All analyses in chronological order - Afro-Middle East Centre

by Faisal Devji

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11 a jihadist website posted a long interview with Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he described Muslim militancy as offering an opportunity for all the world's oppressed, whether or not they converted to Islam:

[Interviewer] Speaking of the plunder of resources, grievances, and the oppressed ones in the world, in recent statements by Al-Qa'ida of Jihad calls for supporting the oppressed in the world have been repeated. Is this a new Al-Qa'ida approach?

[Al-Zawahiri] No, this is a confirmed jurisprudence-based law. God, the exalted, said in [a] Hadith Qudsi: "O my servants, I have forbidden oppression for myself, and forbidden it for you, so do not oppress each other."

Abstract for paper presented by Na'eem Jeenah, Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, at the conference on "Rethinking Jihad", organised by the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, and held at the University of Edinburgh.
Muslim opposition to colonialism and apartheid in South Africa began soon after the arrival of the first Muslims in the Cape Colony in the mid-17th Century. Various acts of resistance through the centuries highlighted the opposition of the Muslim community to the oppression it faced. From the late 1960s, Muslims began playing a role in the struggle against apartheid in excess to what their numbers might suggest. Many of these Muslims joined the various liberation movements that were active: the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement, the South African Communist Party, and other socialist or nationalist organisations. From the 1970s, an increasing number of Muslims and Muslim organisations joined the struggle as Muslims. Anti-apartheid resistance, then, increasingly came to be characterised as a ‘jihad’ by the protagonists who argued that this jihad was an Islamic duty upon all Muslims. This was especially so in the 1980s when a number of Muslim organisations and individuals involved in the anti-apartheid struggle argued that they did so because they were thus commanded by the Qur’an and that such involvement constituted ‘jihad’. This paper will examine the arguments put forward to justify this position and will evaluate the arguments justifying the notion of jihad that became popular in the 1980s in South Africa in comparison to the mainstream Muslim position regarding jihad. The paper argues that the South African anti-apartheid struggle thus developed a novel conception of jihad. It will also highlight some of the South African offshoots of the ‘anti-apartheid jihad’, such as the ‘gender jihad’.

By Safiyyah Surtee

A report published last month by the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, and endorsed by the Palestinian BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) National Committee, is scathing of South African business - including South African parastatals - for their relations with Israel.

Entitled 'Democratic South Africa's Complicity in Israel's Occupation, Colonialism and Apartheid', the 58 page report details South Africa's economic ties with Israel, and the political and related social consequences thereof. It analyses a number of South African companies' involvement or contribution to Israel's occupation industry, and reviews government initiatives which aim to promote trade relations with Israel.

Abstract: Islam, Islamists and statehood in Palestine

by Na’eem Jeenah

Presented at “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace” Conference, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto

This paper will examine the origins of political Islam in Palestine, and relate the political positions of the Hamas movement to its origins and its Islamist ‘lineage’. It will discuss the emergence of Hamas (and refer to the emergence of Islamic Jihad), examine the Hamas charter, and expound on some of the political positions and strategies of Hamas.

In addition, the paper will discuss the notion of ‘Islamic state’ within contemporary Islamic thought. This is not an uncontested notion among Muslim scholars. Whether the forms of Islamic governance that characterised the early Prophetic and post-Prophetic Muslim empire resembled the form of nation states as understood today is doubtful. What, then, does it mean to refer to those forms of governance and to use them as justification for an ‘Islamic state’ in the 21st Century? Are comparisons between an ‘Islamic state’ that might / could exist today to the Islamic governance from the Seventh Century onwards correct and / or useful, either in terms of defining a new political model or in terms of determining forms of struggle and steps towards achieving such models? What does an ‘Islamic state’ mean and what would it represent?


Abstract: The National Question and a future Palestinian-Israeli state and society: Comparisons with South Africa

by Salim Vally & Na'eem Jeenah

Presented at "Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace" Conference, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto

While the one-state vs two-state debate with regard to Palestine and Israel has waged in earnest since the partitioning of British Mandate Palestine into two entities by UN General Assembly Resolution 181, only recently have protagonists of the debate been adding substance to what both options might practically mean. This paper aims to enhance the discussion on the substance. In particular, it will focus on the challenges to both options that will be posed by the national question.

The 'national question' has been debated for decades. While, initially, it was framed as a European question of national self-determination / independence, it later also focussed on national unity / cohesion in Third World liberation struggles. In the context of the post-apartheid South African state and future Palestinian-Israeli statehood, the National Question focuses on issues such as: how the notion of 'nation' is constructed, who is regarded as part of the 'nation', what role ethnicity, class, language and religion play in defining the nation, the kind of recognition or protection different groups within the new 'nation' might seek, and the possibility – in each context – of a unified or cohesive 'nation'.

The South African struggle against colonialism and apartheid aimed – even across ideologically divergent organisations – to create a new post-apartheid state that would be (using the term used in the Palestinian-Israeli debate) a "one-state solution", which would incorporate all the "homelands" and allow no autonomous or self-governing territory (in any configuration) for any group. That objective was achieved within the framework of a democratic state with equal rights for all citizens and a constitution with a strong bill of rights based on individual rights.

Despite this success, and 14 years after South Africa's first democratic election, a most critical issue around which the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles were waged – the national question – has yet to be resolved. The South African constitution ignores the issue. It has also been ignored politically and socio-economically. The results of this non-resolution are increasingly being witnessed and experienced by South Africans – in their daily lives as an ongoing struggle against racism and impoverishment, and as occasional flare-ups that cause the country to take notice before it is again relegated to the backburner in favour of unifying rhetoric. The most recent of these flare-ups was xenophobic violence that consumed parts of the country early in 2008, and which forced many South Africans to ask deep questions about the nature of their state and the notion of a South African nation.

