Why fighting pirates in African waters is crucial to our security

A South Korean destroyer deploys to Somali waters to tackle piracy there. EPA/Yonhap

When we sip our morning coffee or snack on a piece of chocolate, we hardly think about how these products came to us. The answer is: they were transported by sea. In fact, pretty much all the goods we consume reach us this way, with African waterways being the major shipping route between China and Europe.

Yet what happens out on the world’s lonely oceans remains a mystery to us. A recent study showed we all suffer from this kind of “seablindness”. Even the small percentage of people who are aware of the importance of shipping can’t imagine the dangers that hundreds of ships and crew face from piracy. Between 2008 and 2011 hundreds of ships were attacked off the Somali coast. Vessels were hijacked and seafarers held hostage, many for months and years.

Now, it seems, all is quiet. The pirates of Somalia haven’t successfully hijacked a ship for more than two years. In part, that’s because the shipping industry has learned to fight pirates, but also because navies now patrol the Western Indian Ocean.

Fighting pirates with war ships is successful, but costly, and navies cannot maintain their presence forever. The current mandates of NATO and the EU run until 2016 and it is unclear whether they will be extended. But if navies pull out it is likely that piracy will return. Their networks remain intact and attempts by pirate gangs to attack vessels continue.

If navies cannot stay, what are the long-term answers to piracy? One lies in helping Somalis rebuild their country, but creating prosperity takes decades. In any case, state failure is not the only cause of piracy. Nigeria and Indonesia face piracy, too and these are hardly broken states. Both show that better economic infrastructures may simply lead to different forms of piracy (better organised robberies, for example) rather than ending it.

A transnational challenge

All the evidence shows piracy is a transnational challenge. Tackling the menace requires regional and international co-operation. Building a regional infrastructure is the most promising approach to keeping the sea-lanes safe.

In a research project at Cardiff University, we study the progress of regional maritime security strategies in Africa and how the international community can help them. Our first results, recently published in the journal African Security, show much has been achieved.

Long-term plans have been drawn up, information has been shared and training centres have been built. The International Maritime Organisation, the European Union or the US have invested, but the infrastructure remains fragile. More training and education will be needed, together with investment in long-range patrol vessels and other equipment.

Integrated strategy

One of the latest achievements was the conclusion of the African Union’s Integrated Maritime Strategy earlier this year. It sets out how African nations intend to tackle piracy and commits them to take ownership of the security of their maritime domains.

The blueprint sends a powerful message: we must not think about piracy as an isolated issue that is limited to one area – geographically or economically. It is linked to illegal fishing, smuggling and trafficking of goods across the continent. These are all issues that have to be tackled, alongside activity in the water. Strengthening coast guards and better maritime law enforcement is required – as well as regulation of the sea. As the strategy also makes clear, governing the seas better opens the door to economic development.

The strategy sets high goals for 2050. Much appears wildly ambitious and the African Union still has to make it all happen. But co-operation between nations is its cornerstone and, given the devastating state of maritime security, ambition is certainly needed.

The African Union celebrates its first African Day of Seas and Oceans on July 25. It’s a day established as a part of this new strategy which aims raise awareness, to applaud the African Union and to ensure international support. Piracy will only end if regional support is built and African nations act together to tackle it.

So when we go to the shopping temples of our high streets or sip a cup of coffee, we should remind ourselves how vital the sea is for us – and that Africa’s security is ours as well.