African maritime insecurity, particularly in connection with acts of piracy, has constituted an important field of study for security researchers in recent years.
It has also frequently made local and global media headlines. However, the focus in recent reports is starting to shift away from alarm towards detailing the diminishing threat of piracy around Somalia. Large-scale piracy there would appear to be on the wane, but in what ways can we reasonably expect 2013 to be different from the past, in East Africa and elsewhere?
So far in 2013 the most notable event has been the increase in piracy incidents off the West African coast, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea. This continues the trend in 2012 noted by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) where, despite a sizeable drop in the number of attacks in East Africa from 237 in 2011 to 75 in 2012, a total of 58 incidents were recorded in attacks off the West African coast in 2012, compared to 49 in 2011.
Increased naval patrols and capacity and the adoption of lessons and practices suitable to passage through these sea lanes and areas can account for the drop in attacks and might prompt hopes that piracy will eventually pose an insignificant security threat.
However, the attacks off West Africa differ from East African incidents mainly due to one factor - violent criminal acts are now connected with the movement of oil. The most recent attack took place off Côte d'Ivoire on 21 January 2013 when a large oil tanker named ITRI was hijacked, also demonstrating that the problem is not geographically limited to the Gulf of Guinea.
Crews in such cases are often assaulted while illegal oil bunkering occurs - a practice whereby the ship is drained of oil, which is subsequently spirited back to shore and either sold or refined.
This could result in oil spills, particularly around the already ravaged Niger delta. Offshore oil platforms, often seen as a means of avoiding land-based political instability, are now potential targets and frequently beyond immediate aid. Terrorist attacks on vulnerable installations could also occur, further prompting increases in the number of operations in partnership with the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Many of these acts will be reported as being criminal rather than piratical, as they do not all occur in international waters but rather within the sovereign borders of states, which are set at 12 nautical miles offshore, and are thus subject to countries' own laws and legal systems, rather than being subject to international law as is commonly the case off Somalia.
Consequently the legal instruments and capacity of maritime states would need to be strengthened to enhance their ability to judiciously process all criminal activities that occur in their waters.
A number of crucial developments must also be tracked in 2013 that will grant the international community an informed perspective on the state of maritime security. While piracy is but one factor that constitutes maritime insecurity, these acts are likely to continue to provide the most newsworthy and notable incidents.
The most notable counter-piracy efforts remain focused on deterrence rather than substantive peace building in East and West African littoral areas. For instance, the launch of the private maritime security company (PMSC) Typhon in 2013 will attract some fanfare.
Typhon was founded by Simon Murray, the chairman of the large resource and commodity-trading company Glencore, and will mostly be crewed by experienced former sailors and marines from the Royal Navy. While former military personnel and teams are frequently to be found aboard ships, the launch of a dedicated PMSC in a contentious arena in which initiatives have been state-centric raises questions of cooperation and sovereignty, and might herald the appearance of similar companies.
Moreover, while PMSCs have become more involved as contracted employees of countries' armed forces, navies will likely continue to reserve fundamental issues of maritime security and control over oceanic activity for themselves.
A number of initiatives and operations will commence, persist or expand into 2013. The European Union (EU) announcement of the Critical Maritime Routes in the Gulf of Guinea Programme (CRIMGO) is one such development with foreign partners that should impact upon maritime security.
It will focus on cooperation and capacity building in 7 African coastal states: Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Sâo Tomé and Principe, and Togo. Piracy observers and researchers also await Said Djinni's briefing to the United Nations (UN) Security Council on the UN Secretary-General's semi-annual report, which will include an update on piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Djinni is the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), and this and other such reports were prompted by a request from Benin's president. The replication of Operation Prosperity by joint Beninois-Nigerian naval patrols to the incorporation of neighbouring countries that would otherwise be affected by piracy could also notably influence maritime security.
Amid the various operations, initiatives and reports, it is vital not to lose sight of the core concern of those who stand to benefit from being secured. Security is not simply the absence of risk for large-scale economic activities and infrastructure, but also, crucially, the assurance of safety for all maritime communities.
It can be speculated that the success of patrols off Somalia might lead to the inshore racketeering of local fishermen by groups too wary to sail out into the open ocean in search of targets that don't bristle with armaments.
The security referent in these regions remains international shipping and trade, and local communities are only referred to in terms of the extent to which they potentially threaten shipping. The well-reported retirement of a Somali piracy chief nicknamed 'Bigmouth' substantiates this position, as the withdrawal of a threat in such a manner both diminishes the threat and serves to support current initiatives.
This is, however, no guarantee that naval services are no longer required in East Africa, but rather impels a reorientation towards peace-building efforts that will contribute towards sustainable economic development for communities that might otherwise fall victim to, or even become the source of, piracy.
In 2012 a number of fishermen off Senegal attempted to bring attention to their plight by threatening to take to the seas and imitate Somali pirates, either by attempting to dissuade interlopers or by seizing ships and crews. Such a threat undoubtedly causes some consternation given the apparent similarities in causal factors, but it has largely been dismissed.
Ideally we must be wary of casting this turn of events in such a way that we lose interest in African maritime security and the problems of piracy. Even if focus were to shift, various incremental efforts at creating maritime security are already being established.
The African Union (AU) and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) will prove essential in this regard, where processes associated with important initiatives such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct and REC maritime security strategies, particularly those of ECOWAS and ECCAS, require on-going support.
Therefore it would be wiser - to paraphrase Winston Churchill - to see 2012 not so much as the beginning of the end of piracy, but rather the end of the beginning in attempts at the provision of African maritime security.
Timothy Walker, Consultant, Conflict Management and Peace Building Division, ISS Pretoria Office