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Incidents in piracy may have decreased, but core components that drive piracy remain unaltered, says Dryad

13 December 2021

Maritime intelligence and risk experts at Dryad Global have welcomed the apparent decline of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea during 2021, but have warned that this is unlikely to be due to 'fundamental or lasting change' in the region brought about by any one government or initiative.

In a new report titled 'West Africa: Where have the pirates gone?', Dryad analyses the decline of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in 2021, from assessing the success of anti-piracy initiatives to examining the environments which allow piracy to thrive.

In the latest edition of the Metis Insights report, Dryad Global's Head of Intelligence Munro Anderson welcomes the decline, however he notes that the basis for the decline is 'likely to be fragile and conditional upon loosely correlated actions, strongly indicating the fragility of any assessment that correlates a reduction in threat with a decline in incidents.'

The report states that the overall incidents of piracy and maritime crime throughout West Africa has declined by 54% compared to 2020, with incidents of actual and attempted attacks down by more than 75%. Overall numbers of vessels boarded has fallen by 32% and incidents of vessels being boarded and crew kidnapped have declined by 66%.

The analysis is broken down into three 'narratives' – the launch of anti-piracy initiatives, the intention of pirates and opportunity to carry out attacks.

How effective are anti-piracy initiatives?

The report states that the most significant development this year in countering maritime crime and piracy in the region was the launch of Nigeria's Deep Blue Project (DBP), and it is initiatives like this that have degraded the capability of piracy groups and acted as a deterrent.

Frequency of maritime crime and piracy attacks in West Africa from 2018-2021, as reported in the Dryad Global 'West Africa: Where have the pirates gone?' report. Image: Dryad Global

The DBP was launched in June 2021 and included a phased deployment of various vessels, aircraft and vehicles for patrol and surveillance. The report states that while the launch of the project correlates with the decline in piracy in 2021 there seems to be 'little tangible evidence of causation'.

Nigeria also launched the 'Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act' which provides a legislative framework to support the prosecution of maritime crime and piracy. This has had some success with the report referring to the recent conviction of 10 individuals for the hijacking of the merchant vessel FV Hailufeng II, bringing the number of pirates successfully prosecuted to 20.

The full effects of the new legislation are unlikely to be known until a later date, as the report notes the timeframe for this case was 16 months until conviction.

Poverty continues to drive piracy

The second narrative suggests that the intentions of pirates has changed leading to decline in piracy. When looking at intention the report says we must also look at the negative impacts upon intent, such as effective deterrence.

Dryad states that piracy is primarily driven by poverty, with additional factors such as unemployment, weak governance, corruption and the presence of established organised crime driving disenfranchised young men from coastal communities into piracy. They note that initiatives like the DBP are unlikely to deter pirates, referring to the fact that increased anti-piracy resources in Somalia a decade ago did not stop piracy, and it was in fact onshore programmes of economic development and reform that helped drawn these men away from crime.

Dryad says without any significant improvements onshore, it is 'near impossible to argue that there has been any alteration or deterrence against individuals' intent to engage in piracy'.

Opportunity for attacks still strong

The third part of the report looks at the opportunity for piracy attacks, which Dryad splits into two categories – volume of available targets and ineffectual governance and corruption.

The report states that the trend of piracy up until 2021 has indicated a considerable increase in the offshore capability of pirate action groups, which are adapting to the enhanced security presence by conducting their operations further from the coast.

'There is little evidence that such forces are consistently denying pirates the freedom of movement and subsequent opportunity to conduct attacks,' the report says.

However, it is the impact of ineffectual government and corruption that Dryad says has had the greatest impact on piracy statistics this year.

'The term piracy is an oversimplification for what is essentially a form of serious organised crime.' Serious organised crime includes the involvement of individuals working within official positions in local government or business. Dryad call this working in a 'grey space,' which is deeply ingrained in the southern Delta states.

They refer to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Danish government report, 'Pirates of the Niger Delta: Between Brown and Blue Waters', which details this relationship further. The report highlights the importance of 'high level illegal actors and ex-militants' as sponsors of piracy, with a statement from a 'self-identifying pirate group member' saying that the 'politicians they hire us for business.'

However, Dryad concludes that the significant financial investment and political focus on piracy in Nigeria, both domestically and internationally, is 'highly likely' to have had a detrimental impact on those who operate in this 'grey space.'

Overall, Dryad states: 'it would be disingenuous at best, and dangerous at worst to interpret the decline in piracy volumes in 2021 as indicative of any fundamental or lasting change brought about by any one state or initiative.'

You can read the full report on Dryad Global's website.