Piracy in the Horn of Africa, West Africa and the Strait of Malacca

What factors are discouraging or encouraging piracy in the Horn of Africa, West Africa and the Strait of Malacca? This report finds that a combination of factors in each of the regions have affected levels of piracy, at different times and depending on the type of piracy. For example, these factors may differ for subsistence pirates (largely gangs made up of part-timers who are often poor and seeking an alternative source of income) and professional pirates (hierarchically organised syndicates with well-developed logistical chains).

Factors encouraging piracy

Bueger (2015: 34) identifies five triggers for piracy from the literature: geography; weak law enforcement; maritime insecurity; economic dislocation, including economic shocks in the fishing sector; and cultural acceptability. Clark and Hansen (2012: 502) also identify the increased trend towards ‘skeleton crews’, competing demands for scarce security resources, the willingness of owner-operators to pay ever-larger ransoms, and the global proliferation of arms as factors that have contributed to piracy. Other factors include:

  • Illegal fishing and environmental degradation, which is mentioned as a key grievance driving piracy. Criminal gangs use this narrative while targeting valuable commercial ships unconnected to illegal fishing.
  • Community support, which enables pirates to hold hostages for months in ‘safe havens’.
  • ‘Sea blindness’, including lax maritime rules and regulations, has weakened states’ capacity to combat piracy.

Factors discouraging piracy

Piracy has been reduced through a mix of methods, including naval patrols, self-protection measures and armed guards on vessels, and capacity building efforts and development on shore (Anyimadu, 2013: 17). Asariotis et al. (2014b: 57) suggest that piracy reduction depends on the economic situation and political stability in affected regions, as well as strengthened maritime security cooperation, information sharing, and the effective prosecution of pirates and those who benefit from piracy. In addition, an expert consulted for this report identifies three types of effective non-military land-based counter-piracy efforts:

  • shutting down the market for loot, which involves  better real-time tracking and registration of ships, better regulation and registration of refineries, ports and shipping companies, and more surveillance of unusual market manoeuvres
  • providing economic opportunities to increase the opportunity cost of engaging in piracy
  • decreasing the political space in which pirates can operate: for example, unifying elites against piracy works well and does not require particularly strong state institutions.

Discouraging piracy and solving piracy require different approaches; suppression is not the same as a lasting solution.  Counter-piracy efforts also need to recognise the different forms of piracy, which require differing initiatives to counteract them.

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Suggested citation

Rohwerder, B. (2016). Piracy in the Horn of Africa, West Africa and the Strait of Malacca (GSDRC Literature Review Report 1397). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.