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Piracy moves from the Malacca Strait to the Arabian Gulf to West Africa's Gulf of Guinea

While the problem of piracy and armed robbery at sea has been much reduced from the scourge it had become a decade ago off the coast of East Africa, what's left of it has moved to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.

Based on reports submitted to UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) last year, the number of incidents taking place in the Gulf of Guinea increased to 90 (up by 20 compared to 2019), with a total of 112 crewmen kidnapped or missing.

For years piracy had only been a real threat along the Malacca Strait in the Far East. So much so that shipping companies were even paying protection money to pirates to avoid actual attacks.

But as more cordial relations and deeper cooperation grew among Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, joint naval forces were mustered in such strength that the problem was reduced to relative insignificance from mortal threat it had become. It is still a threat today, but not a fraction of what it once was.

Ten years ago serious piracy moved from the Malacca Strait to East Africa, and more particularly to the Arabian Gulf, where well-armed Somali gunmen in small speed boats attached to substantial fishing boats called "motherships" ranged freely from the base camps of their regional warlords who ruled that unruly failed state.

This was not piracy in the traditional sense when pirates seized ships' cargo. Instead they focused on kidnapping. But this time it was not was not to ransom the Jamaican governor's daughter on the Spanish Main in the 18th century. No, in this age of public sensitivity, insurance companies could be made to pay for sums in the US$7 million range for the whole of 20-strong ship's crew.

In the past, in the days of major South East Asian piracy, no one would have cared if one kidnapped a ship's crew. They numbered among the wretched of the earth and no one cared a jot what happened to them except their impoverished families who had no power.

That was the 1970s and '80s. But by the 2010s, the world had changed. It has become more caring and sharing and with instant internet connectivity, increasingly available to rich and poor alike, one could not be as uncaring and callous as one could in past.

Somali pirates didn't have it their own way after a few years when peace-loving ship managers overcame their reluctance to employ armed guards and very soon discovered that those ships prepared to shoot back were seldom attacked - turning assailants away in search of easier prey.

More important, was the response of the European Union. Pirates were preying on cargo ships bound for Europe. The EU also saw the opportunity to fulfill its longstanding desire forge a military from its member states, and this could be a first step. And no better opportunity could present itself than that of policing the errant citizens of the failed state of Somalia.

Once the Seychelles agreed to set up a piracy court, the "Euronav", now provided with a means of disposing of the pirates it captured, it was all downhill from there. Piracy in the Arabian Gulf became less of a problem than before and all but disappeared.

Not so in West Africa, where piracy began to thrive anew in the Gulf Guinea. The problem for anti-piracy forces in West Africa was almost the reverse of the problems faced in East Africa, where they only had one failed state to deal with, surrounded by other states, which were either indifferent to or favoured the EU's efforts at piracy suppression.

In West Africa, there are 18 countries from tiny Gambia to enormous Nigeria, which often as not are two sides of a river bank running from the interior to the Atlantic into the Gulf of Guinea. These countries are known for corrupt officials, being on the brink of or in the midst of civil war typically between Muslims and non-Muslims, or sometimes between quarrelling factions such as the Ibo and the Yoruba in Nigeria. Each country is jealous of the other's encroachment - real or imagined - of its territorial waters in which they hope to find oil and gas reserves that might even rival those of Nigeria, by far the biggest, richest, most populous player in the region, but still riven by a vast Muslim/non-Muslim divide.

Another difficulty is the behavior of the low and slow tankers and bulkers, which do not always have set patterns of behaviour. Off Nigeria, where ships preyed upon by pirates linger, are oil tankers. Having taken on cargo, they often sit and wait for a call from London or New York, where a broker has settled on price for their cargo, and sends the ship on its way to where the cargo is wanted.

These ships wait for the phone to ring, often for days if not weeks, leaving such vessels vulnerable to pirate attack. Adding to the problem is that these Gulf of Guinea states do not want others to invade their territorial waters. The result was that no one cared to do anything about the problem. Nigeria was content that its oil was loaded and sold. As it is so easy to pursue a pirate into a jurisdiction that was not one's own, there is little point in doing so if it only raised objections from one's neighbours.

And as there is little or no protection staying with in anyone's territorial waters, laden tankers felt they had better protection from being found by availing themselves of the wide open spaces of the south Atlantic beyond anyone's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. This drove the pirates to do the same. This in turn provided Gulf of Guinea states with even less reason to pursue pirates on the high seas.

Thus in 2020, the number of incidents taking place in the Gulf of Guinea increased 28.5 per cent to 90 year on year with 112 crewmen as kidnapped or missing. This represents 60 per cent of the incidents worldwide last year. To date, this year, 23 incidents have been reported in the West Africa region.

Perhaps it is time for a renewed Euronav-like exercise to form up again in cooperation with the UK, which was life and soul of the last one that suppressed piracy in the Arabian Gulf. Perhaps this time it might be done under the aegis of NATO in which North American states would participate. If NATO could invade Afghanistan, why not the Gulf of Guinea?

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Can we trust in a multilateral force such as the UN's International Maritime Organisation to have a naval force on standby to suppress piracy? What are the risks in doing so? Would such a task be better assigned to NATO?

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