‘More efficient business model’
However, there is a key difference between piracy in East and West Africa. Analysts say West African pirates operate ‘a more efficient business model’ than their East African counterparts.
Somali pirates focus on kidnap and ransom, whereas in West Africa, the focus is cargo theft, mostly fuel oils sold on the domestic black market. Hijacking a tanker to steal its fuel cargo is a ‘far more efficient business model’ than waiting for a ransom to be paid. Attackers can see a substantial financial return within a week if there is a pre-aranged buyer for the stolen cargo.
A recent letter from the International Maritime Office (IMO) described vessels being hijacked for several days in order to facilitate the transfer of cargo onto the pirates’ ship, something that takes planning and coordination, logistical organisation, technical know-how and material support on a large scale.
Executives at the International Union of Marine Insurance’s annual conference in London believe that this type of piracy is backed by organised criminal outfits, unlike in Somalia.
While it may be strange and even tasteless to describe piracy as a ‘business’, nevertheless, experts point out that in terms of returns on activity, the West African fast turn-round of hijacked cargo, and its corresponding quick returns is a far more ‘efficient’ method compared to the activities of Somali pirates, for whom ransom payments may take over a year to negotiate, involve considerable danger and provide a very slow payback for their input.
Some hostages may be held for even longer when ship owners are reluctant to pay a ransom and the cost of holding them is an ‘additional investment’ the kidnappers have to make. For instance, 11 crew members of the now-sunk Malaysian container ship Abedo are still being held after three years – with consequent ill effects on their physical and mental wellbeing – among a group of 40 hostages collected from other ships,according to Col John Steed, former head of the UN’s counter-piracy unit, who runs a Nairobi-based organisation, the Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security. As of 31st December 2012, Somali pirates still held 104 hostages on eight ships and 23 more were detained on land, pending negotiations for their release.
One reason why kidnapping seems to have less appeal to West African pirates compared to their Somali counterparts is because there are more effective policing methods to pursue pirates swiftly ashore, whereas Somalia’s lack of government has meant that pirates were unlikely to be tracked down once on land – though some communities are now said to be driving pirates out of their fold.
But the situation in West Africa may be changing yet again and hostage taking may be on the increase. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) warned its members only recently about the “gravity of the issue of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the Gulf of Guinea”. At the end of October, two US mariners were kidnapped from the oil supply vessel C-Retriever in international waters in the Gulf and are still presumed kidnapped as African Business went to press.
West and Central African leaders met in October in Senegal to discuss maritime security and the setting up of a centre in Cameroon responsible for coordinating anti-piracy efforts across the region.