Maritime Menace: Resurgence Of Somali Piracy – Analysis


By Gurjit Singh

Since November 2023, about 25 cases of attacks on ships linked to piracy have taken place. This has brought attention again to piracy off the Somalia coast in the Gulf of Aden. Due to this, the demand and cost of armed security patrols on international shipping, the costs of insurance coverage, and the cost of covering possible ransom payments have increased. These attacks come alongside attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels. This has the potential to provide another challenge to international shipping and commerce.

It has been more than 100 days since the launch of Indian Naval ‘Operation Sankalp’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), an internationally acclaimed lead role in ensuring the safety and security of merchant vessels. This involves deploying over 5,000 personnel at sea, 450 ship days (with 21 ships deployed) and 900 hours of flying by maritime surveillance aircraft.

While the Houthi attacks are targeted to disrupt trade to attack Israel and its allies, they do impact shipping through the Suez Canal. Due to this, international naval flotillas operating off the Somali coast have had their attention diverted to the Red Sea, north of their normal patrolling areas.

The threat of Somali piracy

Is the threat of Somali piracy now as serious as it was at its peak between 2008 and 2014? In 2011, 237 attacks by Somali pirates, leading to hundreds of hostages had been reported by the International Maritime Bureau. The estimated costs to the world economy at that time were about US$7 billion, which included ransoms. Presently, the piracy attacks are on smaller vessels in those seas which are less patrolled.

However, efforts to use large ships as motherships and use dinghies to navigate through deeper water are witnessed. The Indian Navy has taken exemplary action and has acted against pirates, rescuing seafarers held on board.

During the troubled times, 20 warships from 14 different countries would normally patrol the Gulf of Aden and the shipping lanes to the Indian Ocean leading out of it. They eliminated pirate attacks which were scarce since 2018. In March 2022, a UN authorization for foreign navies to patrol and act within Somali territorial waters lapsed because the need for it was now not perceived. Somali President Mohamoud was pursuing a policy to obtain support to increase the strength and efficacy of the Somali coast guard which has over 700 personnel but only one of its four coast guard vessels is functional.

In 2023 the Gulf of Aden and the related parts of the IOR were not a high-risk zone. In March 2024 the Bangladeshi-flagged ship MV Abdullah carrying coal with 23 crew members was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the Indian Ocean refocusing on the risks of the region.

Some analysts suggest that Somali pirates act in tandem with the Houthi rebels; this is, at best, a case of sympathy and inspiration drawn from the Houthis. The aim of the Somali pirates is more economic and anarchic than political and geostrategic, unlike the Houthis. Difficult circumstances prevail in Somalia, which include dire poverty, lawlessness, and varied levels of anarchy across the Federation. Long years of civil war led to some parts of Somalia trying to go their own way. This has accentuated the vicious matrix of poverty, violence, and instability. Due to the weak efficacy of governance, pirates obtain control of important institutions, often by investing the proceeds of ransom collection to influence local politics and increase their criminal activities.

An overview

Somalia has had a chequered history and its existence as a modern stable state has been limited. The flag of Somalia has five stars as its grandiose dream. The five stars point towards the existing Somalia and its reluctant constituent and former British protectorate Somaliland. Other areas where ethnic Somalis live are targets. These include the country of Djibouti, the Somali Region of Ethiopia, and the Northeastern Province of Kenya. This dream of a grand unification has led to problems with Ethiopia and Kenya.

In 1960, when Somalia became independent, Somalia had been under Italian administration as a United Nations trust territory, and Somaliland was a British protectorate. Italian Somaliland, had in 1925, obtained Jubaland from the British East African protectorate and was now joined by Somaliland through its own decision to join the Federation, while Puntland remained a part of it. Djibouti, which was a French colony and was known as French Somaliland was renamed as the territory of the Afar and the Issas, two of the tribes which live there. In 1977, Djibouti became independent as a separate country and remains an important country in the Horn of Africa.

