Pirates threat in East Africa waters diminishes

Saturday April 27 2013

Suspected pirates aboard a fishing vessel where they were captured by the US Navy. Picture: File

Somali pirates today pose a diminished threat to regional and international shipping , a senior US State Department official said last week.

“We’ve essentially put Somali pirates out of business,” declared Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

“Pirates today can no longer find helpless victims like they could in the past and pirates operating at sea now often operate at a loss.”

There has not been a single successful pirate attack in the region so far this year, Mr Shapiro noted at last week’s Washington press briefing. He said the number of ship seizures last year was nearly 75 per cent lower than in 2011.

“It has been nearly a year since Somali pirates succeeded in capturing a major commercial vessel,” Mr Shapiro told reporters.

He attributed the enhanced security in part to the efforts of a four-year-old international coalition — the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. It consists of 80 countries and shipping industry groups that co-ordinate anti-piracy strategies and activities.


“Perhaps the ultimate security measure a commercial ship can adopt is the use of privately contracted armed security teams,” Mr Shapiro said in his April 10 testimony to Congress.

Usually comprised of veterans of various countries’ armed forces, these personnel guard merchant ships sailing through “high-risk waters,” Mr Shapiro said.

He said the US-flagged vessels are among those protected by armed guards. The World Bank estimates in a recent report that nearly 100 sailors could have died either during pirate attacks, while in detention or in the course of rescue operations.

Hundreds of pirates are believed to have died at sea, the report adds. More than 1,000 pirates are currently in custody in 20 countries around the world, Mr Shapiro noted. Kenyan prisons hold 130 of those convicted of piracy, the UN says.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has, meanwhile, granted amnesty to hundreds of Somali pirates as part of an effort to stabilise the country. Despite Mr Shapiro’s boast about putting pirates out of business, he acknowledges that the threat and the effects of piracy have not been elminated. About 100 seafarers are still being held hostage by Somali pirates, according to the United Nations. An estimated 3,741 crew members of 125 different nationalities have been captured over the years, with some being held for more than 1,000 days.

Fear of attacks on the high seas has harmed both the tourism and fishing industries in East Africa, the World Bank observes. It says that in the years since piracy became a plague, tourist spending in East Africa has registered slow growth compared with other parts of the continent. “Exports of fish products from piracy-affected countries compared with other regions have dropped by 23.8 per cent since 2006, in part due to falling production,” the Bank adds.

Somali piracy is calculated to cost the global economy about $18 billion a year in increased trade costs. That sum includes $53 million in ransoms paid to pirates on average since 2005.

The World Bank warns in its report issued two weeks ago that “Somalia cannot ‘buy’ its way out of piracy; nor can the international community rely solely on its law enforcement agencies to defeat pirates, whether at sea or land.”

Quy-Toan Do, the report’s lead author, says that the high cost of security measures “may simply be unsustainable.”

A lasting solution to the piracy problem will come only with the re-establishment of a viable Somali state that works to reduce poverty, the bank says. “The complexity and volatility of local politics” must also be addressed in areas where piracy has flourished, the report suggests.