In a seemingly virtual era, maritime commerce and shipping retain a central role in contemporary global capitalism. Approximately 90% of global imports and exports currently travel by sea on around 93,000 merchant vessels, carrying almost 6 billion tons of cargo. Oceanic mobility and long-distance networks of trade are made possible and sustained by the life and labor of over 1.25 million seafarers currently working at sea as well as regimes of global security and governance. Yet, this oceanic world and its role in shaping politics, sociality, and regulation remains, for the most part, obscured and hidden out of sight in everyday life. As one of the oldest perils at sea, maritime piracy is not only a daily threat to seafaring and global shipping but makes visible this oceanic world and the larger networks of security and regulation that govern maritime commerce. In recent years, coastal Africa, specifically the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, has seen an unprecedented rise in incidents of maritime piracy. The geopolitical and global trade importance of these areas has led to numerous national, regional, and international military and legal responses to combat this problem. While often seen as a seaborne symptom of failed states or criminality, maritime piracy has a more complex relationship with land- and sea-based governance. Occurring primarily in spaces that are politically fragmented but reasonably stable maritime piracy is better understood as a practice of extraction and claim making on mobility that emerges from deeper historical contexts and is linked to land-based economies and politics. Emphasizing maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea within these wider historical and geographic contexts highlights the imbrication of the political and economic in shaping the emergence and transformations of this practice. This is not to deny the violence that constitutes maritime piracy, but to locate piracy within larger processes of mobility, governance, and political economy on the African continent and beyond. In addition to impacting local communities, seafarers, and global shipping, maritime piracy is key to apprehending challenges to global governance from the vantage point of the world’s oceans.
The peculiar politics of the Horn of Africa derives from the region’s exceptional pattern of state formation. At its center, Ethiopia was Africa’s sole indigenous state to remain independent through the period of colonial conquest, and also imposed its rule on areas not historically subject to it. The Somalis, most numerous of the pastoralist peoples, were unique in rejecting the colonial partition, which divided them between British and Italian Somalilands, French Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia, while formerly Italian Eritrea, incorporated into Ethiopia in the post-World War II settlement, retained a sense of separate identity that fueled a long struggle for independence. These differences, coupled with the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia, led to wars that culminated in 1991 in the independence of Eritrea, the collapse of the Somali state, and the creation in Ethiopia of a federal system based on ethnicity. Developments since that time provide a distinctive slant on the legacies of colonial rule, the impact of guerrilla warfare, the role of religion in a region divided between Christianity and Islam, the management of ethnicity, and external intervention geared to largely futile attempts at state reconstruction. The Horn continues to follow trajectories of its own, at variance from the rest of Africa.
Eritrea has a long history as a heavily militarized nation, dating back to its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. Militarization is a core component of Eritrean nationalism and state formation, which is arguably forged out of war but is also implicated in Eritrea’s problematic human rights record. Following Eritrea’s 1991 independence, the country was poised to democratize and liberalize. At that time, the country also began an intensive process of nation-building of which militarization was a central part. In 1995, Eritrea introduced the national service program. Eritrea’s national/military service, which requires 6 months of military training and 12 months of free military or civil service for all Eritreans (male and female), initially enjoyed widespread public support although there were always concerns about harsh living and labor conditions. In 1998, a border war with Ethiopia broke out. At this time, those who had military training in national service were recalled. Although fighting ended in 2000, the border war deepened Eritrea’s adherence to militarization as a key strategy of national defense, nation-building, and development. A condition of no-peace, no-war followed the border war. The long period of no-war, no-peace with Ethiopia allowed Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, to consolidate his power, deepen authoritarian rule, and extend the national service program indefinitely. The indefinite extension of national service meant that conscripts were not demobilized and new recruits into national service could not be assured that they would ever be released. Due to the indefinite extension of military service, harsh conditions in the military, and extreme punishments for those who try to escape the military, Eritrea’s national/military service requirement is at the center of concern about human rights and civil liberties in Eritrea. Militarization has since become fused with state control and punishment, leading to human rights and civil liberties violations and the mass flight of close to half a million Eritreans over the past decades. Despite the announcement in summer of 2018 that Eritrea and Ethiopia had finally agreed to peace, no one has been released from the military and Eritreans continue to flood out of the country to avoid national service conditions which have been equated with slavery.