The national question, for South Africa, should have been addressed during the negotiation process preceding its first democratic election. An attempt at resolution at that stage would have placed the problem squarely on the agenda of all political parties and the nation. The euphoria following the election gave a false sense of unity that pushed the question into the far recesses of the nation's consciousness.

Following the South African example, we argue that in the Palestinian-Israeli case, for both models of statehood, a critical issue that will determine success or failure will be the national question. It can be the one question whose non-resolution might spell disaster for either model. This question must be addressed during any "negotiations" for a resolution of the conflict and not left for later. If delayed, the disastrous consequences for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis could plunge the region into a deep and long-lasting morass. The one-state model, we argue, allows greater possibilities for the resolution of the National Question. This paper explores some ways in which the issue might be addressed and resolved – from constitutional options to political solutions.


By Na'eem Jeenah

The much-anticipated speech by US president Barack Obama to 'the Muslim world' was a well-presented mixture of rich symbolism, a call for 'a new beginning', promises of small changes in US foreign policy, deliberate obfuscation, and a dose of more of the same Bush medicine. Immediate Muslim responses to the speech in Cairo on the 4th June 2009, which was punctuated by applause from the obviously carefully-selected audience, were to the symbolic rather than the substantive parts of the speech.

Across the Muslim world there was a feeling among many people that here was a US president who respected Muslims: he began with the greeting of 'salaam'; quoted a number of verses from the Qur'an; said 'peace be upon them' after referring to the prophets; and dwelled on what he called 'civilization's debt to Islam'.

By Hazem Jamjoum

In recent years, increasing numbers of people around the world have begun adopting and developing an analysis of Israel as an apartheid regime.[1] This can be seen in the ways that the global movement in support of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle is taking on a pointedly anti-apartheid character, as evidenced by the growth of Israeli Apartheid Week.[2]

Further, much of the recent international diplomatic support for Israel has increasingly taken on the form of denying that racial discrimination is a root cause of the oppression of Palestinians, something that has taken on new levels of absurdity in Western responses to the April 2009 Durban Review Conference.[3]

By Aslam Farouk-Alli

From the commencement of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on 27 December 2008, Israeli spokespersons have claimed that the peace-loving Zionist state was left with no choice but to respond to the terrorist aggression of Hamas – which it regards as an Islamic fundamentalist organization singularly devoted to murdering Israeli civilians.

Israel's disproportionate response to Hamas actions – terrorist or not – is, of course, of no concern. As long as its actions are motivated by a sense of moral clarity, their consequences are not only pardonable, but must be embraced by all people with lamentable sympathy.

This logic has been good enough to convince the United States, Israel's strongest ally, and, in South Africa, it has been advocated by many sympathisers of Israel, including the Chief-Rabbi, Dr Warren Goldstein.

By Aslam Farouk-Alli

President George W. Bush's now infamous Baghdad media conference on the 14 December 2008 may aptly be reframed as the story of The Tyrant, The Scribe and The Flying Shoes, even though the nightmare of present-day Baghdad does not, in any way, resemble the mythical capital of One Thousand and One Nights. The Arabic literary classic relates stories of Aladdin and his flying carpet, amongst others, and offers important life lessons in the process. The events of the Bush press conference, on the other hand, tell a less romantic story, but one that is equally pregnant with significance and loaded with moral lessons, for tyrant and layperson alike!

Reviewed by Na'eem Jeenah

Sandra Mackey sets herself a few tasks for this book. Firstly, she expects to give the reader an overview of the contemporary situation in Lebanon and to analyse the issues besetting Lebanese society by examining its history and sociology. Secondly, she hopes to use Lebanon to show that the rest of the Arab world has similar issues that it needs to confront and that Lebanon is 'mirrored' in the Arab world. Finally, she expects to do all this in a readable, easy manner. She succeeds in some of these tasks and fails (sometimes miserably) in others.

By Adam Hanieh

Over the last six months, the Palestinian economy has been radically transformed under a new plan drawn up by the Palestinian Authority (PA) called the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP). Developed in close collaboration with institutions such as the World Bank and the British Department for International Development (DFID), the PRDP is currently being implemented in the West Bank where the Abu Mazen-led PA has effective control. It embraces the fundamental precepts of neoliberalism: a private sector-driven economic strategy in which the aim is to attract foreign investment and reduce public spending to a minimum.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The increasing tensions between forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi are a symptom of the differing interests both have maintained from the initial stages of Yemen’s current civil war. These are being manipulated by countries in the region, especially the United Arab Emirates, as Abu Dhabi seeks to influence the path and goals of the Saudi coalition.

The recent spat between Saleh and the Houthi originated from a 19 August speech by Abdel-Malek Houthi, in which he accused Saleh’s forces of playing a double game in the country by claiming to support the Houthi coalition while also negotiating with the Saudi coalition. This is especially since Saleh has expressed his willingness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia. The speech reiterated Houthi grievances of not being proportionally represented in governance structures. Despite being jointly represented in the supreme political council, the Houthi are weary of not participating in local structures. Saleh’s 20 August response, accusing the Houthi of corruption and comparing the group to a militia, was also criticised as crossing a red line and seen as a declaration of war.

It was feared that these differences would erupt into violence at the thirty-fifth anniversary celebration of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) on Thursday, 24 August, especially since thousands were expected to attend, and because the Houthi leadership criticised the gathering and deployed troops to prevent citizens from attending. Despite these measures, the celebration went ahead; Saleh vehemently criticised Houthi corruption, while also astutely expressing his opposition to the Saudi intervention.

