What Your Piracy Is Saying About You

The last few decades have seen the resurgence of an old problem off the Eastern and Western coasts of Africa. Piracy, while somewhat novel, is a form of organized crime which occurs at sea but originates from some sovereign territory. The particular manifestation of piracy can be seen as symptomatic of the governance conditions in the state or territory from which it originates. For the purpose of this article we are going to be a little bit loose with our definition of piracy. Instead of the UNCLOS definition, which requires that piracy occur in International Waters (outside 12nm from the shoreline), we will assume that piracy can occur within territorial waters, but is distinct from robbing a ship at berth in port.

Answer the following questions to discover what your piracy says about the state of your democracy:

Question 1: Do uniformed personnel, in a legitimate branch of service, acting within their official capacity, capture and detain ships passing through your waters for a “fine?”

– Yes. You are probably an autocratic state. Your government is a bit of an international pariah, especially in your region, and you may even be a state-sponsor of terrorism. Eritrea for instance.


-No. Move on to the next question.

Question 2: Do pirates operating from your shores hijack ships, sail them back to your coastline, and hold them indefinitely for ransom?

-Yes. Your state probably isn’t much of a state. With no state capacity to exert control over your own territory, or the ability to coerce pirate gangs to give up their prizes your territory is most likely ungoverned space. Your state government probably controls only small amounts of territory, while the rest of the state is governed by local entities and armed groups. You might say that you are Somalia.


-No. Move on to the next question.

Question 3: After hijacking a vessel, do the pirates tend to rob the ship and its inhabitants, offload its petro payload and sell the contraband on your black market?

-Yes. Your government has a serious corruption problem. Patronage politics and political cronyism are rampant in your country. Security forces and politicians are most likely taking a cut of the black market profits from this sophisticated operation. You are probably Nigeria.


-No, but they rob the ship and sometimes take the more valuable crew members back to a remote area ashore and hold them for a generally quickly provided ransom. You are probably a state with a separatist rebel movement holding a difficult to patrol shoreline, like the MEND. Yup, you are still Nigeria.


-No. Move on to the next question.

Question 4: Do pirates, not from your country, use your state’s territorial waters as hunting grounds for vulnerable vessels to rob?

-Yes. Your state has weak naval capacity, may rely heavily on foreign aid, and probably has a hard time collecting taxes. Piracy may not originate on your shores due to lack of infrastructure to support a petro bunkering scheme more than because the state is able to suppress it. You are most likely Benin, Togo, or some other West African state.


-No, and your state doesn’t actually have a problem with piracy. Well good for you! This quiz is not particularly helpful in your case.

This quiz is kind of a fun way of looking at how piracy in a state’s waters can be indicative of governance by the state. Piracy, as an element of organized crime, requires a weak state and space within which to operate. This is especially true when the piracy originates on land in the territory that is supposed to be controlled by the state. When we look at where piracy is a significant issue, we can be sure that a few other indicators of state weakness will be present. A glance at Heritage’s Map of Economic Freedom, Freedom House’s Map of Freedom, the Failed States Index from the Fund for Peace, and the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International we see that these states generally have poor economic opportunity, high endemic corruption, little political freedom, and serious governmental issues. These factors do not guarantee that piracy will emerge, but when favorable coastal geography and the proximity of shipping lanes combine with these factors, piracy becomes nearly inevitable. Weak states pose a threat to not only well being of their own citizens, but also to the safety and security of surrounding states and transit lanes, as they can provide a jumping off point and safe haven for violent organized crime. The existence of criminal organizations engaged in activity such as piracy in turn diminishes investment and stagnates economic growth, further deepening the problem.


About waljemr

Matt Walje lives in Denver, CO with his wife Tessa where he works as a Project Coordinator for the Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) project. He is a Sié Fellow at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where he is projected to graduate in June with a Master's in International Human Rights. He is an alum of William Jewell College with BAs in International Relations and Political Science.
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2 Responses to What Your Piracy Is Saying About You

  1. Do you think democratic regimes are more equipped to address piracy? What would be a causal mechanism in this case? Perhaps democracies could offer more redress for the grievances of pirates? (although they are almost never an organized group).

    • waljemr says:

      I think that the key is not so much democracy as it is good governance. While those two concepts are often conflated, theoretically a strongly authoritarian government could provide good governance. The problem in East Africa is a near absence of state control of the territory of Somalia. Right now most of the piracy stems from the Galmadug region which exists in a limbo between any form of state control, active insurgency with Al Shabaab and regional government. In Nigeria a severely corrupt regime has enabled TCNs to engage in oil theft and black marketeering so long as some officials receive a cut. In Somalia, the problem is a lack of any sort of functional government. In Nigeria it is a corrupt democracy. The key then is for the democratic institutions to develop to the point that politicians are actually accountable to their constituents, the court system is independent and able to hold them accountable to the law, and security forces are capable and strong enough to resist corruption and engage in effective control of Nigerian territory and waters.

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