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Maritime piracy: Somalia's transition


Image: Turning down the heat. Incidents YTD (01 September 2022), overlaid with locations of cargo and tanker vessels (source: MariTrace Limited).

The removal of the Indian Ocean High Risk Area (HRA) notified by industry to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) on 22 August signals that the risks of piracy off the coast of Somalia are today considered low. This decision follows the expiry of the United Nations Security Council counter-piracy Resolution 2608 on 31 March, marking the first time since 2008 that the UNSC has not renewed it. The Voluntary Reporting Area administered by UKMTO remains unchanged.


Based on reports from vessels and monitoring in the region, incidents of piracy and aggression have been reduced in the ten years to date. Increased transparency about prosecutions and arrests, coupled with dedicated, multilateral missions to the area have contributed to reducing maritime crime. In the near-term, this relative stability is likely to continue, as vital parts of the maritime security architecture remain: for example the IRTC and the ongoing activities of CTF151 and the Combined Maritime Forces MSTC in the Gulf of Aden. On land, the capacity and strength of Somalia’s Federal Government has been improved through coordinated actions by inter alia the African Union Mission in Somalia, the Somali National Army, contributions from the Turkish government, the UN and NGOs. Peace-seeking alliances that are not strongly dominated by a single clan but span multiple locations and identities may have helped to transcend differences in the fractured socio-political canvas for local and regional security. Under the Somalia Transition Plan, Somalia’s own security forces are expected to assume responsibility from the African Union mission by December 2024.


Yet there remain many reasons to be cautious in this former hotspot. First, there is no reason to assume that because piracy has decreased offshore, crime has diminished on land. Somalia remains one of the world’s most fragile states. The ENACT Organised Crime Index for 2021 found that East Africa had the highest levels of organised crime on the African continent. The networks that provision organised crime have deep roots. Here, as in other regions, crime arises through relative deprivation (groups and individuals who are marginalised and out of other options) and opportunity to exploit grey market economies. Piracy may have diminished because crime syndicates have moved to less risky business models under conditions of relative improved economic stability. A contentious power-sharing agreement (known as the “4.5”) favours powerful clans. Elite actors on land may benefit from Somalia’s instability - and as a focus for proxy conflict among rival powers in the region, the burdens on Somalia are not limited by its borders. Given that maritime piracy is the visible expression in international waters of deeper problems on land, we might expect that maritime crime could return if the conditions were favourable to those that profit.


Second, in Somalia (as elsewhere), reporting mechanisms place the burden of responsibility for accuracy on the attacked or threatened vessel and the regional coordination centre. Acting on this information flow in turn relies on trusted networks and accountable actions by the coastal states and their security forces. Information sharing centres and task forces are helpful but are not a fix-all. As in all contexts where the ecosystem dynamics are complex, contested and opaque, counter-piracy needs continuous informal sharing of threat intelligence among stable networks of trusted parties – including those returning from recent active service in the region and those who can offer unbiased on-the-ground insight. Even with assistance from the continued presence of other navies, the long-term effectiveness of counter piracy operations relies on the stability of coastal economies and their willingness to actively collaborate with international partners.


Third, the revitalizing of global interest in Somalia’s offshore minerals may create or reinvigorate grievances about the presence of external actors in Somalia’s EEZ. In June 2019, having tidied up an earlier concession agreement with Shell and ExxonMobil that ran from 1998 to 2008, Somalia is reported to have agreed a roadmap with these energy companies, in March of 2020 and announced their first-ever offshore licensing round in May 2020. The roadmap may encounter some hazards: Somalia’s new government, formed in May 2022, must reconcile and stabilize the competing myriad interests of competing elites and inbound investors – all the while under a long shadow of protracted conflict. While nascent, their licensing authority and petroleum exploration laws may still be just adequate to attract investors from the region and beyond. Such revitalized attention, coupled with the continuing scourge of foreign illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, may be just the motivation that pirates need to once more take to the water.


Check back for more articles in the coming month as we explore these issues in depth. To know more about our work on information-sharing, please get in touch.