Piracy Trends in Southeast Asia and Africa

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By Junko Kobayashi – Africa is emerging as a hotspot for piracy. Southeast Asia, previously the most notorious zone for piracy, has seen a steady decrease in attacks since 2003. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) broadly defines piracy as “an act of boarding any vessel with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.” According to the IMB, the number of reported piracy attacks worldwide increased by almost 10 percent last year, with 263 actual and attempted attacks in 2007, compared to 239 in 2006. The piracy attacks over the past year also grew more violent with a 35 percent increase in reported attacks involving guns. The rise in both the global number of attacks and the level of violence is due to the tripling of piracy incidents in Nigerian and Somali waters over the past year.

The number of attacks in Indonesian water plunged from 121 in 2003 to 43 in 2007, and in the MalaccaStrait from 28 to 7. The Asian financial crisis and political instability and severe unemployment in Indonesia contributed to the surge of piracy activities in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s. However, various national and regional efforts, as well as technical assistance from concerned countries such as the US and Japan over the past several years have significantly helped to suppress piracy in the region. In particular, Indonesian authorities have stepped up efforts to strengthen law enforcement and combat poverty in coastal areas. This past January, the US provided the Indonesian police with 15 patrol boats for use in security maintenance operations against maritime crimes. In 2005, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand launched the “Eye in the Sky” joint security-initiative to provide cooperative air surveillance over the MalaccaStrait. In 2006, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) came into force. ReCAAP is a government-to-government agreement that aims to enhance multilateral cooperation among sixteen signatories including ASEAN+3 countries, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

As piracy in Southeast Asia has subsided, Africa is now the hottest spot for piracy. In Somalia, 31 piracy incidents were reported in 2007, a jump from 10 reported in the previous year. Eleven of these incidents were hijackings that took a total of 154 crew hostage. In Nigeria, 42 incidents were reported in 2007, a significant increase from 12 in the previous year. Many of the criminal groups were heavily armed and claimed to have political motives for the theft and abduction of crewmembers. IMB Director Captain Pottengal Mukundan observed that the surge of piracy in Nigeria and Somalia is due to lack of proper law enforcement and increased ability of the pirates to attack vessels further out at sea, as well as being better armed and organized. The South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies has noted that political, economic, and military instability experienced by African countries is being manifested in their territorial waters. Although the US Navy has intervened in some instances and has led international patrols in Somali waters, the responsibility for taking action against pirates falls on the local government.

Africa can learn from the recent successes in Asia in combating piracy. However, state failure and lack of naval capacity pose acute challenges for the African governments. Koji Sekimizu, Director of International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Division, impressed with the results of ReCAAP in Asia, is now drumming up support for a similar agency in Africa. But existing inter-state and intra-state conflicts will make regional security cooperation in Africa difficult.

In order to maintain positive developments like those in Southeast Asia, it is imperative that concerned governments continue to devote sufficient resources to ensure maritime security worldwide. Piracy not only poses a threat to human life, but also accrues economic cost-estimated global piracy losses range from US$ 13 to 16 billion per year. Moreover, further globalization and advancement of technology will not only bolster trade (and therefore more vessels for shipping), but also criminal activities at sea. Although maritime terrorism has so far not been a significant issue, there are also fears that terrorists and pirates might collaborate or adopt each others’ techniques.

Photo: US Navy. Merchant vessel Golden Nori transits under the escort of the dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) following its release from Somalia-based pirates December 12, 2007. Pirates seized the Panamanian-flagged vessel on October 28 and held the 23-man crew hostage in Somali territorial waters. 

Junko Kobayashi is currently serving as the Research Associate with the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.



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