analysisBy Joris Leverink
Regional security initiatives might help in the fight against West African piracy, but far more important is addressing the socio-economic environment in which the criminality thrives.
It was an easy mistake to make. When the Times of India recently reported on the hijacking of a Turkish-owned oil tanker with an Indian crew off the coast of West Africa, they placed the blame firmly upon "Somali pirates".
One perhaps can't blame them too much for this inaccuracy - after all, for several years now, there has only been one place that comes to mind when you add 'piracy' to 'Africa', and that's Somalia.
However, as indicated by this story about hijacking off the West African coast, this is now changing, with the global hub of piracy shifting from East to West African waters.
In fact, a recently-published report found that in 2012 more attacks occurred in the Gulf of Guinea than off the Somali coast. While there was a significant decrease in piracy-related attacks in Somali waters - 851 seafarers were attacked in 2012 compared to over 4,000 two years previously- the number of those attacked in 2012 in West Africa rose to 966 in over 50 separate incidents.
In response to this rising threat in the Gulf of Guinea, regional leaders are increasingly stepping up security initiatives. But as in Somalia, West African leaders must also realise that the scourge of piracy can only be truly be eradicated if the socio-economic and political environment in which piracy emerges as a viable activity is also addressed.
Dangers at sea
Although piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has been receiving increased attention recently, the activity is far from new to the region. "Good order at sea in the Gulf of Guinea deteriorated even before Somali piracy caught the attention of the international media", Francois Vrey, an Associate Professor in Military Strategy at Stellenbosch University, told Think Africa Press.
However, while maritime robbery may have a history in the Gulf, the kinds of piracy witnessed off the coast of West Africa have evolved more recently - specifically, the targeting of oil tankers for their cargo.
To facilitate this, pirates have engaged in several schemes from converting fishing trawlers into makeshift oil tankers, to bringing captured vessels close to shore where the oil is siphoned off into barrels and sold on the black market.
This specific targeting of oil tankers for cargo - which is unlike Somali pirates who typically hold the ship and its crew hostage for a ransom - has pricked up the ears of the international community as well as regional leaders.
West Africa plays an important role in the global energy supply; the US, for example, gets around 15% of its oil supplies from the region, while Angola (whose waters further south could soon attract pirates) is, together with Saudi Arabia, China's largest supplier of oil.
Regional summit to promote peace and stability
Given these alarming trends, it is not surprising that last month's summit on 'Maritime Safety and Security in the Gulf of Guinea', held in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé, assumed such a degree of importance and urgency.
"How can our countries progress if somehow our waters have become too dangerous for the free movement of people and goods?", asked Cameroon's President Paul Biya at the start of the event, setting the tone for the summit. "How can we navigate the Gulf of Guinea waters in constant fear of being killed or taken hostage?"
With these concerns in mind, the leaders of 25 African Union member-states present at the summit agreed upon the creation of an 'Inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa' that will have its headquarters in Yaoundé, and the adoption of a non-binding Code of Conduct for the "prevention and repression of acts of piracy, armed robbery against vessels, and illicit activities in the West and Central African maritime domain".
However, while this high-level meeting and agreement could be a positive step towards regional cooperation, Vrey explains that only Nigeria and Ghana really have the naval capacity to operate at sea for any extended period of time. And with many countries still unwilling to let their neighbours' navies enter their own territorial waters, pirates can easily evade authorities by moving across maritime borders.
As Donna Nincic, Professor and Director of the ABS School of Maritime Policy and Management at the California Maritime Academy, points out, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea cannot be addressed in the same way as Somalia's.
"Somali piracy has been mitigated by the actions of the international task forces and the use of armed guards on merchant ships", she says. "Neither of these is likely to be acceptable to the Nigerian government as most attacks occur within its territorial waters."
One threat amongst many
In fact, while recognising the importance of security measures, many experts emphasise that even if a truly effective cooperative programme were put in place, security is just one dimension of the problem. Piracy is a symptom of deeper maladies.
"Although the reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf draw most attention", explains Vrey, "the threats coexist amidst an array of other dangers at sea". These other dangers involve pollution, illegal fishing, and the smuggling of commodities, arms, people, and drugs.
Similarly, Nincic is keen to highlight the importance of underlying local problems in both Somalia and Nigeria, where many of the Gulf of Guinea pirates originate. "Both have root causes in a lack of meaningful economic opportunities and a prolonged pattern of environmental degradation - over-fishing in Somalia, oil pollution devastation in the Niger Delta", she says. "And both progressed from small opportunistic attacks to more coordinated and organised attacks attributed to sophisticated criminal gangs."
With this in mind, "The real solution to Nigerian piracy", she says, "must be found in addressing its root causes - lack of economic opportunity, environmental devastation caused by the oil industry, and the - to date - lack of significant prosecution of pirates within the country."
Nigeria's corrupt oil politics
Indeed, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea cannot be viewed in isolation from the oil production in Nigeria's Niger Delta region and the socio-economic and environmental circumstances surrounding it. According to research conducted in 2006, some 1.5 million tons of oil have been spilled in the Delta over the past fifty years, and the region is thought to have the highest rates of unemployment in the country.
The region contains vast oil wealth yet few of the proceeds of the trade benefit the local community who instead associate oil with pollution, corruption, environmental devastation, poverty and rising inequality.
With such low prospects, young men can easily be enticed by pirate gangs to join their ranks with, as Nincic puts it, "promises of riches, fancy cars, luxury consumer goods and weapons".
One of the shortcomings underlying the Delta's underdevelopment is the Nigerian government's chronic failure to build and maintain domestic oil refineries. Despite being the region's largest oil producer, Nigeria is unable to refine most of its crude oil itself, resulting in the continuous need to import large quantities of refined oil at much higher cost.
Furthermore each transaction provides ample opportunities for corruption - a curse that has long enriched the country's business and political elites at the expense of the majority. The lack of domestic refineries also means that the coast of Nigeria is packed with oil tankers on a daily basis, which make for easy targets amongst looters and pirates.
Collective sticks, individual carrots
As long as Nigeria's domestic fraudulent and corrupt oil policies are not addressed, the collective effort by West African states in combating piracy in the Gulf of Guinea cannot amount to the kind of meaningful change necessary.
A stick can be provided by the joint efforts of West African countries, but the carrot needs to be grown domestically. Without structural reforms that would empower the Niger Delta's populations, provide alternative livelihoods for local youngsters, and bring at least part of the region's wealth back to people who live there, any effort at stopping piracy can only go so far.
The regional summit and the code of conduct are steps in the right direction that ought to be applauded, but it should not let us be blinded to the underlying causes.
Joris Leverink is a student of Political Economy of Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS, and an editor for the revolutionary online-magazine ROARmag.org. He currently specialises in the history of the Malian political crisis.