Violent clashes were largely contained; however, Houthi combatants prevented citizens residing outside Sana'a from attending. The past week’s events have rendered the alliance’s survival tenuous, especially since the two have openly criticised each other.The killing on Saturday of Colonel Khaled al-Rida, deputy head of the GPC’s foreign relations committee, has worsened the antagonism, and it seems only a matter of time before the coalition falls apart.

The Houthis still require the support of Saleh’s well-equipped troops to contain the Saudi intervention, especially in Sana'a where they lack support, and will thus act to contain the situation. However, as Rida’s killing indicates, the popular resistance committees are difficult to control, and coordination between them and Saleh is limited. Rida’s assassination has given GPC officials the impression that it was deliberately allowed by the Houthis, leading to the GPC accusation that the Houthis are a ‘group that knows no morality or oaths’. It is, however, unlikely that the Houthi would have actively sought Rida’s death, thus running the risk of losing GPC support – which is crucial to maintain control over Sana’a. There is, clearly, a breakdown of communication between the allies, a factor that will be further weakened as the mistrust between them increases.

Saleh conversely will likely accept a deal, which would see him being incorporated into a new Yemeni government. This is in a context wherein the success of the celebration, which saw tens of thousands of Yemenis defy the Houthi ban, clearly indicates his enduring popularity, and wherein regional powers are seeking exit strategies.

This was predictable, especially since the coalition was formed to realise different objectives, and was thus more a marriage of convenience than a strategic pact. Saleh has sought to protect his influence following the November 2011 GCC agreement, which saw him forced to hand over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. He thus coalesced with the Houthi to undermine Hadi’s administration. The Houthi conversely saw the GPC, specifically the powerful military units allied to the party, as critical in allowing the group to extend control over Aden and ward off Saudi intervention. Already in March 2015, the two groups clashed over control of the Raymat military base, and in February that year, Saleh criticised the Houthi decision dissolving the government. Saudi Arabia’s intensified aerial campaign since March 2015 forced the two groups together, and in November 2016 they formed a ‘national salvation government’ headed by Abdel Aziz Habtour. Notably, Saleh fought four wars against the Houthi between 2004 and 2010, creating an intractable trust deficit and calcifying Houthi paranoia over Saleh’s double game.

In recent months, mistrust between the two has also been influenced by the UAE’s attempt to court Saleh in line with its stance of backing strongmen to reverse the gains of the 2011 uprisings. In June, Abu Dhabi reportedly organised a meeting between Saleh’s son Ahmed, the current Yemeni ambassador to the UAE, and Ahmed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former army spokesperson in charge of the Yemeni war and now advisor to the kingdom’s defence minister, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Further, leaked emails of the emirate’s Washington ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, show the UAE as envisaging a role for Saleh in a Yemeni peace agreement.

Moreover, in the south, the UAE has continued to finance and arm separatist forces in Aden, and Salafi anti-Islah forces in Taiz and Hadhramawt. Abu Dhabi perceives participatory Islamist parties like Islah as posing an existential threat to the regime. Further, in line with its attempt to consolidate control over the Bab al-Mandeb waterway, it has also begun constructing a base on the island of Socotra together with its bases in Berbera (Somaliland) and Assab (Eritrea).

These have severely weakened the Saudi coalition’s efforts to recapture Sana'a, and even parts of Taiz; Hadi has accused them of being an occupier and not a liberator. The battle lines have thus remained largely constant, despite two years of external intervention. The UAE had already halted frontline operations in June 2016 in line with   its ambitions to empower proxy forces, while the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has expressed his desire to exit the two-year long expensive military adventure, which has cost kingdom between two and five hundred million dollars daily.

Friction has intensified, especially since the institution of a transitional council to govern areas in the South by the separatist southern Hirak movement in May 2017. It is thus difficult to envisage a unified Yemen; Hirak has consolidated control over Aden, while UAE-supported forces in Hadhramawt and Taiz will be difficult to dislodge, especially since it is unlikely that Abu Dhabi will sanction a partnership between them and Islah. It is also significant that prior to 1994, Yemen was two distinct countries with two different models of governance. Hirak and likeminded groups are greatly influenced by this, and by the fact that following unification power has been concentrated in the north.

Saudi forces have since been deployed to protect the presidential palace in Aden, as well as its air and naval ports, at Hadi’s request. This indicates that the differing Saudi and Emirati interests in the conflict may be intensifying. Further, a pro-Hadi parliamentary delegation met senior Saudi officials, including Mohammed Bin Salman – the individual responsible for initially sanctioning the Saudi intervention – in the past week, prior to the Saudi troop deployment. It is significant that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Yemen’s current vice president, is close to both Islah and elements within the Saudi regime. This militates against Riyadh being swayed by the UAE to combat Islah, a move that will inadvertently work against its interests, especially if it leads to the secession of the south.

While this ‘new’ fragmentation may see a reduction in the intensity of the Saudi coalition’s interference in the country, it will be replaced by more localised conflicts. This is especially since tribal differences have hardened, and because the conflict has engendered a situation, wherein provinces such as Hadhramawt and Marib now possess autonomy, which they are unlikely to relinquish. Further, the separatist Hirak and Houthi now possess more sophisticated arms. The foregoing will ensure that the country remains in conflict unless a solution that incorporates all the different actors is formulated. However, regional contestations over the roles of Iran, participatory Islamists and militants such as Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula have ensured that peace talks have remained elusive. This is especially since the fulfilment of UNSC Resolution 2216, which advocates a Houthi and Saleh arms surrender unrepresentative of the balance of forces, continues to be the basis for negotiations.