Weak governance and the challenge of Al-Shabab terrorists weakened Mogadishu’s hold over the federation. Somaliland, in particular, became more autonomous with elections and governance. Puntland and Jubaland followed to some extent, but the prosperity which Somaliland showed was not matched by the others. While Puntland and Jubaland are not actively seeking international recognition, Somaliland maintains relations with Ethiopia and Taiwan and has a functioning system of governance and ports which attract international shipping. Jubaland also had active shipping, but that was largely being used by pirates. It was only when Kenyan troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) entered Somalia that they cleaned up Kismayo in 2008. Jubaland is closer to Kenya, whereas Puntland and Somaliland are closer to Djibouti.

Therefore, Somalia today acts as a loose federation with a brewing conflict because Somaliland has offered territory for a naval base to landlocked Ethiopia in exchange for investments and possible diplomatic recognition by Ethiopia.

While ostensibly in Africa secessionism may be frowned upon, the Horn of Africa has had two successful secessions. In 1993, after the Ethiopian liberation from the Derg regime, Eritrea, a former Italian colony, obtained independence through a referendum. In 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan then the largest country in Africa. All these countries are within the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional community recognised by the African Union, but their internal rivalries have not settled down despite much bloodshed and changes of government both legal and unconstitutional.

Ever since UN forces withdrew from Somalia in 1995 piracy began to raise its head and it was a combination of 20 navies which finally put an end to it. There was suspicion that they were moneylenders and financiers who backed piracy as a lucrative business since nothing else seemed to work in parts of Somalia.

The AMISOM which mainly had Ethiopian and Kenyan troops, as well as some Ugandan and Burundi troops, ultimately wound up in April 2022 and now is an African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), till 2025. AMISOM achieved significant gains over the past 15 years in support of the emergence of a capable Somali National Army, a professional Somali Police Force and Federal institutions.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank approved the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative Completion Point for Somalia, which provides total debt service savings of US$4.5 billion. Following the HIPC Completion Point, Somalia’s external debt decreased by 64 percent of GDP in 2018 to less than 6 percent of GDP by the end of 2023. This debt relief will facilitate access to critical additional financial resources that will help Somalia strengthen its economy, reduce poverty, and promote job creation

There is confidence that stability in Somalia could return. The problem is that the trained forces within Somalia, Puntland, Somaliland and others often become important institutions in their own right and then start becoming a part of local politics.

The current wave of piracy is once again seemingly brewing from Puntland. Unlike Somaliland, Puntland is less economically endowed and organised, and therefore its youth feel threatened in terms of economic opportunities. The lack of proper fishing fleets and intrusion by fishing trawlers including the Chinese deplete fishing stocks from traditional fishing grounds. This IUU prevents any local employment and further efforts in the blue economy remain on paper.

The piracy legacy and arms coming in from the now subdued al-Shabab whose remnants may be acting on their own are dangerous.

The Djibouti Code of Conduct and its Jeddah Amendment (to which India is an adherent as an observer) provide regional navies the locus for action against piracy. It is instrumental in repressing piracy in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and its scope is significantly broadened to cover other illicit maritime activities, including human trafficking, and IUU fishing.

India in IOR

India has taken its role in the IOR to keep a free and open Indo-Pacific seriously. In India’s conception, the Indo-Pacific covers the Indian Ocean up to the shores of Africa. India demonstrated its air and naval capabilities of operating from home bases at this distance to deal with issues in the Gulf of Aden, though it has access to friendly bases in the region.

India’s own maritime security law of 2022 now permits it to act against piracy among other issues. Hence, for the first time Somali pirates are brought to India and will be legally acted against. In the initial phase of piracy, there were no legal teeth to naval action, and Kenya and  Seychelles had been reluctantly persuaded to set up special courts against piracy. Now with domestic legislation in place, India is better placed to legally deal with pirates who attack its interests in the IOR.

  • About the author: Gurjit Singh has served as Indian ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN, and the African Union. He is the Chair of the CII Task Force on Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC).
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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