18 July 2013

West Africa: The Rise and Rise of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Photo: Daniel Hayduk/IRIN
A fisherman in the Lomé harbour. The threat of piracy has increased drastically in Togo and neighbouring Benin.

West Africa's Gulf of Guinea has overtaken the Somali coast as Africa's main piracy hotspot, and this upward trend looks set to continue.

The Gulf of Guinea, which extends from Cape Lopez, Gabon, to Cape Palmas in Liberia, has become one of the pre-eminent piracy hotspots in the world. In 2012, the region accounted for the highest number of maritime attacks globally, surpassing East Africa's coastal waters, which were long regarded as the most dangerous for both private and commercial seafarers.

Initially confined to the waterways and estuaries of Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region, which had been the focal point of a near decade-long insurgency against the Nigerian federal government, maritime attacks by Niger Delta-based pirates are now increasing in both frequency and scope across the Gulf of Guinea. Of particular concern is the way in which maritime crime has evolved from oil siphoning and bunkering to increasingly well-coordinated and often violent attacks targeting commercial shipping vessels and their crew.

Piracy and the conflict in the Niger Delta

Much of the piracy in the Gulf of Guinea can be explained in terms of the security situation within the restive Niger Delta region. Despite possessing lucrative oil reserves which generate over 80% of the federal government's revenue, the Niger Delta continues to be plagued by extreme levels of poverty, a high unemployment rate and bureaucratic corruption. Furthermore, the environmental damage caused by the oil industry has adversely affected the region's once lucrative fishing and agricultural industries, thus limiting legitimate options for local youths to enter the economy.

The aforementioned grievances, in addition to the federal government's alleged inaction in addressing these concerns, incited an armed revolt within the Niger Delta in the early 2000s. From 2003, armed groups in this region actively sought to control regional petroleum resources. Initial attempts to gain control involved a process known as bunkering, where an oil pipeline is tapped and the oil extracted onto a barge. However, as the Niger Delta insurgency peaked from 2006 to 2009, various criminal and militant groups emerged and regularly engaged in conflict for control of territory.

In the resultant scramble for financial resources, the region began to experience an increase in attacks on ships carrying oil and other cargo, attacks on fishing boats, and kidnappings. As kidnappings and acts of sabotage became more frequent, oil companies began to increase security at their onshore points of operation. Insurgents and criminals quickly adapted to these actions and increasingly extended their activities to offshore facilities including oil platforms, rigs and shipping vessels. Their ventures, particularly in the absence of an effective response from regional and/or international maritime authorities, have been relatively successful and piracy continues to proliferate in the Gulf of Guinea.

However, although previously carried out by organised militant groups - many of whom have since laid down their arms in exchange for amnesty from the government - most acts of piracy within the Gulf of Guinea are now perpetrated purely by criminal entities for financial purposes. The low risk but high yield nature of piracy operations within the region has provided armed gangs with further incentive to engage in maritime attacks.

Daily pirate attacks

It is difficult to assess the current rate of piracy within the Gulf of Guinea, particularly since a large percentage of incidents go unreported. Current statistics provided by the government suggest that at least 15 cases of piracy are reported in the Niger Delta alone on a monthly basis. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) meanwhile suggests that the frequency of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea is around 50 per year, although the UN-sponsored agency concedes that its statistics most likely equate for only 50% of actual piracy attacks. Finally, independent maritime security agencies operating within the region currently estimate that at least one act of piracy is reported within the Gulf of Guinea on a daily basis, and that current incident trends indicate that the number could increase to two per day.

In addition to the increasing frequency in piracy attacks within the Gulf of Guinea, pirates are also expanding the scope of their operations. Since 2006, piracy has rapidly expanded beyond the Niger Delta and increasingly occurred within the territorial waters of neighbouring countries such as Benin, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Togo and Gabon. Maritime attacks within the aforementioned countries were generally opportunistic and limited to low-level robberies, while vessel hijackings remained limited to waters off the coast of Nigeria. Since late 2011, however, this trend has changed, with vessel seizures also reported off the coasts of Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Togo and Ivory Coast. It is likely that this pattern will continue in the short-term in the absence of coordinated multilateral anti-piracy initiatives.

Perpetrators and modus operandi

There are several main groups responsible for carrying out pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea; these include the Niger Delta Vigilantes, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, and remnants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). There are also a multitude of smaller groups; these are comprised mostly of youths with loose affiliations to larger militant groups. Despite the involvement of these militant groups, the majority of Nigerian piracy is linked to organised crime and is not politically motivated.

Nigerian pirate operations have become increasingly sophisticated over the last five years. Attacks take various forms. In some instances, pirates board a vessel and rob the crew of their personal possessions and any valuable items or cargo that can be immediately transported to their smaller vessels. Hijacking incidents remain the most lucrative and are increasing in the region. However, while Somali pirates hijack ships and then attempt to extort a ransom for both the ship and its crew, Nigerian pirates' prime target is the cargo, although kidnappings have occurred in the past. Gulf of Guinea pirates generally sail captured vessels to locations off the coast of the Niger Delta, where oil, cargo and/or fuel reserves are looted and transferred onto the pirate's barges. The ship and its crew are then usually released.

Currently, there is little evidence to suggest that West African pirates will adopt the modus operandi employed by their Somali counterparts and possibly hold foreign-owned vessels for ransom. Somalia-based pirates are able to hold both vessels and crew members' hostage at many of the country's ports. This is primarily due to the fact that Somalia's Federal Government generally has little influence on the political and security environment outside of the capital, Mogadishu. As a consequence, the Somali state security apparatus has, to date, been unable to counter piracy operations by itself. These attacks are in many cases perpetrated by clan militias who exert de facto control over the areas in which they operate. As all states within the Gulf of Guinea have functional governments that exert control over all areas of the country, pirates within the region are unable to hold vessels and/or crewmen onshore for extended periods of time without incurring a response by security forces. Nonetheless, there are concerns that Gulf of Guinea pirates may seek to kidnap crew members, particularly Western nationals, and transfer them to safe houses onshore. From here, they can then be used to extort a ransom from their respective employers.

Piracy is likely to remain a feature of the Gulf of Guinea's maritime security environment within the short- to medium-term. Currently, there is little multilateral naval co-operation among states along the Gulf of Guinea to address the problem, and pirates continue to operate with relative impunity. Although regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) are in the process of developing the institutions required to address the piracy threat, concerns pertaining to the funding, coordination and enforcement of such initiatives have already been raised. Furthermore, even in the presence of internationally-backed and regionally-coordinated anti-piracy initiatives, a failure to address the key socio-economic and political concerns in the Niger Delta will see likely see piracy remain a feature of the Gulf of Guinea's security environment within the short- to medium-term.

Ryan Cummings is Chief Analyst for Africa for Red24, a crisis management assistance company providing advice, support and response within crisis management, travel tracking, product recall, kidnap and ransom and travel security. Follow red24 on twitter @red24security.

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