The UAE likely sees the current stalemate as a means of installing a client regime, and is positioning itself to maintain influence in both Aden and Sana'a, especially since secession would likely impede its ability to maintain its bases in Socotra. Further, both Saleh and Aidarus Al-Zubaidi (the former governor of Yemen and head of Hirak’s Southern Transitional Council) are strongmen who view Islah negatively. It is however questionable that Riyadh will alter its stance in favour of reincorporating Saleh, even though Mohammed bin Salman has expressed his desire to exit the Yemeni conflict. Riyadh still views Saleh and the parts of the GPC he controls as renegades, especially since the kingdom was influential in negotiating the November 2011 GCC agreement.

By Ayesha Kajee

While piracy in Africa has tended to be associated with Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, the past decade, and especially the past five years, has seen a significant rise in piracy in West Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), throughout 2016 there were just two attempted attacks reported in the Gulf of Aden, while fifty-five acts or attempted acts of piracy and armed robbery were reported along Africa’s west coast for the same period. The April 2016 United Nations (UN) Security Council Debate on Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, noted that, since 2011, frequent incidents of piracy have threatened navigation safety and caused billions of dollars of economic losses to the states in the region.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as any illegal acts of violence, detention or depredation by crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft, directed on the high seas, within or outside territorial waters, against any other ship or aircraft (including persons or property on board). The definition also includes inciting or facilitating such acts.

Richly endowed with mineral and marine resources, including hydrocarbons, gold, fish and diamonds, West Africa has huge maritime and geostrategic potential. Its more than 6 000 kilometres of Atlantic coastline, with numerous natural harbours, is devoid of any strait or chokepoint to constrain shipping. The Gulf of Guinea is thus a major shipping destination, compared with the Gulf of Aden, which is a maritime transit area. West Africa is an important global oil reserve, comprising about 5 per cent of worldwide stocks, of which 90 per cent is exported, primarily by sea. Most of the outputs of the extensive mining and fishing interests in the gulf are also exported, while manufactured goods and foodstuffs are imported.

However, this maritime potential is countered by a variety of maritime challenges, including economic, environmental and political threats. Piracy is but one result of the socio-political deficit. In West Africa, weak states with high poverty levels are prone to socio-political instability. The diversity of ethnicity, religion and culture provides fertile soil for manipulated social fractures, exacerbated by conflicts over the rich natural resources of the region. In the Niger Delta, where most of the oil is extracted, armed groups routinely attack oil tankers and sell the stolen cargo. Chatham House estimates that such attacks cost Nigeria alone almost US$ 1 billion per year in lost revenues. Poor governance has also made the area a drug trafficking hub, particularly for cocaine from South America; which adds another avenue for illicit transactions and criminal networks linked to piracy.

UN Resolutions 2018 of 2011 and 2039 of 2012 were both aimed at encouraging countries in the Gulf of Guinea to develop specific political tools to tackle piracy and insecurity in the region. However, the mismanagement of oil revenues, plus the absence of socio-economic reforms and the thriving criminal enterprises in the region, has meant that any stability is usually short-lived.

The impact of piracy on maritime commerce has been marked. The UK Chamber of Commerce noted that almost all of the estimated US$ 10.2 billion worth of regional trade with the United Kingdom moving through the Gulf of Guinea in 2013 was at risk of theft. Consequently, insurance premiums have soared, with underwriters deeming the waters off Nigeria, Benin and Togo a ‘war risk area’. Companies have had to take additional steps to secure their ships and cargo.

Modus operandi and prevalence of piracy in West Africa

Former UK special forces member Sven Hanson, identifies three types of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea: Classic armed robbery at sea, where pirates board a vessel to steal money, radios and other valuables, is the first category, exemplified by the case where heavy-lift vessel Teal was boarded on 3 July 2016 while anchored off Conakry, Guinea. Six men armed with knives and automatic weapons opened fire, damaging the accommodation block, then held the crew at gunpoint and robbed them of cash and personal belongings. Though local agents contacted the port authority, the security boat only arrived an hour later after the attackers had already left. The next scale up is cargo theft, until recently the predominant threat in West Africa, when pirates hijack an oil tanker, take her to a quiet place, bring another ship alongside and siphon off the oil. The third type involves kidnap for ransom.

Some observers, such as US-based Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), postulate that piracy in West Africa has undergone a shift in modus operandi, driven primarily by the tanking of global oil prices in recent years, and improved regional maritime surveillance and the purging of corrupt institutions in the Niger Delta. Whereas previously, most piracy was aimed at bunkering – seizing oil cargo for resale on the black market, ransoming of hostages is now seen as more lucrative and is therefore on the increase. Kidnapping is relatively quick, while tanker hijacking requires more vessels, manpower and time, as well as technical expertise.

Throughout 2016, pirate groups cemented this shift away from the hijacking of tankers for product theft (with only one attack, the MV Maximus case in Abidjan, detailed below), turning instead to the kidnap of crew for ransom, which provides a more favourable risk-reward ratio for the pirates. The Gulf of Guinea has become a kidnap hotspot, with the IMB noting that in 2016, thirty-four crew members were taken in nine reported incidents, and three vessels were hijacked in the Gulf of Guinea. Because piracy incidents are under-reported, OBP recorded eighteen incidents, with ninety-six hostages taken. The majority of kidnappings are from tankers or cargo ships, with a smaller number targeting offshore supply vessels.

