Between March and May 2017 five vessels were hijacked in Somali waters. These attacks were the first successful hijackings seen in the area since 2015, leading many to conclude that Somali piracy was making a comeback. However, rather than a resurgence of piracy, these attacks may reveal more about the inability of Somalia and international authorities to address the deep-rooted causes of piracy in the east African country and the adaptability of pirates faced with a lack of alternatives. Somalia is still afflicted by many of the issues that created conditions ripe for piracy in the first place, and until these are addressed any fluctuations in attacks will be temporary.
The hijackings earlier in 2017 reflect a number of things. Firstly, the fact that they were the first successful attacks for two years show that efforts to minimise acts of piracy have had an effect. The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) and the European Union Mission on Regional Maritime Capacity-Building in the Horn of Africa (EUCAP Somalia) have provided technical assistance to the Federal Government of Somalia (FSG) to develop a policy framework for the Somali Coast Guard, and the Federal Government has been working with the UN and regional bodies to bolster its maritime security capacity to counter piracy in Somali waters. Clearly these measures, among numerous others, have contributed to bringing incidents of piracy somewhat under control. However, the fact that the 2017 attacks coincided roughly with NATO’s termination four months earlier of its counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, known as Ocean Shield, indicates that while anti-piracy measures have been effective, they have also only been managing the issue rather than altering the structures that create the conditions in which piracy thrives.
Living conditions among the worst in the world
Living conditions in Somalia are among the worst in the world. In central and southern Somalia armed conflict continues to rage between FSG forces, African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers and al-Shabaab militants, with human rights abuses being committed on all sides. Amnesty International reported that in the last year around 4.7 million people needed humanitarian assistance and 950,000 suffered from food insecurity, that civilians were victims of indiscriminate and targeted attacks, child soldiers were recruited, more than 1.1 million people were internally displaced and freedom of expression was drastically curtailed. In a country where tribal loyalties are stronger than national ties, the FSG and the Somali National Army (SNA) lack legitimacy outside of Mogadishu. This lack of security, off shore and on land, means that the criminal networks that facilitate piracy have remained intact. Not only this, but widespread poverty across the country (51% live below the poverty line) and stark inequalities combined with the low threshold for entry to piracy, given the availability of weapons and skiffs, mean that pirates are easily recruited.
Piracy is a lucrative business
Piracy in Somalia is a lucrative business. Somali pirates can demand enormous ransoms, and often use the kidnap of foreign nationals as a means to obtaining those high figures. In 2011 a US national was kidnapped by pirates in Galkayo who demanded a ransom of US$45,000,000, and in 2012 US$20,000,000 was demanded for the release of a German national. Incidents such as these highlight that it is in the international interest to address the root causes of piracy in Somalia, but as tribal infighting and attacks from the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) and al-Shabaab continue, the situation does not seem likely to improve. The spate of attacks in early 2017 were not repeated throughout the year – there have been no successful hijacks in Somalia since May – but while internal conditions in Somalia remain so precarious the absence of future attacks cannot be guaranteed. Until there are credible and lucrative alternatives for would-be pirates, the potential gains associated with piracy will remain too tempting a lure.