The Complexities of Piracy in Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea

Another wave of reporting on piracy in Africa is giving us a chance to examine the nuances of the phenomenon – both change over time and variation from place to place.

Cameroon coast

Reuters writes that a “new generation” of pirates is on the rise in Somalia. These pirates are better organized and equipped than the “older generation,” and may be replacing them:

Jan Kopernicki, president of the UK Chamber of Shipping industry association and also vice president of Shell Shipping, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell, told Reuters an “industrialisation of piracy” was taking place.

“It certainly seems from the shipping industry point of view that it’s a more structured and organised approach that is developing and that is worrying because it’s much more in the area of solid criminality,” he said in an interview.

Kopernicki, who was appointed UK Chamber of Shipping president last month, said there had been a “substitution” of groups involved.

“The first generation pirates have been succeeded by a second generation which are different and from different groups and from what I understand connected differently,” he said.

“I absolutely don’t want to suggest this is linked to terrorism from what I am aware of.”

The previous generation of pirates had divided up ransoms to fund their villages in Somalia, Kopernicki said, adding there was better-organised use now of mother ships and small speed boats known as skiffs.

“We are now seeing structured organisation with material apparently being brought down a supply line to supply these boats and skiffs,” said Kopernicki, who leads Shell’s shipping business.

“The impression we have is that the money flows are leaving Somalia and going into criminal elements.”

I guess that last sentence means Kopernicki sees an internationalization as well as an institutionalization of piracy. The article goes on to mention piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, which is also the subject of a VOA analysis, which stresses the differences that separate pirates in West Africa from their brethren in the Horn: Raymond Gilpin of the US Institute of Peace, interviewed for the article, mentions that the presence of oil companies and the political fallout from an unresolved border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon help drive piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. He points to other differences with the situation in Somalia:

“Somalia is a projection of lawlessness on land out at sea,” said Gilpin. “And therefore you have more organization among the clans to support and sustain piracy. You also have more organization out on the high seas with mother ships supplying and sustaining the skiffs. You also have a lot more organization in terms of financial flows with business communities in Yemen and Kenya and some in Somalia financing, supporting and facilitating the whole chain of piracy through to the ransom.”

In the Gulf of Guinea, Gilpin says most pirates operate individually or in less organized groups of small boats.

“What they do share in common is a general trend toward non-lethality unless they feel that their lives are in danger because what both sets are after is the ransom,” he said.

Gilpin’s remarks help flesh out what Kopernicki was saying about international financial connections for the Somali pirates; if Gilpin is correct, the funding networks are regional in the Horn, not just local.

Gilpin frames Somali piracy as an extension of what happens on land out into the sea; IRIN looks at how what happens at sea affects what happens on land. Piracy, they report, is driving up food costs in Mogadishu and elsewhere.

Pirates operating off Somalia’s coast have started targeting vessels operated by Somali businessmen and carrying food – something which is leading to higher food prices in Mogadishu, according to traders.

“Up until a few weeks ago, they [pirates] avoided hijacking ships carrying cargo for Somali businesses but now it is different,” Abdinasir Aw Kombe, a businessman whose boat was hijacked, told IRIN on 12 April.

He said pirates had hijacked nine vessels mostly carrying food in the last few weeks. He suspected the pirates would use the vessels to hijack other ships.

Owners of vessels used to ferry food to Somalia “are refusing to carry our goods”, Kombe said. “This has created shortages of basic goods, such as rice, flour and sugar.”

For a country that imports more than half its food, the article continues, piracy combines with civil war to devastate the lives of ordinary people.

Lately I’ve developed an allergy to the word “complex,” which gets overused in academia and elsewhere. I’m trying to save it for special topics, for emphasis – and I think it applies in this case. Piracy in Africa gets simplified, especially when writers try to frame it humorously in the “aaarrr, matey” idiom of cinema. It’s easy to think of piracy as an anachronism, a vestige of barbaric earlier times that somehow lingers in a few corners of the modern world. But as these articles show, various factors of our time intersect to produce and propel piracy: local politics, lawlessness at sea, opportunities to attack the assets of wealthy multinational corporations, regional funding networks, and individual desperation. The way piracy looks varies from place to place, and is nowhere static. As the piracy problem grows on both coasts of Africa, local and international policymakers would do well to keep that complexity in mind. The problem has not been – and won’t be – easy to solve.

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