In terms of tactics, Noel Choong, head of IMB’s piracy reports division, notes that pirates who are after oil typically hijack ships for five or six days, ransack the vessels, steal the cargo and leave the sailors, often taking the hijacked tankers across maritime borders or back to the country of origin, where the oil is siphoned off for sale on the thriving black market.

By contrast, OBP says that in ‘most kidnapping incidents the pirates board the vessel after firing at the bridge to suppress any opposition and intimidate the crew, and then proceed to isolate the ranking officers and engineers, who net the highest ransoms’. If time permits, the pirates may loot the vessel, before escaping with the three or four crew members who will be held onshore during negotiations. EOS Risk Group notes that in all but one case in 2016, the ship’s master was among the hostages. Hostages are held for between fifteen and forty-five days, often on small islands in the Niger Delta. They may be tortured or beaten, subjected to mock executions, denied medical treatment and fed limited rations.

Many of the recent piracy incidents occurred either while the vessels were steaming under way or anchored offshore. In most cases, the pirates approached via speedboat or skiffs, sometimes using multiple boats. The limited offloading capacity of many West African ports means that vessels must loiter along the ‘roadsteads’ and approaches to ports such as Bonny and Lagos in Nigeria, and Cotonou in Benin, leaving them vulnerable. The geography of West Africa’s coastlines also aids the pirates, with many convoluted inlets for hideouts and quick getaways; the vast number of unmanned and abandoned vessels near major anchorages are easily commandeered by criminals.

Firearms and knives were used in nearly all incidents of piracy and armed robbery during 2016 and 2017, with rifles and automatic weapons such as AK47s reported in several cases. The proliferation of arms in the region is thus a key concern. In at least one incident a homemade explosive device was reported. Most reports indicate that the vessels were ransacked and personal effects of the crew stolen. It is common for pirates to disable communication systems of victim ships before disembarking. In some cases, pirates attempt to disguise the name and flag of the ship to confuse local authorities.

OBP estimates the total costs related to piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea during 2016 at US$ 793.7 million.

Of the 191 incidents of piracy and armed robbery officially reported worldwide to the IMB last year, West Africa experienced a total of fifty-five reported incidents in 2016: thirty-seven actual attacks and eighteen attempts. By contrast, private organisation OBP recorded ninety-five total incidents for the Gulf of Guinea, evidence that many incidents go unreported. OBP noted a one-third increase in kidnappings for ransom from 2015 to 2016, and a 76 per cent increase in the total number of incidents for West Africa between 2015 and 2016. OBP also raised concerns that the operational range of pirates is increasing, with several attacks occurring between fifty and one hundred nautical miles off the coast. OBP noted that of the ninety-five incidents it recorded, fifty-five occurred in international waters, though within the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of West African states. This implies that the cases fall under universal jurisdiction.

With thirty-six reported incidents in 2016, Nigeria is the country with the second highest incidence rate in the world, after Indonesia. This compares to fourteen reported incidents for Nigeria during 2015 and eighteen during 2014. Of the thirty-six Nigerian incidents in 2016, eighteen were actual attacks, with the vessels being boarded in seventeen cases, and one hijacking. The ships were fired upon in nine of the eighteen attempted attacks, with several of these being almost one hundred nautical miles offshore.

Congo’s Pointe Noire anchorage, Lagos port in Nigeria, Takoradi in Ghana and Conakry in Guinea all experienced multiple incidents of piracy or armed robbery during 2016, making them high-risk areas. The regions around Bayelsa, Brass and Bonny Island in Nigeria have also experienced a dramatic surge in violent incidents, including hijacking and kidnapping of crews. The IMB urges vigilance in these areas, noting that many attacks have gone unreported. This is supported by statistics published by Piracy Report in April 2016, which details twenty-six piracy incidents in Bayelsa alone between January and April 2016, with two tanker hijackings and nine kidnappings during that period.

The number and frequency of attacks in Benin, Ivory Coast and Togo decreased during 2016 in comparison with previous years, but these countries remain risky as past attacks were effected by well-armed and often violent robbers, with cargoes stolen and crew injured in several cases.

For example, on 11 February 2016, while steaming south of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, fourteen pirates armed with guns hijacked the Panamanian tanker MT Maximus. All eighteen crew were taken hostage, while the pirates ransacked the vessel. Eight pirates and two kidnapped crew members disembarked on the high seas. The Ghana and Togo navies tracked the tanker. A Togo Navy patrol boat intercepted the tanker and took a picture, which was forwarded to the owners for verification, but the pirates had repainted the name (to Elvis-5) and provided false information to the Togo Navy. Once the tanker entered Nigeria’s EEZ, the Togolese handed over to their Nigerian counterparts who dispatched a warship to shadow and ultimately board the tanker on 20 February. One pirate was reportedly killed in an exchange of gunfire, but the pirates surrendered and the crew were rescued. The two kidnapped crew members were released on 20 March 2016, with no confirmation of whether ransom was paid nor by whom. The owners are thought to be Saudi or UAE nationals. Further investigations into the incident tracked an incoming call to the MT Maximus while it was under pirate control on 17 February. The call was traced to Charles Ekpemefumor (aka Charles Parker or Charles Agaba). The captured pirates also identified Ekpemefumor as the hijacking mastermind. The vessel MT Dejikun, used in the hijacking was leased through a third party from Mustapha Kenny Gani, chairman of KG’s Marine Limited in Lagos. Gani is reportedly a Nigerian-born Japanese national.

While the exact structure and organisation of piracy operations remains murky, investigations such as the example above suggest that vessels used for hijacking are often leased through seemingly legitimate individuals and enterprises with access to local and international networks, and the use of third parties is common.

