For many people, maritime piracy evokes images of a drunk one-eyed sailor singing obscene songs. For some younger people, piracy may bring to mind the picture of Hollywood actor Johnny Depp, wearing a headband in a scene from the film Pirates of the Caribbean.
But maritime piracy is not just an action movie. It's a serious problem and it poses a real threat not only to the safety of vessels and their crews, but also to the economies of affected countries.
While piracy in Somalia's Gulf of Aden is currently on the decline, it has spread to West Africa. And unlike pirates along Somalia's coast, who are often after ransom, pirates in West Africa also steal goods - particularly oil. Many attacks end up with crew members injured or killed.
Pirate attacks also damage the economy. In some cases, affected countries in West Africa have become less concerned with direct losses from piracy than with the ways in which these losses affect international insurance rates and other trade-related costs.
In Benin, for example, taxes on trade account for half of government revenue, and 80 per cent of these are derived from the port of Cotonou, according to the UN office on Drugs and Crime figures published in March last year. Last year, the spike in pirate attacks in West Africa led London-based Lloyd's Market Association, an umbrella group of maritime insurers, to list Nigeria, neighbouring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia. The result was a significant decrease in maritime traffic in the region, which meant a 28pc loss in Benin's government revenue. The decrease also affected the livelihoods of the country's citizens by increasing the cost of imports and decreasing the competitiveness of exports.
Corruption, weak law enforcement and poverty are the main causes of piracy, according to Dr Christian Bueger, a Cardiff University researcher and editor of Piracy-Studies.org, an online research portal. This appears to be the case for Nigeria. Chatham House, a British research group, reported in September last year that "corruption and fraud are rampant in the country's oil sector," and "lines between legal and illegal supplies of Nigerian oil can be blurry." In such a climate pirates have an incentive to steal oil, since they know they will be able to sell it on the black market.
The damage caused by thieves has forced oil companies to shut down pipelines. Nigeria is producing about 400,000 barrels a day - below its capacity of 2.5 million barrels a day. The New York Times reported in September last year that Nigeria's former top anti-corruption official, Nuhu Ridabu, had written a report in 2012 charging that over the preceding decade, thieves had stolen between 6pc and 30pc of the country's oil production.
Dr Bueger has suggested four steps to counter piracy. First, the key is for affected states to share information on what's happening on their coastlines and their neighbours. Second, joint training activities are required so countries can develop procedures and learn how to use technology. Third, states that face maritime and piracy challenges should develop strong legislation to prosecute criminals. And finally, states should set aside enough money to build local capacity.
Several international legal instruments are in place to combat threats posed by piracy. The key agreement is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which prescribes exclusive economic zones over which individual states have the rights for exploration, energy production from water and wind, and the use of marine resources. All West African countries have signed and ratified this convention.
Piracy is not the only security threat at sea. "Piracy has drawn attention to wider problems of maritime insecurity," says Dr Bueger, such as trafficking and smuggling of humans, weapons and narcotics, and illegal fishing activities.
International institutions are crucial for counter-piracy efforts, but they require long-term commitment. The African Union has already declared that its objective is to implement the African Maritime Security Strategy by 2050. Among the strategy's goals are to "ensure security and safety of maritime transportation systems," and to "prevent hostile and criminal acts at sea, and to coordinate/harmonise the prosecution of the offenders."
Concerted action is needed to stop piracy in West Africa before it deteriorates and spreads to other African coastal areas.
Third World Network Features.