Pirates are jumping ship, but not West African ones

Hijackings off east African coastline remain in steady decline, but pirates to the West remain determined to remain in business, data shows.

A Somali pirate. New data shows a decline in East Africa, but numbers off the coast of West Africa remain stubborn. (AFP)

A Somali pirate. New data shows a decline in East Africa, but numbers off the coast of West Africa remain stubborn. (AFP)

Captain Philips, the 2013 Hollywood thriller that run many Oscar winners close, deserved all the plaudits. The film features gun-toting Somali pirates, led by one Muse,  boarding the American vessel MV Maesrk Alabama.  

The captain of the ship, Philips, played by Tom Hanks, attempts to negotiate. In the 134-minute drama set in the rolling waves, the crew at some point overpower the pirates, giving Hanks the chance to separate from his crew and be held as an individual hostage. 

In the end, United States Navy Seals save the day and Hanks is rescued before the pirates get him to shore. Muse, played by Somali-born actor Barkhad Abdi, on the other hand is arrested and possibly heads to prison where he will stay until white hair grows out from his nose. The rest of Tom Hank’s crew escape with cuts and bruises. 

But this is in the movies; where good ultimately triumphs over evil. Despite having been adapted from true events that occurred to a US ship off the coast of Somalia in 2009, such a feel-good ending to a piracy incident is rare. On Saturday June 7, the remaining 11 members of MV Albedo, a Malaysian cargo ship that was captured in 2010, dramatically made their escape from their captors.

They had been in captivity for more than three years, where they were tortured and one of them shot in an altercation with their captors. The chaos during the hijacking led to the ship sinking, and along with it four crew members. Seven members of the 23-man crew were released in 2012. 

Real life
The owners of the ship are said to have refused to pay ransom and abandoned the crew after the ship sunk. That is real life, where bits of the bad are intertwined with the worse, and good news is often delayed, if it comes at all.

But with data showing an overall decline in piracy across Africa, good news is not too far offshore.

In January 2014, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) released its report showing a 40% drop in piracy. The fall brings current piracy rates to their lowest level in the past six years. Specifically, the report looked at the Somali coast where in 2011, some 237 cases of piracy attempts were reported but a year later the number of reported cases had reduced to 75, and eventually to 15 in 2013.

Earlier, a similar report detailing the state of maritime piracy in 2012 along the coast of Somalia and the waters off West Africa echoed these findings, showing a drop of 80% in attacks off the coast of East Africa.

But in the wake of attempts, IMB warns against complacency. “...it will take only successful hijacking for the Somalia business model to return,” it notes in its first quarter report for 2014.

But according to the director of IMB, Pottengal Mukundan, piracy along the West African coast has remained at about the same levels over the past few years. The quarterly report for 2014 showed six attempts in Nigeria, but half of the 11 in the similar period of 2013, and 10 in 2012.  

Black oil
Independent NGO Oceans Beyond Piracy reported that some 1,871 seafarers were attacked by West African pirates in 2013, taking 279 seafarers hostage. This is higher than IMB’s report of 117 hostages in the same year and much higher than the 15 attempts reported off the Somali coast.

In their activities in 2012, some 966 seafarers were attacked by the West African pirates in separate incidences, leading to a total of 206 hostages.

Run majorly by Nigerian pirates, the January 2014 report shows West African attacks as contributing to 19% of the world’s maritime attacks. Operating in the Atlantic Ocean coasts of Nigeria, Guinea, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Ghana and Gabon, they largely target oil vessels. 

The booming oil market in that region is thought to be the main draw to West African piracy.

Piracy is a goldmine on water for those who attempt it, but its disruptive effect has caught the attention of two powerful groups. In March 2012, NATO and the European Union (EU) resolved to keep their naval operations around Somali waters until December 2014. This perhaps accounts for the reduction in pirate activity. 

Cost of piracy
The two organisations have a good reason to hang around the coast of Somalia.  According to a 2012 report ‘Piracy off the coast of Somalia’ presented at the UK’s House of Commons, the sea and oceans account for 90% of the world’s choice mode of transporting goods. 

From this, 28,000 ships yearly use the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. The report further indicated that the annual cost of piracy is within the ranges of $8 billion and $12 billion. 

The pirates may be jumping ship but they are jumping ship with a smile – though the same can’t be said of insurers who have had to fork out around $350 million a year. 

It is a relief to many that piracy has gone down to the point where they can release hostages at no ransom at all, but the stubborn figures from West Africa shows there is still much to be done. 

The hope in the shipping industry and affected economies is that those pirates being put out of a job don’t jump ship to another form of regional crime.

Twitter: @PitaOduor

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