In Piracy Report's monthly summaries of piracy incidents, to date, for 2017, Nigeria has had the most incidents of piracy and armed robbery. Between January and April 2017, twenty-nine crew members were kidnapped in four attacks in Nigeria. In West Africa overall, two incidents are reported for January 2017, five each for February and March 2017 and six during April 2017. In March, eight hostages kidnapped off the BBC Caribbean during February 2017 were released. Similarly, five hostages kidnapped off the Eleni M on 30 March 2017 were released on 25 April 2017 after payment of a ransom.

It must be noted that the IMB figures are hugely under counted, as the IMB itself estimates that only one-third of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea are reported, often because shipping companies avoid having to inform insurers and endure lengthy investigations. This in itself creates a vicious cycle, as noted by Ian Millen, CEO of Dryad Maritime, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine last year: ‘You’re not seeing the pirates and criminals captured and brought to account. That’s a risk-reward ratio that is pretty good for the pirates,’ he said.

Financing of piracy operations and links to terrorism and other transnational crimes

Bunkering and sale of pirated crude on the lucrative oil black market, as well as ransoms paid to free hostages, are assumed to be a major source of finance for piracy operations. In May 2016, a report by OBP noted that ransoms of up to US$ 400 000 were paid to pirate gangs that hijacked ships in the Gulf of Guinea. The crew of the Malta-flagged oil supertanker MT Kalamos, who were abducted in February 2015, were freed after the US$ 400 000 ransom was paid. The report did not identify who paid the ransom. The report also observed that ‘the same pirate gangs responsible for these attacks are likely the same groups responsible for kidnapping and violence in the Niger Delta’.

Periodic fluctuations in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has been linked by some analysts to surges in the activities of ethnic militants in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region, in response to marginalisation of the region by successive Nigerian governments. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), designated a terrorist organisation by the Nigerian government, is perhaps the best-known of these militants, whose operational tactics have included hostage-taking of oil workers, sabotage of oil facilities, attacks on oil vessels, illegal oil bunkering, kidnapping and ransom receipts. Other emerging groups include the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate and Bakassi Strike Force.

In 2009, the Nigerian government granted amnesty from prosecution to over 15 000 militants, who surrendered large arms and weapons caches, including eighteen gunboats and almost 3 000 guns, as well as dynamite and assorted military accessories. Post-amnesty, piracy attacks decreased in 2009 and 2010, but rejection of the amnesty by a faction of MEND may partly explain the resurgence of pirate attacks since 2011. In addition, the previous administration’s strategy of using former warlords to help prevent maritime crime is problematic, as some allegedly still have arms and ammunition caches.

The bunkering and resale of oil depends on collusion between local gangs, corrupt officials and international criminal networks. In a perceived attempt to clean up some of the corruption, in 2016 Nigerian President Buhari sacked maritime security chief Patrick Ziadeke Akpobolokemi, and cancelled a security contract given to Global West Vessel Specialists, a firm which has links to former MEND commander Government Ekpemupolo, aka Tompolo, who was a key militant in the Niger Delta until he agreed to the 2009 amnesty deal. He has been on the run since February 2016, refusing to be questioned by Nigeria's anti-corruption agency in connection with US$ 231 million in missing government funds.

In May 2017, the Guardian and Newsweek reported that anticorruption investigators in Britain, the USA, Nigeria and Norway were scrutinising British firm Cas-Global over allegations that it paid a bribe of US$ 154 000 to a Norwegian official to disguise the 2014 sale of seven decommissioned gunships to Tompolo-linked firm Global West Vessel Specialists. The total value of the sale was US$ 10.4 million. The timing of the sale was critical, given Nigeria’s presidential election in 2015, where Tompolo was amongst those believed to be ready to resort to violence if then-president Goodluck Jonathan lost to Buhari. The resurgence of militants in the Niger Delta since 2016 has been spearheaded by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), which has been linked to Tompolo by local media, though he denies these allegations.

The Tompolo case sheds some light on how the piracy as well as other criminal activity in the region may be financed and facilitated.

In a 2013 report on terrorism and transnational organised crime in West Africa, the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies noted that piracy and oil bunkering have acquired a worrisome transnational dimension, as have arms and drug trafficking. Based on an Israeli Homeland Security defence update, the report cites ‘growing speculation of a possible link between piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the financing of regional Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, Boko Haram among others. Some of the millions paid to the oil gangs are thought to have made their way to Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda in northern Nigeria’. 

While it is difficult to find explicit links between piracy and so-called Islamist terrorism in West Africa, there are several reasons such potential links should not be discounted. First, there is a long history of cross-pollination and mutual support between piracy and on-land crime in the region. For example, oil pirates have been known to assist narco-traffickers to land their drug cargoes, while members of militant groups involved in piracy have also been implicated in on-land crimes including movement of arms and drugs, and hostage taking. Given that there alleged financial links from the drug and arms trades to terrorist groups, the potential for collaboration between pirates and terrorists is clear.

Second, the ease with which pirates from one country infiltrate neighbouring countries (for example, between Benin, Nigeria and Togo), and the fact that victims of pirate kidnappings have noted that attackers spoke a mixture of languages, including both French and English in addition to local languages, suggests that there is already a strong transnational element among pirates in the region. This is also supported by observations that when one country increases its counter-piracy measures, the pirate activity shifts to neighbouring countries. This suggests a level of coordination between pirates and on-land criminals throughout the region. Both piracy and terrorism in West Africa are transnational activities. The March 2017 video showing a meeting between leaders of several terrorist groups in the Sahel underscores the transnational nature of terrorism in West Africa.

