West Africa: piracy’s new frontier?

News is emerging that an oil tanker has been hijacked off the Nigerian coast. This appears to be part of a growing trend, and one that was predicted in these pages four years ago (even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle). Back in December 2008 I wrote of the attractions of West Africa as a venue for piracy, suggesting that its coast ‘has many of the elements that make Somalia a good spot for a bit of buccaneering – rank poverty, lots of underemployed young men, unstable governments, endemic corruption and favourable geography.’ If ships start going the long way round the Horn of Africa to avoid the East African coast, I added, ‘they might be in for a nasty surprise when they reach the opposite side of the continent.’

A few months later I posted this map published by the International Maritime Bureau, showing the global distribution of pirate attacks in the first part of 2009:

You need only compare this with the IMB’s latest 2012 map to see how rapidly the industry has expanded in West Africa:

Trickle Down Piracy

Readers could make a real contribution to the people of Somalia by taking their yachts over to the Horn of Africa:

Piracy off the coast of Somalia may be a global scourge costing $12bn a year, but a new report argues ransoms deliver much-needed development to the failed state.

The average hijacking ransom brings in the equivalent of the export of 1,650 heads of cattle, while keeping hostages – 1,016 were captured in 2010 – provides jobs for local cooks, producers and traders, according to the report by Chatham House. It calculates up to 100 people are needed to secure every hijacked ship.

“Piracy appears to lead to widespread economic development,” says the report’s author Anja Shortland, who argues the flow of ransom payments has helped to boost the local exchange rate, to raise real wages and to reduce inflation.In the absence of a functioning state that has failed to eliminate al-Qaeda-linked rebels further south, the report says pirates provide “local governance and stability”.

Seed money from ransoms, which garnered a record $135m last year, has helped set up dozens of trucking companies that have reduced transport costs of staples such as rice, even as global inflation bit hard and a regional food crisis helped plunge Somalia further south of pirate strongholds into famine. . . .

While the report acknowledges some piracy money goes into drugs and flashy cars, Ms Shortland, a development economist at Brunel University, argues instead that the benefits stretch far wider than a pirate financier elite. She says any abrupt military solution that stopped piracy would deprive thousands of people of jobs and “quite noticeable trickle-down”.

Source: Financial Times

Some pirates are better than others

The International Maritime Bureau’s live piracy map is worth a look. In 2005 (see here for 2005 map), there were many more attacks in South East Asia than off the horn of Africa, but today Somalia has become the epicentre of the industry. There have been more attacks off the horn of Africa so far this year than in the whole of 2005, while piracy in South East Asia has become a rarity.

The 2009 map also shows how much more efficient South East Asian pirates are than their brethren in the western Indian Ocean. All the raids there this year have resulted in capture of a vessel, whereas in Somalia, attempted attacks far outnumber actual attacks. Perhaps as they become more practised, the Somalis too will become more effective, enabling them to some extent to counter the increasingly forceful response by the West.

IMB Live Piracy Map 2009: red = actual attack, yellow = attempted attack

IMB Live Piracy Map 2009: red = actual attack, yellow = attempted attack

Firing the first shot

The piracy saga in the Indian Ocean has taken a nasty turn, as France’s new Napoleon, Nicolas Sarkozy, has decided capital punishment is the best way of dealing with Somali bandits in the region. French commandos shot dead two pirates as they attempted to rescue a young French yachtsman and his family. It looks likely that they also killed the yachtsman. Then, on Sunday, the US killed a further three pirates as they successfully rescued a captured ship’s captain.

Until now, the pirates have treated their hostages fairly well – possibly because ransoms have usually been paid – but if they decide to fight fire with fire their activities could become more violent. Indeed, hardline Islamists in Somalia have already vowed revenge for the killings, and another pirate who’s holding some Greek captives (over 230 hostages are being held by various pirates) warned:

Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate [for] the killings of our men.