Naval chiefs in West Africa are currently under intense heat to crush the menace of piracy that is threatening plans to bolster regional trade among member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
As the naval chiefs were discussing efforts to secure the troubled ECOWAS waters, Ghana’s Defence Minister warned that piracy in the waters off the region is a big threat to regional trade.
There is also an increase in sea robbery and piracy related incidents around the Straits of Malacca and Singapore as well as lingering concerns over abduction of crew in the Sulu Sea-Celebes Sea region, according to the anti-piracy watchdog, ReCAAP.
ReCAAP is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia.
Its Executive Director, Masafumi Kuroki, said in a report released last week that there has been a 60% on the year increase in such incidents on barges towed by tug boats in the Singapore Straits to eight in the first-half of 2019.
While such incidents have decreased around Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam, there is a spike around the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SoMS), Kuroki said. All incidents around Singapore this year took place in the westbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme, he said.
Singapore is located along one of the world’s busiest waterways, with close to 1,000 ships anchored there at any given time. A ship calls at Singapore port every two to three minutes, bringing the total to around 130,000 ships a year and making it critical for maritime passage in the region to be piracy-free.
At present, maritime security in Asia is under sharp focus, particularly in the aftermath of the attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, near the Persian Gulf last month, which has pushed shipping insurance rates higher due to an additional war risk premia. The Strait of Hormuz, which leads to the Persian Gulf, is a critical chokepoint through which 30% of the world’s seaborne oil passes through.
Interestingly, according to ReCAAP’s statistics, which is primarily focused on East Asia, the piracy and sea robberies in the region are at their lowest in more than a decade. Naval experts say that overall piracy is on a decline, while multilateral geopolitical tensions have increased due to the US differences with Iran over the latter’s nuclear weapons program.
Notwithstanding the increase in piracy related incidents around SOMS, the overall East Asian region saw a decline of 32% during H1 2019 compared with the same period last year, Kuroki said.
However, he expressed concern over the abduction of nine crew members from two boats last month near Sulu. Though the abducted crew was released within three days, apparently due to their weak economic status, the perpetrators fled away in an unknown direction.
“Risk of abduction of crew is high,” Kuroki said, with reference to the Sulu-Celebes Seas.
He said that ReCAAP is maintaining its advisory for ships to avoid the Sulu-Celebes Seas region and re-route from the area, wherever possible.
Ships passing through the region must exercise extra vigilance and maintain communication at all times with the maritime authorities of the Philippines and Malaysia, he said.
Since March 2016, 75 crew members have been abducted in the region, of which 10 either died or were killed, while the rest were released.
From industrial raw materials such as coal to essential food items like rice, commodities worth billions of dollars move on commercial ships near the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea, industry estimates showed.
Established in 2006, ReCAAP is the first regional government-to-government agreement to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia. It has 20 member countries, including all members of ASEAN except Malaysia and Indonesia, with France and Germany expected to join ReCAAP in the future.
The Gulf of Guinea is the most dangerous stretch of sea for pirate attacks in the world, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
The IMB said 62 seafarers were taken hostage or abducted in the area in the first half of 2019, accounting for 73 percent of kidnappings and 92 percent of hostage-takings at sea worldwide.
Earlier this month a group of ten Turkish sailors were kidnapped by alleged pirates off the coast of Nigeria.
“The threats to maritime security and safety transcend borders and have the propensity to affect international trade hence a threat to one coastal nation is a threat to all nations; coastal or landlocked,” Ghana’s minister for defence Dominic Nitiwul told a major maritime conference in Accra.
“The sea is the super highway for global trade and Africa’s quest for a Continental Free Trade Area cannot be successful without a secured maritime domain.”
The two-day gathering in the Ghanaian capital — which included a delegation from the US navy — also focused on illegal fishing, oil thefts, and human and drug trafficking.
“Today piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea continue to pose a significant threat to regional and international shipping,” Ghana’s navy head Seth Amoama said.
“Threats including illegal oil bunkering, kidnapping for ransom, illegal fishing and drug trafficking are common across our oceans, transnational crimes not only threaten national peace and stability they also come at great cost to the economies.”
African nations this month officially launched a landmark trade agreement, hailed as a historic step towards bolstering commerce across the continent.