Third, there is a degree of complementarity between the kidnappings by pirates and hostage taking by terror groups such as Boko Haram and Ansaru. The preferred targets of both are foreigners and/or persons of high rank. The focus shift from cargo to kidnapping in West African piracy has seen new players getting involved. OBP has recorded that some of the pirate gangs operating in the gulf are the same ones that have operated inland within Nigeria, where kidnapping is a common crime. Though the primary motive for the pirates might be financial gain while those of the terrorists have an ideological dimension, the scope for collaborative endeavours is evident.

The Merbey case underscores possible transnational links between pirates, kidnap for ransom, drug and arms trafficking, and terrorism. On 19 January 2017, a report was filed indicating that pirates off Calabar, Nigeria, had hijacked the cargo vessel Merbey, with seven crew members of Turkish and Romanian nationality on board. While Piracy Report eventually concluded that this was a case of fraud rather than hijacking, the details are interesting in that they provide insights into how ship naming and flagging can be used to evade identification. According to Moroccan businessman Mohammed Oulahcen, he bought the Merbey in Turkey in 2015 in partnership with a Portuguese national, Jose. The understanding was that the vessel would sail to Casablanca, Morocco. Oulahcen claims he was double-crossed by his partner who used the vessel for illegal trafficking of arms and drugs to the Houthis in Yemen. The vessel was then relocated to Nigeria. According to AIS the vessel has been anchored off Calabar since 25 August 2016. IMO records indicate that the vessel was renamed in October 2015 from Omerbey 1 (Turkish flag) to Merbey (Comoros flag) and again in September 2016 back to Omerbey 1 (Turkish flag). The owner on record is Barchester Holdings Ltd in Gibraltar.

Who are the pirates?

The masterminds behind the piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are undoubtedly well-connected businesspersons and former militants in the mould of Ekpemefumor and Tompolo, with networks of individuals within the government bureaucracy and the private sector who ease their path by facilitating the sale of seized cargoes or the ransoming of hostages. While many of these masterminds and their lieutenants claim to be using piracy in their fight for a greater share of the region’s oil wealth, in reality many of the pirate gangs are motivated purely by financial gain. In the Gulf of Guinea, the lines between political grievances and criminality are very blurred.

The actual pirates who board vessels are recruited from much the same pool of disaffected, unemployed populations that also feed the drug trade and the militant and terror networks. In several regions along the gulf, fishing – once a major livelihood for many families – has been decimated, in some cases by illegal overfishing by international commercial fleets. In other cases, the rise of piracy itself has devastated the fishing industry, with fishing trawlers attacked and destroyed by the pirates. The existing underdevelopment and poverty in the area has deepened, and many young men see piracy as the only viable revenue-earner. It is relatively easy to turn them against the foreign owners and crew of the ships they attack, since the vessels are regarded as carrying resources plundered from their land for which they receive nothing. This is the rationale in Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, and increasingly, behind pirate attacks in Angola and the Congo too.

Between the pirates who actually board the target vessels and the masterminds are corrupt officials in formal state institutions and corrupt individuals within the infrastructure of the oil industry, who allow the pirate syndicates to access the information necessary to carry out the attacks and to on-sell seized cargo.

Victims of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have observed that the gangs have a mixture of English and French speakers and those speaking local languages, pointing to possible collaboration between those from Francophone and Anglophone countries respectively. It is presumably also a precaution that enables pirates to communicate with crews of various nationalities, given that the ships passing through the gulf hail from various parts of the globe.

How are ransoms negotiated and paid?

Vessels traversing major global shipping lanes, including the Gulf of Guinea, often have kidnap and ransom (K&R) insurance. Platts Marine News reported in May 2017 that the upsurge in piracy has spiked demand for K&R insurance worldwide.

While most ransom demands are paid by the vessel owners, some are negotiated jointly with the governments of the hostages’ home countries. The US government has a policy of not paying ransom demands in cases of kidnapping, while the UK official policy is not to deal with terrorists, but these policies do not apply to private individuals and companies such as ship owners. European countries have been known to pay ransoms.

The first step is usually when the pirates contact the ship owners or operators and the government representatives, depending on the victims’ nationalities. The ship’s master or senior officers may initially be used to make contact, so that they can answer proof of life questions if necessary. Information on ownership and management is usually easily sourced on board the ship. Communication is usually by phone or satellite phone, but is sometimes also conducted by email or test messages. There is usually a middleman who negotiates on each side.

Most ransom demands are negotiated through the insurance companies and third party consultants specialising in this field; the majority of these are based in London. K&R consultants have expertise in devising the ‘target settlement figure’ based on the specifics of each situation. According to South African K&R consultant Mark Courtney, the ransom negotiation process is an art where timing is critical. If the ransom is paid too quickly, the kidnappers think you have access to more money, but if paid too late, the victims could get sick and die.

Because of the risks involved, it is rare for the consultants and the companies and countries who pay ransom demands to make this information public, as they are already perceived as playing into the pirates’ hands. If the companies that have paid ransoms are identified, they would run an increased risk that their vessels would be targeted in future, as they are known to have paid previously. In view of the secrecy involved it is therefore difficult to ascertain exactly who has paid what.

Ransoms are usually paid in cash, in international currency, with shipping companies using professionals such as former SAS personnel to deliver the cash. The pirates often have counting machines and technology to detect counterfeit notes. It is estimated that, excluding the ransom itself, the costs of professional negotiators and couriers, lawyers and insurance personnel can reach US$ 1 million.

While the kidnappers have a vested interest in keeping hostages alive, witness testimony suggests that kidnapped seafarers may be beaten or tortured, and may have to survive on limited rations with no access to medical care. In the eighteen kidnap-for-ransom attacks and five incidents of temporary detention offshore recorded by OBP in West Africa for 2016, 144 seafarers (five Nigerians, 47 foreigners, and 92 crew members of unknown nationality) were taken hostage. At least five seafarers sustained physical injuries.

