles of a state and the EEZ, warship of any state has the right to arrest a pirate vessel and those involved in the act of piracy.

Theoretically, international law allows any pirate to be prosecuted irrespective of nationality or the flag state of the ship. There are 12 other international conventions that can be used to prosecute pirates in addition to the Law of the Sea, however, those applicable to piracy and sea robbery are: the 1988 Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of International Maritime Navigation Convention (SUA) and the 1979 International Convention against the Taking of Hostages. Both conventions allow states to cooperate with each other and give their court’s jurisdiction no matter where the offence is committed. It has been observed that in practice most countries especially in Africa have been reluctant to domesticate these conventions to combat piracy. Consequently, their ineffectiveness in arrest and prosecution of those alleged to have perpetrated the acts of piracy. A classical example is the case of seven Russians alleged to be in possession of weapons onboard a vessel and was released by the court. Ship-owners and maritime nations in Africa have however, adopted various piracy countermeasures to protect shipping.


Several countermeasure strategies have been put in place at the domestic, regional and global levels through legislation and regulations coupled with the use of force. Ship owners have equally adopted the ‘’citadel tactics’’ as one of the countermeasures used against act of piracy in which the crew retreats to a safe cabin, thus cutting the pirates’ ability to control the ship. Another increasingly used countermeasure is the deployment of armed guard onboard merchant vessels in self-defence. However, while it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that armed guards are being used, it has not provided the much needed solution to the act of piracy. Indeed, the deployment of private guards represent a failure on the part of African navies and the international community to provide the level of military protection needed in order to have a decisive impact. The use of armed guard onboard merchant ships has generated controversies with respect to the Law of the Sea. One major concern is the fact that the right of self-defence may be interpreted differently by different jurisdictions. Additionally, in the event of an act of piracy countries may be involved in lengthy legal battles they would encounter over jurisdiction, potential lack of witnesses, evidence and human rights obligations.

Armed guards have been used more in a few countries such as the Norway, Italy, India and the UK having passed domestic laws permitting commercial ships to make use of armed guards on their flagged ships. Other countries with large flagged vessels such as Liberia have no laws barring the use of armed guards on their flag ships. Japan and the Netherlands are however, reported to have prohibited the use of armed guards. Nigeria and most African countries do not have a domestic law enabling armed guards onboard commercial vessels within their territorial waters.

African navies

The capabilities of African navies, is best understood using the following roles: military, policing and policing (coastguard). Of these three roles, African navies have concentrated on the policing or coastguard functions more than developed navies. Conventional regulatory policing roles comprise: offshore patrols and regulations enforcement, and protection of the coastal state’s EEZ. These tasks can be performed using light patrol vessels, but in view of Africa’s coastline of 18950 miles of coast line, and 200 nautical miles of EEZ to be covered, maritime air surveillance is required to compliment African navies light surface combatant vessels. This is generally lacking in most navies of Africa.

Regrettably, the platforms of some navies may not seem impressive due to the fact that the maintenance of a navy by its very nature is capital intensive and demands availability of skilled personnel. African navies generally lack the resources to maintain a larger fleet. Additionally, most navies in Africa do not have sufficient maritime infrastructure required to support and maintain naval systems, or military air surveillance elements, and this capability is unlikely to be developed in the medium term. Also, most African states particularly those of the Sahara have weak shipping industry with a problem of funds to buy ships and spare parts from overseas shipyards. However, capability is subjective, weak economies and low level of technological development inhibits the use by African navies’ of ships to protect their coastal waters. Thus, the assertion that a navy is a unique indicator of the development and economic might of a country is true considering that only developed navies enjoy strategic presence at sea and indirectly through economic strength.

Strategic options

In spite of all inadequacies exhibited by African navies, naval patrols must be sustained at the domestic level by all maritime nations as this is a critical component of an effective counter-piracy strategy. This is imperative irrespective of the size and shapes of each navy in the African Continent. Sustained naval patrols of identified chokepoints will not only serve as deterrence to pirates but will enable navies meet the stipulated missions of maritime security and maritime law enforcement in the short term.

Since Information Technology enables platforms to be close together in an electronic sense, the weak technological base of most African nations has made it impossible to detect targets at sea. In the medium term, it is vital for African navies to build and sustain partnership with each other in order to have a network-based approach to maritime security and also to develop a collective naval security arrangement for Africa. Additionally, African governments can contribute to continental security by strengthening their maritime defence capabilities in order to combat threats in internal waters before they spill over to the high seas.

At the regional and international levels, the establishment of an African Force of Armed Naval Guards that can be deployed in small numbers on board merchant ships may be an important element towards solving the piracy problem in the long term. This is likely to be an innovative force in terms of African Peacekeeping activity. This is to restrict the growth of unregulated privately contracted armed guards and to allow African Union members and indeed those in the areas most immediately affected including those states lacking maritime forces in the region to contribute meaningfully to piracy countermeasures.


Original Article