Piracy in Somalia and Nigeria

Piracy in Somalia and Nigeria: From the political protest to a profitable criminal activity

Guest Article by Marta Fernández Sebastián, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

One of the common points shared by the piratical acts in Nigeria and Somalia is that their origins are based in a series of struggles centred in political arguments. The local communities protested against the exploitation of their resources. As time goes by, those protests turned violent and criminal networks started to get involved and finally they took over. As a consequence, piracy has been depoliticised and become a criminal activity which is driven by greed rather than grievances. At the same time, piracy is related to other criminal activities such as money laundering or human and weapons trafficking, which increases the instability in both regions.

Development of pirates acts in Nigeria and Somalia. From a fight for the recognition of their economic resources to a profitable criminal activity

The Gulf of Guinea has been an area affected by piracy since the 90s. For decades thieves have attacked commercial traffic in the waters off Nigeria. Due to the high development of the zone and its important oil resources; the International Community is concerned about those piracy attacks because they see them as a threat to their commercial interest in the area (Tull, 2011:28). Nigeria is among the world´s 10 biggest oil exporters, and the waters of the Gulf of Guinea are considered as a strategic area for the prevention of the trafficking of narcotics, weapons and humans into fragile regions and into Europe. (Chatham House, 2013:2).

In this case, the piracy in this area is a product of the disorder that surrounds the regional oil industry; hence most of the attacks revolve around attacks on oil tankers and its derivatives. In this way, the final purpose of the pirates in Nigeria is not the hijacking of ships, nor getting rewards for them but the cargoes’ robbery in order to sell it later on the Black Market. Thus, pirates in this area do not normally kidnap crew members. They just do it if those crew members are working directly for an oil company because, in that case, they could get a ransom for them.

The reasons why maritime insecurity in West Africa is gathered in Nigeria are to be found in the extreme poverty, high oil revenue, corrupt government, poor regulation of maritime activities and a long history of political violence in the Niger Delta, which is the centre of the Nigerian petrol industry (International Crisis Group, 2012:6).

There is no doubt the Nigerian Government, political parties, international oil companies which unfairly use the oil of the area, and the rebel groups who realize how their resources are exploited by foreign companies, are implicated in this conflict. For this reason, in 2005 The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) appeared and it became a threat to the oil companies and the government. With the appearance of MEND a new stage in the violence started and crimes such as theft of oil and goods, kidnapping and attacks of fishing vessels became common place. But, “it is impossible to establish a clear distinction between insurgents and criminals because some of them seek to make a demonstration of political force while making financial gains” (International Crisis Group, 2012:9).

In this case, as happened in Somalia, what started as a fight for the recognition of their energy resources and the economy turned into a series of acts aimed at cargo ships and other kinds of illegal activity which generated funding.
In the particular case of Somalia, the appearance of contemporary groups of pirates is found after the fall of Siad Barre as president. The fall of the old political regime and its institution brought the degradation of public order, including the coast guard. Taking advantage of that situation, fishermen from Europe and Asia started to illegally exploit these waters. It is estimated that around 700 foreign vessels operated in that area, taking fish valued from $150 million to $450 million per annum. (Samatar et al, 2010:1385).

For this reason, warlords increased their power and they started to apply their own fishing law where they saw a lucrative activity. They turned to militias which were sent to the sea against foreign vessels in order to protect what they consider their property. Those “new groups” denominated themselves as “Coastguards”, and their targets were the ships which practised illegal fishing in the zone and those which were illegal dumping waste in their waters. In spite of these activities the traffic of foreign vessels stayed off Somali waters then the local communities turned more violent against foreign ships which started to be pursued in motor launches by armed Somalis. “These Somalis were attempting to protect their marine resources and were not interested in looting the merchant marine”. (Samatar et al, 2010:1385). At the same time, this absence of law and government in Somalia produced favourable conditions for criminals who saw an excellent looting opportunity in all those ships which sailed the water of the Indian Ocean and The Gulf of Aden. Following the discourse of the “coastguards”, these criminals tried to justify their operation under the veil of the protection of the Somali fishing resources but “that veil was no longer able to conceal their true character and motivation, which is purely in search of ransom”. (Samatar et al, 2010:1385)

Nowadays, the main goal of piratical acts in Somalia is the hijacking of vessels for ransom. For that reason the crew and the cargo are the most valuable items if they want to get the ransom. The theft of vessels in order to use them as “Mother Ship” to through new acts far away off Somali Coast is also common. It is estimated that the average ransom payment in 2012 was over US$ 4million per ransom. (World Bank Study, 2012:43)

Both in Somalia and in Nigeria, the pirates’ acts started in order to defend economic resources: oil resources in Nigeria and fishing resources in Somalia. There is no doubt that the weakness of the governments, the lawlessness and corruption combined with the high poverty level as well as increased inequality have played an important role in the evolution of piracy, making it a lucrative activity which poses a threat to the stability of the affected regions.
In this way the debate is opened about when this transition occurred and what the main causes that precipitated this transition were. The answers to these questions could be an important step in the fight against piracy, especially in order to design counter-measures focused on land where the effort in the fight against the problem should be increased, because it is on land where the main problem of piracy resides.

Literature and Further reading.
– Chatham House. Maritime Security in The Gulf of Guinea: Lessons Learned from the Indian Ocean. Chatham House report, July 2013

-International Crisis Group. The Gulf of Guinea: The New Danger Zone. Crisis Group Africa Report Nº 195, 12 December 2012. Open Access.

-SAMATAR et al. The Dialectics of Piracy in Somalia: the Rich Versus the Poor. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 31, No 8, 2010, pp 1377-1394.

-World Bank, Pirate Trails. Tracking the illicit financial flows from pirate activities off the Horn of Africa, 2013.

-TULL, Dennis M. West Africa en MAIR Stefan (Ed). Piracy and Maritime Security. Regional Characteristics and political, military, legal and economy implications. SWP Research Papers. RP, 03, March 2011. Open access.

-ONU, Security Council Report 2006/229. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1630 (2005). Open Access.

About the author:
Marta Fernández Sebastián is a PhD student at Complutense University, Madrid, Spain. She works on piracy and organized crime and is member of the expert group at PSyD Observatory at the Peace, Security and Defence Chair at Zaragoza University. She has been working at Cardiff University as a Visiting Research Fellow from January to June 2014. Marta has a Master in International Relations and Communication and a Master in International Politics, both from Complutense University. In her research Marta focuses on the transition of piracy form political protest to profit driven crime and the relation between piracy and other forms of crime such as money laundering and illicit trafficking.

The views expressed in guest article and submissions do not necessarily reflect those held by Maritime Security Review.

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