Sea Transportation: Piracy Flourishes in Africa


October 19, 2007: Piracy is up 14 percent for the first nine months of this year. Nearly all of the increase comes as a result of increased activity off Somalia and Nigeria. There were 26 acts of piracy in Nigeria, up from nine last year, and 26 off Somalia, up from eight last year. The other area to see an increase was the busiest waterway in the world, the Malacca Straits, where attacks went from 174 to 198.

Last year in Somalia, an Islamic fundamentalist militia took over the coastal villages where the pirates were based, for about six months, and shut down most of the pirate operations. But the piracy had powerful backers among tribal leaders, so the "Islamic Courts" militiamen were driven out. No one else, either in Somalia, or outside the country, is willing to go after the pirate bases. Foreign warships are patrolling outside Somali territorial waters, making is safer for vessels moving past Somalia. But some foreign fishing boats get too close, in order to increase their catch, and get caught by the pirates. Cargo ships delivering aid (mostly food) are also attacked, unless the UN makes arrangements to pay off the pirates, or if a foreign warship offers to provide an armed escort.

Nigeria is a different situation. The government is facing a widespread insurrection in the Niger River Delta. There is where the greatest concentration of shipping is to be found, and most of the piracy consists of small boats boarding commercial vessels, robbing crew, and stealing valuable, but portable, gear (electronics, or the contents of the ships safe.)

The situation in the Malacca Straits is similar to Nigeria, but there are far more potential targets (about 130 ships a day pass through the straits). Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have increased naval patrols in the area, and are now coordinating their efforts. Ships are also increasing their security as they pass through the straits, even though their chances of getting hit are less than one percent.

Most pirates are intent on robbery, not stealing the ship. This was not always the case, but in the last decade, the larger ships have added things like alarm beacons, that send a distress signal if a ship is taken over, and GPS on board which allows the owners back on land to track where the ship is. If a ship is stolen, it's more likely that its location will become quickly known, and local police and naval authorities will be alerted. The exception is Somalia, where the pirates can seize ships and hold them for ransom in Somali ports, because no foreign power wants to get involved in bringing the rule of law to the Somali coast.


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