Another twist from the oil price crash - pirates off West Africa don't want to steal it, and they are more violent than Somalia's

With shoreline better policed for stolen cargo, West African pirates are turning to more valuable human targets, and so kidnapping crew for ransom

IT’S been four years since the hijacking of MT Smyrni, the last major merchant vessel seized by Somali pirates. 

Since then, the incidence of piracy off the Somali coast has dropped precipitously, while the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa continues to be the most dangerous region for seafarers in the world, according to a new report  by Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP).

The report finds that pirate attacks off the West African coast –particularly off Nigeria, but also extending into Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast – have been more violent in 2015, with a spike in kidnap-for-ransom in the fourth quarter of 2015.

The reason is an unexpected one – the pirate business model in West Africa has until recently been theft of oil cargo, which is siphoned off to be refined in informal, onshore refineries, and funnelled into the black market.

But global fuel prices have fallen by more than half over the past year, which in apart from affecting the return on it, has also dropped the cost of coastguard naval patrols and deployments. Thus fuel is much less attractive to steal.

Humans better value

Now, with the shoreline better policed for stolen cargo, West African pirates are turning to the more valuable human targets, and so kidnapping crew members for ransom.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea was significantly more violent in 2015 than in the previous year, and are the most violent of the regions studied, according to the OBP report.

While the total number of incidents in 2015 was less than in 2014, the human cost—both in terms of casualties and severity of incidents, as well as the aggregate number of seafarers affected—was higher. In all, 1,225 seafarers were aboard vessels involved in piracy or robbery incidents in the region, three times as many seafarers as off the Somali Coast.

“Piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea are frequently characterised by heavily armed perpetrators who readily resort to violence,” the report states; in the past year 23 people have been killed in pirate attacks in the region.

Between 2014-2015, OBP reported a similar trend of more violent attacks off the Gulf of Guinea compared to the Somali Coast, but for a different reason.

At the time, oil prices were higher, so West African pirates were less interested in the welfare of the crew, as compared with Somali pirates who were kidnapping for ransom and so had an incentive to keep the hostages alive and well.

But the plunge in oil prices, counter-intuitively, has still resulted in violent West African pirates, even though the business model has changed to kidnapping for ransom.

With increased navy patrols from the Nigerian and regional authorities, pirates are working “under pressure” and there is a need to close the deal quickly – hence the violent nature of kidnappings.

By contrast, Somali piracy is unique among piracy business models worldwide because of the level of community support that Somali pirates have enjoyed in the past and the ability to hold crews and their vessels for months, or even years in “safe havens” just off the coast during ransom negotiations.

That means that there is much less of a need to harm the crew, even as collateral damage.

Still, the ability to utilise these safe havens has dropped over the years, because of a more vigorous international naval presence and shifts in support on the ground in Somalia.

As a result, their safe havens have shrunk from significant swaths of the coastline to a roughly 150 nautical mile long stretch between Haradhere and Garcad, OBP reports.

The number of seafarers attacked by Somali pirates has fallen from 1,090 six years ago to a low of 17 in 2014 – a 98.4% drop – though it picked up slightly last year, with 108 crew members caught up in pirate attacks.

In any case, last December, piracy in the Indian Ocean was declared essentially over, with the reduction in size of what international navies call the “High Risk Area” off the Somali coast, resulting in a sharp decline in armed guards and escorts in the waters of the region, and a scale-down of the navy fleet.

The report states that while pirate activity in Somalia remains at a low level, it “would be premature” to say that pirates no longer pose a threat.

The prevalence of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing mostly by large international trawlers, in spite of the heavy international naval presence, continues to fuel to much discontent among the coastal population.

A survey of piracy attitudes and motivations, conducted by Omar Sheikh Ali, the Galmudug State Counter Piracy Coordinator in early 2016 indicated that many Somalis feel that the international navies are in league with unregulated fishing vessels.

The survey indicated that support for some pirate gangs was still maintained among a few local communities; and there was strong consensus that pirate gangs may reorganise and resume activity should the international naval presence disappear.

In an August 2015 BBC report from Eyl, Somalia, a former pirate haven, a number of interviewees indicated that unless their economic prospects improved, they might return to piracy. In the words of Puntland Counter-Piracy Minister Abdallah Jama Saleh, “[the pirates] are not dead, but dormant now, so they will come definitely… straight away, no question about it [as soon as the warships leave.]”

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