The International Maritime Organization and Piracy in West Africa

by Effie Seiti

Definition and the Legal Framework

‘’In the actual globalized world, the security of the oceans is the paramount of the humanity’’[1]. Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships are one of the contemporary challenges of the maritime industry.  Both of them cause serious problems in ‘’smooth, secure unimpeded flow of maritime traffic through sea lanes, straits, ports and transit corridors’’.

Based on the article 102 of the UNCLOS 1982 and Resolution A.1025(26) (Annex, paragraph 2.2) on IMO’s Code of Practice for the Investigation of the Crimes of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ship respectively, piracy and armed robbery in general terms are illegal acts, committed for private ends. Additionally, according to the International Maritime Organization, piracy and armed robbery are a global problem which poses urgent cooperation in order to be eradicated.

The contribution of IMO in the efforts of ensuring safe navigation in affected areas is more than crucial. The International Maritime Organization in order to handle and mitigate these threats has developed regulations and guidance (as  Best Management Practices) through the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) and with the contribution of Organization Facilitation Committee (OFC) and Legal Committee (LC).

The establishment of maritime security cannot be succeeded if there is not an effective cooperation with regional international actors. As the Secretary General of IMO mentioned in the European Coast Functions Forum 2014 which took place in Civitavecchia, Italy, 23 September 2014, “IMO stands ready to collaborate and give its support to all those who can play an active part In addressing this dreadful situation’’. The actors that were mentioned were UNODC, Interpol, the African Union, the European Union, and the European Commission, as well as bodies such as the Economic Commissions for Africa and for Europe.  

Affected Areas

Based on IMO’s annual report 2011 regarding the acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships, twenty first century prone areas of maritime piracy and armed robbery against ships are identified to be in 10 different regions of the world namely:

  • East Africa
  • Indian Ocean
  • West Africa
  • Arabian Sea
  • Malacca Strait
  • South China Sea
  • Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Mediterranean Sea
  • North Atlantic
  • regions that are classified “Others”

Regarding “others’’ in these regions the occurrence of the two crimes are at a very low rate or even rare. Moreover, incidents such as the hijacking of “M/V Arctic Sea’’ at the Baltic sea in 2009, can prove that even at one of the most secure maritime space in the world can be affected by maritime piracy and armed robbery against ships. 

Countering West Africa-based Piracy 

The exacerbation of this phenomenon occurs off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and the wider Western Indian Ocean since 2005 to today. The two types of criminal activities which can be identified as piracy in West Africa are ‘hijack for cargo theft’ and ‘kidnap fro ransom’.

Few years ago the most dangerous spot for piracy attacks was off the coast of Somalia, but the incidents there have fallen dramatically. Nowadays, the most dangerous piracy spot in the world is the Gulf of Guinea. As mentioned in  the Economist’s article in the Gulf of Guinea 19% of piracy attacks worldwide have been recorded by the International Maritime Bureau.

Africa generally is one of the world’s top piracy spot as such IMO has focused on the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean after these developments. These efforts can be illustrated by a strategy that the organization is implementing, in order to establish the maritime security in these areas which are affect by the piracy attacks and armed robbery against ships and always complying with region’s maritime security agreements.

IMO in cooperation with shipping industries has taken several anti-piracy measures which have contributed effectively in the mitigation of this phenomenon. Moreover the organization provides assistance to national and regional actors so that they create their own measures for tackling the piracy and other phenomena which pose a threat for maritime security.

The ‘Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden’ (Djibouti Code of Conduct) and the case of the ‘Code of Conduct concerning the repression of piracy, armed robbery against ships, and illicit maritime activity in west and central Africa  in the Gulf of Guinea region of West Africa’ are significant examples of the cooperation between the countries around the western Indian Ocean in order with IMO’s contribution to manage and mitigate the piracy and armed robbery against ships in this region.

 Another important initiative is the IMO/MOWCA Sub-regional Coastguard Network. This initiative approved by the IMO/MOWCA Forum which was held in Senegal, in October 2006 and concerns the establishment of an integrated coastguard network and also supports the sub-regional cooperation and coordination in the provision of coastguard functions inclusive of maritime intelligence, surveillance, safety and security, protection of environment, and search and rescue.

Some Thoughts… 

It is clear that the international and regional actors are giving a battle in order to combat piracy attacks and armed robbery against ships. According to Judge and Professor Mr. Thomas Mensah, piracy takes place since the ancient times. Consequently, this phenomenon cannot be eliminated but what can be achieved is the efficient management of this threat or to minimize the impact of piracy and armed robbery against ships. Furthermore, another objective of these efforts made by the international, regional and local actors is to prevent illegal intervention in cases of any type may be. Individual assistance of international actors is not sufficient if there is no common will and national actors so limit the effect to a satisfactory level.

In addition, the strengthening of the cooperation between coastguards of Western Africa countries with the contribution of the international actors is crucial. The states of this region should cooperate and in the field of information sharing regarding shipping and attacks. Apart of the international and regional cooperation schemes for combating piracy and armed robbery against ships, as aforementioned, that the most important issue for each state is to take the lead in patrolling its own waters and limiting illegal activities. When a country is unable to deal with criminal networks, a significant example is Boko Haram militants, which are operating in its own territory, it is logical that it will not be able to cope with piracy attacks in its waters.

Local security forces should improve their equipment and their patrol vessels; in some cases for example the Master or CSO has contacted with local authorities but they were unwilling or unable to assist them due to the limited range of their vessels.

Another important thing regarding the ways piracy and armed robbery against ships can be tackled is the identification of the type of the threat. More specifically, stakeholders should realise how their vessels could be vulnerable in a potential piracy attack and to implement measures that could reduce the risk while still allowing shipping operations to continue.

All in all, as in any type of threat, the underlying cause of the problem should be identified. Each country individually should try to find what makes them vulnerable in such attacks and in cooperation with regional and international actors they should improve their vulnerable sectors. For instance, the political tolerance of the black market especially in Nigeria is a motivation for the pirates. Let’s not forget that the pirates are ‘the tip of iceberg that is a sophisticated organized crime network’.


[1] Jean Edmond Randrianantenaina,’’Maritime Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: Exploring the Legal and the Operational Solutions. The case of Madagascar’’, The United Nations-Nippon Foundation Fellowship Programme 2012-2013, Division for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, The United Nations, New York 2013

Effie Seiti was born and raised in Rhodes, Greece. She received her bachelor’s degree in the field of International Relations and Organizations (University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece 2009-2013) and earned a Master’s Degree with merit in Political, Economic and International Relations in the Mediterranean (University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece 2013-2015). She has participated in many workshops and conferences (as speaker and as organizer). She has also participated in 3 summer seminars, in Crete (Erasmus Intensive Programme, Governance and Security in Europe & Mediterranean), Istanbul (Global Politics Summer School Turkey 2014) and Rhodes (Tulane Law Summer Abroad, Scholarship as Aegean Institute Alumnus for the participation in Tulane Law School Summer Programme about Maritime Law, Law of the Sea & Ocean Management 2015). The highlight of her academic activities is her participation in simulations of regional and international organizations (Model United Nations) as a delegate and as a member of the board in Greece, France, UK and Romania among others. She is now working in a multinational corporation in Warsaw, Poland while she seeks for a PhD programme.


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