Johnny Depp may be the best-known pirate in theatres, and Somali pirates remain dangerous in the Indian Ocean, but the pirates causing oil companies and Lloyds of London sleepless nights are raiding ships in Africa's Gulf of Guinea that carry near 30 per cent of all U.S. oil imports.
In the first half of 2013, the London based International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre recorded three times more incidents in the Gulf of Guinea than off the Somali coast. The area of operations was widened on 15 July, when in the latest raid pirates seized a Turkish tanker off the coast of Gabon.
The Gulf of Guinea is vast, nearly equal to the Gulf of Mexico, and the shipping lifeline for a dozen nations, ranging from tiny São Tomé and Príncipé to the continent's most populous, Nigeria, and geographically second largest, the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the primary access route to and from major oil-producing countries Angola and Nigeria, it is critical to international shipping, and its already dense tanker traffic will only increase due to recent discoveries of offshore oil in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Liberia.
The U.S. first grasped the strategic value of the Gulf of Guinea in the early 2000s, when, as part of a new African oil policy, the Bush administration boosted naval forces there to protect the investment of its oil companies. As piracy began to rise, Washington and its international partners launched maritime security cooperation programs that provide ships and equipment to African navies.
Today, American, British and French navies also occasionally patrol, and this summer the African regional countries are launching a new initiative to cope with the growing threat. The heads of the Gulf of Guinea states resolved in June to take collective action. The leaders agreed on a code of conduct for sharing information and committed to build a maritime regional security center in Cameroon. A special conference in Nigeria last month carried this forward, and more regional meetings are planned.
This is all to the good but insufficient. The approach depends heavily on navies, but warships cannot provide the full answer. Giving African countries naval assistance and deploying international naval operations can help to contain the problem but not solve it. The navy-heavy strategy has been partly responsible for improvements off Somalia, but the Gulf of Guinea has a different political and operational context.
Somali pirates hijack ships for ransom, mostly on the high seas; Gulf of Guinea pirates focus on stealing cargoes and siphoning fuel, mostly in territorial waters, close to shore, meaning less reaction time for naval vessels, especially from third countries. Also, the rise of Somali piracy is mainly the consequence of state collapse. A main driver of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, however, is the regional oil black market.
The strategy applied in the Gulf of Guinea should be regionally owned, but if it is to be successful, it should not be narrowly focused on military solutions. The U.S., with its strong stake in trouble-free oil transport, should move quickly to support the African initiative, while encouraging its shift to a more comprehensive, multilateral approach.
In developing this new strategy, the U.S. can work with its allies already active in the Gulf of Guinea, in particular France, which has elaborated its own broad cooperation approach to strengthen capacity of all agencies (military and civilian) involved in maritime governance.
Gulf of Guinea piracy is above all an organized crime problem. Ships will never be safe until authorities strengthen police capacity to investigate and prosecute criminal networks, as well as enforce a zero tolerance policy for corruption in security services. The Niger delta is the pirate gangs' center, so the U.S. should make this policing approach a core of its security cooperation with Nigeria.
There will be no overnight transformation. The piracy has deep roots in the Gulf states' weak governance as well as limited law enforcement capacity. The regional oil black market is itself a product of structural problems within West African states. Poverty, socio-political tensions and conflicts between communities for control over resources all contribute to regional vulnerability.
Unless Washington presses for improvement of oil sector governance and development in the coastal states at the same time as it focuses resources on regional safety and security, however, piracy and other organised crime will continue to plague the Gulf of Guinea, raise energy prices in the U.S. and other markets and lead to further destabilization in an already fragile part of the world. (748 words)
Mark Schneider is Senior Vice President and Thierry Vircoulon the Central Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group. Read more in the ICG's report, "The Gulf of Guinea: The New Danger Zone".