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Poverty driving piracy: grappling with a global pariah

Jonathan SpencerDesperation skews injustice with justification. The line between piracy and conventional criminality is blurred. / By Jonathan Spencer

Piracy charts a history of more than 2000 years – back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans – but it’s doubtless as old as man has been afloat. It knows no borders, its motives manifold.

Barely a week passes before we read of another attempted attack, or the phone rings as a fleet manager alerts us.

As with most criminality, piracy – or robbery at sea – is centred on seizure and absolute power: I want, we need, we haven’t got, I can get is the flagrant rationale behind the buccaneer’s trigger. Desperation can skew injustice with justification; accessibility with availability. The line between piracy and conventional criminality is blurred. And in almost every single case we hear about, there is an intrinsic link to poverty.

Profiteering and exploitation latch on to any socioeconomic collapse. One community’s calamity is another’s opportunity. It is no wonder Nigeria, Somalia, The Philippines and Venezuela top the list of countries grappling with this global pariah.

The most recent International Maritime Bureau report records 66 piracy incidents (up from 43) for the first quarter of 2018. Whilst sea piracy may have declined off West Africa, the region has seen more than a hundred seafarers captured, held or kidnapped in and around the Gulf of Guinea.

Pirates seize vessels to siphon off crude petroleum to sell on a buoyant black market, accessible to impoverished communities. Most attacks are in national waters, so national navy and police assets respond. But with corruption endemic in states around the Gulf of Guinea, pirates play cat and mouse with the piecemeal response, often attacking ships in one country’s territorial waters only to flee to another state’s more lenient jurisdiction.

The deteriorating situation needs strategic impetus, but an international coalition – if there was any political will for one – hardly has a dog in this fight.

Somali sights are on kidnap-for-ransom, dressed up in some warlord ideology – seemingly silenced by the recent international naval presence. However, a rise in attacks last year sees both the intent and ability to hit cargo vessels hundreds of miles off shore.

In Venezuela, piracy driving a contraband black economy – exploiting the chronic food shortages and the demise of a once flourishing fishing industry – is a legacy levelled at Hugo Chávez. Fishermen now find ways to survive with their boats used for smuggling gas and drug-running, while the offshore installations that punctuate Lake Maracaibo are prey to a thriving oil piracy, derived from Venezuela’s economic decline.


In Asia piracy incidents have halved in the first quarter of 2018, largely attributed to a decrease in the number of attacks at ports or anchorage in Bangladesh and the Philippines. In 2017 the Philippines alone recorded 22 incidents. However, cargo ships remain the target of kidnapping attempts in the south while poverty continues to be exacerbated by Islamist groups, such as Abu Sayyaf. Nine seafarers remain captive. Land-based military operations by Philippine forces against the group has seen militants chase after softer targets at sea.

In the Philippines, after a typhoon smashed the central islands, I witnessed an extraordinary scene of generosity. Muslim women arrived by truck in one flattened town, with crates of fish ready for cooking on fires local people had built from any debris that would burn. The women had come from Mindanao in the south, arriving at dusk. Perfect timing. Proof to me that poverty also sees selfless goodwill surface in economic catastrophe.

I add that example because the intrinsic problems of acute need and disparity, whilst common – though certainly not exclusive – to the developing world can often bring out the very best in humanity, and are rooted on land long before they have impact off shore. Social injustice has a voice in any space it finds. Islands blighted by a conflict as indigenous as it is ideological; while religious affiliates might court it, piracy profits from it.

The surge in coastal attacks off West Africa has pushed up global levels of piracy and armed robbery at sea, a year ago said to be at its lowest for two decades.

I took a phone call when a cargo vessel was targeted off the Niger Delta. A watchkeeper’s worst nightmare, sighting two fast skiffs arriving at dawn: the crew alerted and ordered to hide; sitting in silence as attempts are made on doors and cabin spaces; light footsteps on stairs… Emergency protocols are stringently followed, maritime agencies are signalled – and rescue comes with a navy boarding party. The crew safe, with vessel and cargo intact.

Relief was apparent in the master’s voice when he called me some hours later. So that was a good day. Of course, other incidents can have gravely different consequences.

But hope floats. Last year Nigeria pledged $186m to tackle piracy. This amounts to additional training for the navy, more technical support for patrol vessels and bolstering port security, on top of tackling the country’s transport decay and investment for inland waterway projects and coastal regions.

Indonesia feared ‘another Somalia’ in South East Asia, leading to closer naval and coast guard collaboration to combat piracy across sea borders with the Philippines. Whilst Manila has sought Chinese cooperation to step up joint patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas. It was the threat to Chinese shipping that saw Beijing dispatch a naval convoy to the Gulf of Aden nearly a decade ago.

Where poverty remains the source, piracy may only be contained. But if we are to eradicate the pariah – at least in part – then this long game of strategic effort might yet sail the distance.

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