African pirates copy ideas for ransom riches

Yemeni coast guard patrols the Gulf of Aden in March.
Incident details : "Armed pirates chased, boarded and hijacked a fishing trawler underway" SE of Mogadishu, Somalia … "Several persons armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machetes attempting to climb onboard with use of rope" Lagos anchorage, Nigeria.

Reading down the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) ‘Live Piracy Report’, a catalogue of piracy reports from across the world, the same two names are cropping up with disturbing frequency — Somalia and Nigeria. The list reads like a history book telling tales of the buccaneers of old — daring raids, kidnappings and ransoms. But these days Africa’s pirates are using automatic weapons and RPG’s. Thousands of miles apart, Somalia’s and Nigeria’s pirates have no communication and their circumstances are both very different. Somalia is a barren, dusty failed state and Somali pirates operate in the vast Gulf of Aden. Pirates in Nigeria operate from the sprawling metropolis of Lagos harbor to the riverine creeks of the Niger Delta region. But they’re after the same thing — money. Watch how negotiations with pirates take place ยป And to get it they seem to be feeding off each other’s ideas. “One of the interesting things about piracy off-shore West Africa, is that it has started to mimic piracy trends off the horn of Africa, places like Somalia,” explains Rolake Akinola, West Africa analyst at Control Risks. “Some of the tactics used are increasingly sophisticated, sophisticated weaponry is used by some of those pirate groups and it’s becoming much more violent.” The tactics employed often involve small speed-boats pulling up alongside their target, boarding them and, often resorting to violence, kidnapping the crew or cargo.

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Ransoms can run into millions of dollars. In Somalia, last year, the hijacked Saudi oil tanker ‘Sirius Star’ was released after a $3 million ransom was dropped by helicopter to the pirates. Local governments in Nigeria’s Niger Delta often keep a special fund to pay kidnappers. Hundred have been kidnapped in the last few years with American and British hostages in particular considered ‘high-value’. In countries where the majority of the population lives on less than $2 a day, these sums are considerable amounts of money. And the money is often splashed out on flashy Humvees, flat-screen TVs and more weapons. Visiting pirates in the swamps of Nigeria’s Niger Delta we were taken to the commander’s newly built home. Surrounded by mud-huts in the mangroves, a generator powered his refrigerator filled with bottles of champagne that they drank as they played on their newly imported pool table. They were all young men who complained about the lack of job opportunities and were enticed into piracy by promised riches on show at the commander’s house. Off Somalia’s coast, a NATO-led taskforce is trying to crackdown on Somali pirates. And the U.S. navy is making frequent visits to West Africa to train local navies to combat pirates. “The taskforce are doing a fantastic job and they are very much welcome,” says Michael Howlett, Divisional Director of the IMB. Pointing out that in February, for every eight attacks there was only one hijacking. But according to the International Maritime Bureau — 2009 has already seen a spike in pirate attacks — particularly off east coast Somalia. More than 15 attacks were reported by March. With their attacks, pirates are challenging not just international shipping lanes, but Africa’s rule of law. The pirates are now operating hundreds of miles from their bases. Somali pirates operate freely along the coastlines of Kenya and Tanzania with the potential to threaten tourists on the beaches. In March, Somalis hijacked a yacht and its seven crew off the Seychelles islands. Earlier this year, unknown Nigerian gunmen attacked the presidential palace in Equatorial Guinea. They were eventually chased away in speedboats by a military helicopter.

To combat the problem, analysts like Akinola are agreed — you need more than military force. “Governments need to look at some of the social and underlying economic issues that allow piracy — so issues around governance and the provision of social services to populations in many of the countries affected.”