Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea appears to be worse than ever, judging by recent headlines. But these accounts and the data they rely on must be approached with caution. Figures on piracy and armed robbery at sea are susceptible to under-reporting and problems of definition. Over-hasty responses could lead to narrow solutions that fail to solve the underlying causes of maritime insecurity.
A snapshot of piracy in the region shows a relatively consistent number of reported incidents. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), attacks were documented in 15 Gulf of Guinea littoral states over the past three years.
The IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre recorded 84 attempted and successful attacks in 2020, up from the 64 in 2019, but almost the same as 2018, at 82 incidents. Most assaults targeted the crew to kidnap them for ransom. The region is now the site of over 90% of the world's reported kidnappings at sea.
Piracy data is often used as an indicator of general maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea, but unless its carefully interpreted, using it could lead to poor responses. Changing piracy trends could be the result of different levels of maritime awareness and capability among countries, which in turn affects the reporting of incidents.
Reports from the IMB, as well as other sources such as the Interregional Coordination Centre in Yaoundé, greatly influence public and policy discourse on the state of maritime security in West and Central Africa. Yet the extent of the threat is disputed and the numbers need to be carefully examined to avoid gaps and pitfalls.
For instance, the Nigerian Navy reports 339 incidents of piracy in 2020. But according to the definition of the crime under international law, 214 out of these would not be considered 'piracy' but acts of armed robbery, as they took place in Nigerian territorial waters and not on the High Seas.
Incidents of armed robberies at sea are the responsibility of the coastal state if they occur fewer than 12 nautical miles from the coast. The location of attacks is therefore significant, both to interpreting the data and crafting responses.
Effective law enforcement far out at sea is beyond the capacity of most regional states. This means that any solution to the problem of piracy is a collective one requiring multinational support as envisioned in the Yaoundé Agreement of 2013.
While the numbers may vary, there is a trend of more sophisticated and violent attacks occurring on the High Seas. On 30 January the MV Rowayton Eagle was struck 200 nm from shore - and similar incidents further out to sea are not uncommon. It's possible that ships on the High Seas are being targeted because coastal law enforcement by Gulf of Guinea states is becoming more effective.
Nevertheless, increased reports of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea have triggered comparisons with piracy off the coast of Somalia, and prompted a global debate on solutions. Shipping companies operating in the Gulf of Guinea are worried as no one seems able to provide them with security. The loudest voices are calling for a greater international naval presence or coalition, and advocating for more armed private security personnel.
While both areas have suffered from piracy, they are very distinct, and policy responses should be too. A key difference in the Gulf of Guinea is that any international force would need approval from each of the many countries in the region. The concave shape of the Gulf of Guinea littoral and the clustering of countries with relatively short coastlines means their maritime areas of interest converge. This increases the number of stakeholders whose consensus is required.
The Horn of Africa, by contrast, is an enormous peninsula jutting into the Indian Ocean. Somalia has one of Africa's longest coastlines, and the maritime area over which it has responsibility has few neighbours and is surrounded by the High Seas.
The United Nations Security Council has adopted anti-piracy resolutions for both the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea since 2008. The measures permitted in the former had the consent of Somalia's recognised government and started largely from scratch. The latter prioritised capacity building for emerging regional institutions, such as those established by the Economic Community of West African States and Economic Community of Central African States under the auspices of the Yaoundé Agreement.
It's unlikely that the 'Somalian scenario' would be endorsed in the Gulf of Guinea. These states would prefer to be supported so they can provide maritime security, rather than abrogate this responsibility to external parties.
A challenge similar in both the Horn and Gulf of Guinea is that a crackdown on piracy can mean offenders switch to other illicit activities to continue their criminal enterprises, or commit piracy in other parts of the region. There's also the danger that a narrow focus on piracy means policymakers neglect other maritime and security problems that affect livelihoods and the ecological conservation of coastal areas.
Policy and strategy must provide safety to seafarers' in- and offshore, and deal with threats to the natural environment and livelihoods of littoral communities, such as fisheries crime and marine pollution. Sustainable security solutions in the Gulf of Guinea should aim to improve the socio-economic well-being of coastal communities so that they are less vulnerable to organised criminal networks.
Piracy cannot be tackled by any government operating alone. States and organisations operating in the region must continue working together to agree on an approach that suits all their maritime security interests.
A rushed response in reaction to sensational reports of attacks at sea may well benefit shipping companies. But in the long run, it could exacerbate the situation by focusing on symptoms at the expense of root causes. Grievances among marginalised coastal communities must be addressed so they can pursue sustainable livelihoods and escape the cycle of deprivation that exposes them to crime.
Dr Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, Lecturer, University of St Andrews, Timothy Walker, Maritime Project Leader and Senior Researcher and Denys Reva, Research Officer, ISS Pretoria