Sharp drop in African piracy: are we missing something?

Reports that African waters are becoming more secure are likely to be based on problematic data.

‘Piracy falls to a six-year low’ or ‘Dramatic drop in piracy rates’… These kinds of headlines looked great splashed across a web page or newspaper cover, and it’s the kind of good-news story that readers find hard to resist. But are these reports simply too good to be true?

At first glance, the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB’s) annual report on piracy and armed robbery against ships indeed shows that the threat of African maritime piracy continues to dwindle. However, upon closer scrutiny, a far more complex situation emerges.

According to the IMB, a total of 79 incidents occurred around Africa in 2013. Of these, 15 were attributed to Somali pirates and occurred near Somalia and the Horn of Africa; down from a total of 75 Somali piracy-attributed attacks in 2012. This downward trend is all the more notable given there were 237 attacks attributed to Somali piracy in 2011.

Many have optimistically concluded that the reduction in Somali incidents indicates that piracy is no longer the threat it once was; indeed, it could soon disappear altogether.

Such conclusions, however, fail to take into account recent controversies around statistical inadequacy in reports on African security, politics and economics. A different perspective on maritime security also emerges, raising questions about the accuracy of the piracy data. These questions have serious security implications and affect not only how the threat of piracy and armed robbery is perceived, but also how these and other maritime threats should be responded to.

The IMB does acknowledge some shortcomings in their report and suggests the real number of incidents is far greater. The main reason cited for the missing data is the widespread reluctance of shipping owners to report actual and attempted attacks, since they sustain additional costs and unwanted delays while an incident is investigated. The IMB therefore cautions that the annual report cannot provide definitive evidence that the threat of piracy has diminished.

IMB Director Captain Pottengal Mukundan warns that the report’s findings are not intended to produce a state of apathy, saying, ‘Any complacency at this stage could rekindle pirate activity.’ This reflection is occasionally picked up in media coverage of the report’s findings, but all too often these crucial nuances have been overlooked.

Underreporting is a major problem facing researchers, but there is another, arguably bigger problem that continues to confuse the debate on maritime security – that is the significant differences that exist in defining an act of piracy and differentiating it from an act of armed robbery. Such differing definitions existed among some of the key disseminators of piracy information and reporting, including the IMB, the United Nations-founded International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as well as the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), which has contributed to ongoing confusion over what counts an act of piracy.

The major differences existed between the IMB and the IMO definitions. The IMO definition is based on the definition of piracy in Article 101 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS provides the basis for international law on maritime issues and sees piracy as a universal and international crime. Actual and attempted attacks that occur inside of the 12 nautical mile boundary that a state can claim as its territorial waters are not defined as acts of piracy, but are called acts of armed robbery against a ship instead. This makes it a domestic and sovereign issue for the afflicted state.

Until 2009, the IMB had provided its own definition of piracy – one that encompassed many types of incidents, including those occurring in ports, in territorial waters or on the high seas. Despite the IMB’s eventual adoption of the IMO definition, their previous perception of piracy remains largely in place. Moreover, the IMB has not yet included a categorisation of incidents according to the IMO’s definition in its reports. Since many of the incidents in the IMB report do not occur on the high seas, these incidents cannot be classified as acts of piracy. This is not clearly reflected in the data, and as a result many in the media seem unaware of the difference between piracy and armed robbery – often choosing instead to report all 79 African incidents, even the 264 global incidents, as acts of piracy.

The IMB total can be further separated into actual and attempted attacks, and a technical breakdown of actual reported attacks gives the report a dimension that is distinct from the problems of underreporting.

Out of the 79 incidents in 2013, 44 were actual attacks. Of these, 24 incidents (or over 50%) were confirmed as occurring while a vessel was berthed or anchored in or outside of a port, rather than in international waters. In addition, eight out of the 35 attempted attacks in Africa occurred under similar circumstances. This means that almost half of the 79 reported incidents (32 or 40,5%), occurred while ships were located within territorial waters and anchorages, and are not recognised as acts of piracy under international law.

What, then, are the key points to be revealed by the IMB data?

A critical reading of the data points to the importance of improving maritime security in Africa’s ports, harbours, anchorages and territorial waters – a responsibility for states. This raises questions over the implementation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS code), which contains recommendations for securing ports and harbours. The ability of port and territorial water authorities to deter and respond to distress calls in their sovereign waters must be improved, which means the security of African ports, harbours and anchorages needs to be better explored.

There are additional practical reasons and implications that need to be considered. Massive amounts of time and money are invested in producing research and policy solutions to shape responses with both short- and long-term implications. These findings, however, rely on statistics.

The perception of the scale or location of piracy and maritime insecurity also affects acquisition plans and budgets for purchasing vessels to patrol waters, training of naval officers and crew and establishing agencies to administer or implement maritime security policies.

A critical overview makes it clear that more than one source of information is required so as to reveal a more comprehensive picture from that which is typically presented. This reveals different sets of priorities that need to be the subject of future discussion.

African states and Regional Economic Communities (RECS), via national and integrated maritime strategies, are allocating scarce resources to secure their maritime domains – often through the creation of new Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) centres. These MDAs will collect information and report on incidents such as piracy, as well as incidents of smuggling, illegal fishing and pollution, to give a localised and focused picture of the causes of maritime insecurity. It remains to be seen how MDA centres will avoid some of the pitfalls in reporting piracy incidents.

The lack of nuanced reporting on the state of African maritime security reflects a clamour for straightforward solutions to a problem that is still to be fully understood. Recognising this lacuna is an important step in improving knowledge of piracy and armed robbery, and will contribute in bringing forward the debate on African maritime security.

Timothy Walker, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peace Building Division, ISS Pretoria

Related content