Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

West African Piracy: A Glimpse of Light for a Forgotten Threat

By David RubinPublished November 8, 2013

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The US should initiate piracy related discussions as well as lead international efforts to pressure West African leaders in order to decrease the quantity of pirate attacks off of the coast. Absent effective dialogue and steps taken to ensure the protection of ships, attacks that disrupt the flow of trade and threaten the lives of crew members will continue.
By David Rubin, Published 11/8/13

Recently, most international attention has been directed toward the Middle East and a growing tension 
between Syria and the United States, in addition to other disputes between state actors. The tunnel-vision of 
media attention focused almost exclusively on the Syrian civil war has obscured what should be considered 
a substantial problem off the coast of Nigeria. October 24, pirates attacked an American-flagged oil industry 
vessel, and abducted the chief engineer and captain of the ship (both American citizens). The attack is the 
first event in recent years that drew any significant attention to piracy off of Africa's West coast. This is 
currently classified as a maritime criminal act, which means that the Department of Defense is not yet involved. 
However, these attacks are reminiscent of the marveled accounts of Somali pirates hijacking large vessels. 



"Piracy in the area tends to target slow-moving, anchored vessels doing ship-to-ship operations, often in in-shore waters as opposed to the high seas." Pirates used the same strategy off of the coast of Somalia; the main problem is that the international community has ignored such incidents off of the coast of Nigeria, instead, focusing on the Somali pirate hijackings, and now a more publicized ordeal in and around Syria. However, the mainstream media should regard the ongoing operations off of the Nigerian coast as crime syndicates. Similarly to what occurred in Somali piracy, the ships are usually hijacked for about a week and the crew is either released or certain members are held hostage for ransom. 

Many of the hijackings off of the West Coast of Africa do not generate much attention because a lot of abductions are not reported and ransoms are generally settled privately and rapidly to avoid any attention or scrutiny. 2012 was the first year during which attacks on Africa's West Coast outnumbered those around Somalia. "Somali piracy had fallen to a seven-year low because of increased international policing, tougher prosecutions of pirate gangs and greater use of private security by commercial shippers. In West Africa, by contrast, governments do not allow armed private security guards aboard ships, which may be emboldening pirates."

The US should initiate piracy related discussions as well as lead international efforts to pressure West African leaders in order to decrease the quantity of pirate attacks off of the coast. Absent effective dialogue and steps taken to ensure the protection of ships, attacks that disrupt the flow of trade and threaten the lives of crew members will continue. Only a concerted international effort to eradicate piracy on the West coast of the continent will be effective. Somali piracy provides a prime example of why only international pressure could affect local action and help eliminate sizable threats. The only way to generate international action, however, is to give piracy a higher level of attention and publicity than it has received; absent the media, the government will feel no pressure to act and characterize every incident as isolated and unnecessary to deal with on a large scale, opening the floodgates for future attacks.