Floating enemies

Pirates are increasingly getting assertive in Gulf of Guinea

Since the global attention is turning towards Africa and its resource rich regions, the number of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean region and Gulf of Guinea could double next year if governments do not act to protect off-shore assets.

There have been over 360 attacks on merchant shipping this year, and without action by West African governments this could rise to over 700 incidents in 2014. This could see an average of two attacks every day of the year.

However, piracy threatens more than just oil and gas assets; criminal gangs at sea are responsible for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, dumping of toxic waste, illegal bunkering and illegal fishing.

This is in addition to the problems caused by the profits from piracy that finance other criminal activity such as terrorism and human trafficking which have a significant human and financial cost.

As stronger counter-piracy measures have developed in East Africa, criminal organizations have come to see coastal assets in West Africa as soft targets. The result is that waters in the Gulf of Guinea are now the most dangerous in Africa for merchant shipping.

West African nations are rapidly developing their oil and gas infrastructure to capitalize on existing assets and exploit new offshore discoveries.

These assets can serve as the driver of long-term economic development in these countries, boosting industry, creating thousands of jobs and bringing in billions of dollars of foreign investment.

Unless it is tackled quickly and effectively, piracy could do serious damage to Ghana’s oil and gas industry, slowing development for years to come.


The solution is not seeking international help to solve these African problems, but to build African solutions for them.

The development of a strong African shipbuilding industry means it is possible for African nations to find African solutions to the threat of piracy.

Recently, Rear Admiral GM Biereko, Chief of Naval staff, Ghanaian Navy, and Commodore Godson Zowonoo, Flag officer Command, Ghanaian Navy, highlighted developments in West African navies’ response to piracy threats.

Despite the rise in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the west coast of Africa, international attention is still focused on Somalia and the Horn of Africa on the east African coast, with experts saying West Africa is not attracting the type of attention that it deserves.

R Adm Emmanuel Ogbor, Chief of Policy and Plans of the Nigerian Navy, also recently provided a detailed overview of the piracy threat in the Gulf of Guinea during a maritime conference.

He noted that seafarers are becoming increasingly weary of using the seas in the Gulf of Guinea, with piracy levels comparable to that off the Somali coast.

While all the major powers of the world are mobilised in a concerted effort to clear the coast of Somalia of piracy, Ogbor observed that there exists the need for the member States of the Gulf of Guinea not to allow their territorial waters to repeat that of Somalia and to forge a concerted effort to stem piracy.

Causes of piracy

Both the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea are crucial transit areas for international shipping and both are vulnerable to pirate attacks. However, Ogbor explained that the root causes of piracy in the two areas were different.

Whilst the cause of piracy around the Gulf of Aden can be traced to the collapse of the Somali central government following years of civil war, that off the West African coast is due to weak and bad governance, precarious legal frameworks and poor law enforcement.

The Somali pirates are able to anchor their hijacked vessels along the Somali coastline and keep their crew in plain sight for long periods. The pirates are only interested in returning the hijacked vessel, its cargo and crew back to the shipping company in return for ransom.

The situation in the Gulf of Guinea is very different. As West African governments still have control of their territorial coastlines, pirate attacks cannot take place in plain sight.

The main driver of piracy in this area is the regional oil black market, where the vessels are not taken, just the cargo. Illegal oil buyers and arms traders make the region more dangerous for oil tankers and general cargo vessels.

Attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Guinea have become the greatest threat to merchant shipping in Africa, surpassing attacks off Somalia in 2012.

Currently, there is an average of one attack per day on ships in the Gulf of Guinea-and the trend is only worsening.

The vast Gulf of Guinea which is nearly as big as the Gulf of Mexico is now one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world, home to pirates that attack oil tankers and other cargo vessels at will, raising fears that shipping lanes that have existed for 500 years could be permanently disrupted.

West African piracy centered on the Niger Delta has in recent years expanded from the coasts of Nigeria to the shorelines of many of the 11 West African countries that border the Gulf where pirates seize large oil tankers, siphon the product into smaller vessels, refine it in clandestine facilities and quickly sell it, fueling a regional oil black market.

Oil-consuming nations are concerned because more than 30 percent of US oil and 40 percent of Europe’s oil passes through the Gulf and is vulnerable to West African piracy.

The largest foreign investor in Nigeria’s booming oil industry, Royal Dutch Shell, says that oil pipeline theft on land, and piracy at sea means about 100,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day in that country, costing the Nigerian government an estimated $12 billion a year.

The Gulf of Guinea’s problem is not a dramatic rise in the number of attacks.

It is the expansion of a criminal enterprise once restricted to Nigerian waters. The wave of piracy has spread to Benin, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire. Within the past 30 months, 93 tankers have been attacked, and 30 were successfully hijacked. In their latest raid, pirates seized a Turkish tanker off the coast of Gabon.

The Niger Delta is the epicenter of Gulf piracy.

Kidnapping is an endemic industry embedded within Nigerian criminal culture with the threat permeating both the land and sea domains. Foreign nationals remain a primary target for this criminal enterprise, due to the high ransom payments that can be achieved.

West Africa has reached a tipping point, like East Africa and South East Asia.

Recent anti-piracy efforts so successful off Somalia’s coast have had only limited success in the Gulf of Guinea because shipping companies are prohibited from hiring foreign armed security and foreign naval powers cannot pursue pirates in West African territorial waters where most attacks take place.

While most countries along the Gulf of Guinea have been unable to cope with the pirates there has been one exception is Benin.

Benin and Nigerian navies had a successful operation co-operation called Operation Prosperity which brought down the number of piracy cases drastically. Along their short coastline Benin recorded 20 successful and attempted attacks in 2011. In 2012 there were only two.

But the number of piracy attempts is underestimated. Many attacks go unreported because shippers think local authorities are not capable of doing anything about the piracy or they believe some elements within local authorities may be culpable.

Despite regional prohibitions, some shippers still try to arm their vessels. Nine months ago, 15 Russian sailors aboard the MV Myre Seadiver were arrested by Nigerian authorities for possession of weapons and live ammunition.

Reforms required

However, the solution to West Africa’s piracy is not more navies but a comprehensive regional reform of police enforcement and court systems currently incapable of handling the piracy crime wave.

Corruption has so weakened those institutions to begin with that there is a major rescue effort that must be taken in order for them to become a real ally to the business community and the shipping community.

Nigerian criminal syndicates, backed by high-level political and economic patrons, are exploiting this situation by targeting specific tankers for hi-jacking.

The pirates’ efficiency may be linked to professional outside supervision from organized crime syndicates in Eastern Europe or Asia. So far, the pirated crude is only being traded on the West African oil black market.

Without more international attention, piracy and other organized crime will continue to plague the Gulf of Guinea, raise energy prices in the US and other markets and lead to further de-stabilization in an already fragile part of the world.

Nigeria and Benin have signed a bi-lateral agreement for combined patrols, whilst the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has established a Maritime Zone to combat piracy.

Agreement has been reached for the establishment of a Joint Operations Coordination Centre in the pilot Zone E (Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo) to coordinate all maritime security activities.

This, together with a new multi-national headquarters and a Code of Conduct on the prevention of piracy shows a growing commitment in West Africa to counter piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

ECOWAS is also working with the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in terms of maritime domain awareness.

Whilst the East African response to piracy has relied on international assistance, West Africa has seen more regional cooperation.