Two case studies are presented here:

Case 1: The Comoros-flagged reefer MV Solarte was hijacked on 19 October 2015 by pirates armed with submachine guns, about one hundred nautical miles off the coast of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The pirates attacked, boarded and ransacked the ship for valuables, destroyed communication and navigation equipment, and then kidnapped four sailors (two Lithuanians and two Ukrainians), before making their escape. After weeks of negotiating, diplomatic sources hinted that the unnamed Russian owners paid the ransom demanded by the pirates in exchange for the kidnapped sailors. All four were released in good health on 16 November 2015.

Case 2: On 5 February 2017, about forty-five nautical miles southwest of Brass in Nigeria, cargo vessel BBC Caribbean was boarded by armed men who kidnapped seven Russians and one Ukrainian crew member and returned to shore with the hostages in the motor skiff in which they had approached. The owner and manager of the vessel is German company Briese Schiffahrt, while the operator is BBC Chartering. The Russian embassy confirmed the attack (via its twitter account), as did Briesse Schiffart representatives in St Petersburg. The kidnapped Russian captain made contact with the owners and the Russian authorities to confirm that the hostages were alive, and negotiations to secure their release began. Russian diplomats and the German managers were involved in negotiations. On 3 March 2017, the eight hostages were released, but no information was provided as to whether a ransom had been paid. The victims were in good health but had been held captive in the jungle in very poor conditions.

Conclusion: Enhancing maritime security in West Africa

Most West African countries have limited maritime capacity, which poses a challenge for already weak law enforcement agencies. The absence of robust legal frameworks, together with ineffective domestic justice systems, inhibits complete prosecutions related to maritime crimes. To date, there have been no successful prosecutions for maritime piracy in West Africa.

In a 2013 interview with Africa Renewal, Cardiff University’s maritime expert, Christian Bueger, suggested four steps to counter piracy. First, the key is for affected states to share information on what’s happening on their coastlines and those of their neighbours. Second, joint training activities are required so countries can develop procedures and learn how to use technology. Training not only educates future generations of maritime security professionals, but also creates confidence and trust between different agencies. Third, states that face maritime and piracy challenges should develop strong legislation to prosecute criminals. And finally, states should set aside enough money to build local capacity. ‘Even if a state has the information, even if the state has well-trained coast guards, and even if the state has incorporated all the right laws,’ Bueger explains, ‘without vessels, the state is powerless.’

The increasingly high incidence of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea over the past few years has spawned a plethora of national, bilateral, regional and extra-regional responses to improve maritime security, some of which appear to be taking Bueger’s advice to heart

In January 2012, the Nigerian government transformed its Joint Task Force ‘Operation Restore Hope’, initially established to combat militancy in the Niger Delta, into an expanded maritime security framework, known as ‘Operation Pulo Shield’, aimed at eradicating pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft, illegal oil refining, piracy and all forms of sea robbery within its area of responsibility. Benin, Togo and Ghana have also improved their maritime capacity and efficiency in recent years. Security agencies in the region continued to improve their capacities throughout 2016. This was underlined by the quick response to several attacks off Nigeria during which the Nigerian Navy averted potential kidnappings. Furthermore, the response to the hijacking of the product tanker Maximus – including tracking by the Ghana and Togo navies, and the proposed boarding of the ship by Nigerian Navy personnel – underlined improvements in terms of regional cooperation and response capabilities.

Though regional maritime strategies were separately implemented by the Economic Community of Central African States; the Gulf of Guinea Commission; and the Economic Community of West African States, in June 2013, these three organisations agreed to establish an interregional coordination centre for maritime security in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This centre has to cooperate with the regional maritime security coordination centres established in Pointe Noire for Central Africa and Abidjan for West Africa. In practice, though, these centres still have to prove their worth, since technical capacity is limited and funding by member countries varies widely.

At the continental level, the African Union adopted the Lomé treaty on maritime safety and security and development on 15 October 2016, which is aimed to overcome maritime crime in Africa and particularly in the Gulf of Guinea. To date, the treaty has been signed by thirty-two countries.

The international community has long supported West African maritime security measures. France, the former colonial power in many of these countries, imports more than a third of its oil from Africa, and has deployed one to two military ships off the West African coast on a permanent basis since 1990. In 2011, the French government implemented a four-year cooperation program known as ASECMAR, to support fifteen West African countries in developing an inter-agency and inter-governmental approach to maritime policy and security. The most concrete result of ASECMAR was the nomination of the first maritime prefect of Africa, in Conakry, Guinea, in 2012.

Since Europe as a whole is a key importer of African oil and gas, in 2013, France, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom launched a joint operation to help seven West African countries – Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, and Togo – secure their maritime routes. They have assisted in training these countries’ coast guards and developing an information network for data exchange. Technological advances can also play an increasingly important role, both in tactical communications to identify and avert threats, and also through the use of coastal monitoring systems to track vessels. The newest technologies incorporate innovative subsea remote devices and aerial drones.

Given the increasingly transnational character of recent maritime crimes, these developments at the regional and extra-regional levels are encouraging. But Cynthia Glock, writing for World Politics Review, notes that while African countries seem determined to develop a successful strategy against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, beyond ambitious projects and promises, concrete results will only be obtained if funds are raised and agreements quickly implemented. Until that is done, as in the Horn of Africa, they will hardly be able to defend their own interests, and the security situation will still mainly depend on foreign countries.


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