SecurityNewsDesk investigates piracy in West Africa with Steven Jones, Maritime Director of SAMI – Part 1

SAMI_FULL_LOGO_RGBThe focus of the recent Maritime & Coastal Security Africa in Cape Town in November centered on the theme that piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is not being given the attention it deserves, particularly in comparison to the response to piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Following on from Steven Jones’ detailed article on the subject for SecurityNewsDesk in October, we approached the Maritime Director of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI) to hear his expert opinion on some of the key issues raised during November’s conference. In this two part interview, Steven discusses what fuels piracy in both the East and West coast of Africa, the challenges faced by authorities in controlling piracy and what can be done to improve the situation.

Given SAMI’s awareness and knowledge of the situation the Gulf of Guinea, do you think it is a fair comment to say that piracy in the area is not prioritised as a much as in Somalia? 

The issue of “priorities” is a complicated notion in itself. What is perhaps more accurate is that the whole region and the maritime security problems within it are more difficult to define and to prompt a robust, workable and universally acceptable response.

As the global focal point for maritime security matters, the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI) has expressed concern that the piracy situation off the West Coast of Africa has been rapidly deteriorating throughout 2013 and as the year approaches its end, there is little sign of progress.

UN Security Council resolution 2018 does not authorise other States to enter territorial waters to repress piracy, and as such critics have felt it to be inadequate.

The continuing problems off West African piracy do suggest that a stronger tack is needed. To combat piracy off Somalia the UN Security Council called upon states and regional organisations to fight piracy with naval vessels, arms and military aircraft.

Of course West Africa and Somalia are very different, whereas the latter is a “failed State”; the former is surrounded by littoral States which are simply having problems applying any rule of law out at sea. It may be that the same lessons learned off Somalia and in the Indian Ocean are not wholly transferable. However, it seems that with the European Union Naval force stating that it will not extend operations over on the west coast, it will be very difficult to envisage the catalyst for security change on the region.

Ben Bekkering, of the Netherlands Navy and Commander of Task Force 508, claimed that the last successful pirate attack in Somalia was in May 2012 and that the Gulf of Guinea was a much more complicated problem. Is his data accurate and do you agree with his statement?

The last successful Somali-based hijack of a commercial vessel was the Greek tanker “Smyrni”, in May 2012. Though there have been dhows and fishing vessels taken in the time since that hijack. Also it is clear from reports that the attacks have not stopped, just the industry has become better at repelling them.

The fact that pirates are still operating in the High Risk Area (HRA) is a massive concern, and many have expressed anxieties that complacency may lead to a dropping of our collective guard, and a likely resurgence in successful hijacks.

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Steven Jones, Maritime Director, SAMI

Despite the fears that Somali pirates will gain the upperhand in the future, much evidence exists to suggest that security threats in the Gulf of Guinea are indeed more complicated.

With the problems of maritime security gripping such large swathes of West Africa some have asked whether governments in piracy affected areas are doing enough to combat the spread and effect of crime. There has been ever greater recognition of the problem and most nations have entered into dialogue on potential ways of combating piracy. So it seems that most governments in piracy affected areas are acting.

However, it seems unclear as to how such discourse, agreements to share information, and moves to create the means to prosecute pirates is translating into actual, tangible and real action to reduce the number and severity of attacks.

As the security situation around the West Coast of Africa deteriorates there have been pleas from littoral nations for support and assistance. Alas, it seems that many do not possess the military, the naval, coast guard or customs resources to deal with piracy in the region.

Despite recent Codes of Conduct and agreements, some observers have claimed the “polarised and politicised” nature of the region would make it highly unlikely that unified solutions can be found which is hugely concerning, and suggests that such insecurity and rising piracy attacks are set to continue unchecked.

Claims were made at the event that there has been an estimated one piracy attack a day in the Gulf of Guinea in 2013, and this was estimated to rise to two a day in 2014. It was also stated that the increased presence of the Nigerian Navy at sea has led to 14 vessels being arrested in the last 10 months while engaged in piracy. Do you have any comment on these figures based on your previous article outlining the difficulties in collecting accurate and reliable information and data?

The data and reports which surround maritime crime and piracy are always notoriously difficult – and both misreporting and under reporting are problems, but then so too can be over estimating of successes.

At SAMI we try not to respond to specific numbers, but more the trends that underlie them. We have found it better to focus on the wider picture, and as we set out in an earlier article for Security Newsdesk statistics do not always paint an accurate state of play.

It has been reported that up to sixty percent of vessels attacked in the Gulf of Guinea do not report them to the authorities. The reasons for such low recording rates are disputed, but nonetheless troubling. Some believe that distress calls or reports will simply see unwanted side-effects such as raised insurance premiums rise or a threat of arrest, as in the case of the “MT Ocean Centurion”. The vessel, a parcel chemical carrier flagged in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, was attacked by pirates but the master was arrested in Togo when he reported the attack.

Industry experts have voiced concerns that a lack of clear reporting is masking the true scale of the global piracy problem. The curse of “under reported” pirate attacks or misunderstood data are serious barriers to security. Without properly collected, collated and analysed data it is near impossible to really know how effective the fight against piracy has been.

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