The release of three Russian seamen, captured off the coast of Cameron on August 15, has returned international attention to the piracy-plagued region off Africa’s west coast.
– The Gulf of Guinea is leading the world in incidents of maritime piracy and armed robbery, according to International Maritime Bureau statistics
– Piracy and related incidents frequent throughout the region, but they most commonly occur in Nigerian waters
– Legislative frameworks and international efforts will not be able to eradicate maritime crime until on-shore contributing factors are addressed
Figures provided by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) indicate that the Gulf of Guinea is the most dangerous maritime region in the world. In 2018, the gulf accounted for 40% of all piracy and maritime armed robbery — 130 of the 141 hostages held and 78 of the 83 seafarers kidnapped throughout the world’s oceans were taken in its waters. A spate of kidnappings between October and December — forty-one, more than half of the annual total — was recorded in Nigeria. The six recorded hijackings of crude oil vessels in 2018 — eclipsing the two reported cases in the two years prior — has raised concerns of a return to petro-piracy.
THE PRICE OF PIRACY
The Gulf of Guinea is a large swathe of ocean extending from Senegal to Angola, encompassing a coastline of approximately 6000km and fifteen countries with diverse cultures and legal structures. Historically, the gulf has struggled with maritime crime and piracy. In particular, petro-piracy plagued the region throughout 2011–2013. Following the fall of oil prices in 2015, pirates adjusted their tactics from stealing crude oil to kidnapping crews for ransom. Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea kidnapped 193 people in 2018. Nevertheless, the hijacking and siphoning of approximately 2000 metric tons from a tanker in Benin in 2018, with five subsequent oil tanker attacks that year, seems to indicate a resurrection of the practice.
Piracy and armed robbery is a lucrative business: maritime insecurity in the region cost $818.1 million in 2017, up from $793 million the year prior, according to the One Earth Future Foundation. But given the habitual underreporting of piracy, accurate statistics regarding the cost of piracy can be hard to establish.
Across the region, socioeconomic factors, including unemployment, poverty, weak law enforcement, and corruption, are critical contributors to maritime crime. More specifically, less than a quarter of African coastal countries possess more than ten operational “platforms” — i.e. boats, ships, aircraft, and drones — that can be used to enforce maritime security. This lack of law enforcement capacity often translates to a higher risk of piracy or related crimes. Inadequate Marine Domain Awareness (the ability to monitor territorial waters) compounds these stresses, meaning that some countries — in particular, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia — are unable to monitor, and by extension prevent, criminality in their respective territorial waters.
In terms of demography, although pirates afflict the region, they are foremost a Nigerian problem. Criminal networks have found haven in the Niger Delta, where they are able to evade capture and remain in close proximity to the open ocean. Piracy in Nigeria presents a lucrative opportunity in a country where unemployment sits around 23% and banditry and oil theft are commonplace. Corruptible officials, weak law enforcement capacity, and a largely unregulated oil market make it easy for pirates or criminal organisations to move illicitly obtained goods into legitimate markets.
Conflating and comparing West African pirates with their eastern and Somali counterparts is a common, but mistaken, practice. Unlike the high-profile seizure of vessels in the Gulf of Aden, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea do not keep vessels, as they have nowhere to hide them. Instead, they opt to kidnap crew members and return their hostages to land for concealment. Moreover, where Somali pirates would demand millions for hostages, those in the Gulf of Guinea will typically ask for a few thousand. Financially, this has proven successful, as many companies simply pay and write off the sum as operational costs.
Countries on Africa’s western coast are genuinely eager to combat piracy but a chronic lack of resources is an enduring problem. For example, Nigeria’s navy has been commended for its admirable efforts in combating maritime crime, but is ill-equipped to make a serious impact. Similarly, Sao Tome and Principe, the small and impoverished island nation, has expressed its desire to combat piracy, but it lacks vessels, soldiers, and gasoline.
In terms of legislation, the African Charter on Maritime Security, Safety, and Development in Africa, often called the Lomé Charter, stands out as the strongest multilateral agreement intended to eliminate piracy thus far. The charter maintains the status of an international treaty and obligates signatories to maintain national contributions regarding equipment, logistics, technology, training, and doctrine. The EU has pledged over $60 million for maritime security capacity building programs throughout the gulf since 2016 and the US has launched several multi-lateral assistance programs to the region through the International Military Education and Training program. Joint navy exercises are another pillar of anti-piracy training: Obangame Express is the biggest of these joint naval exercises, hosted this year by US Naval Forces Africa and the Nigerian navy with 33 nations, 2500 personnel, 95 ships, and 12 aircraft participating.
THE CURSE OF GEOGRAPHY
Piracy and maritime crime are unlikely to abate in the Gulf of Guinea anytime soon. The difficulty and complexity of combating such criminal enterprises are reflected in the differences of opinions as to how to tackle piracy. A Gulf of Aden-style approach, which emphasises the importance of international patrols and shipowners’ right to hire private security vessels, has been proposed. However, analysts have suggested that this method is unlikely to enjoy success, given the likelihood that the Nigerian government will come to resent foreign navy boats patrolling off its shore. Additionally, unlike the Strait of Malacca or the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Guinea is not an important bottleneck for international trade and, as such, foreign governments would be unenthusiastic to sustain hefty security bills.
Complicating the matter further, regional cooperation might not be as significant as some suggest. Although greater multi-lateral coordination would undoubtedly be positive, most attacks originate from Nigeria. Unfortunately, despite the desire for crime-free waters, the Nigerian government is inundated with issues, including a militant insurgency in the northeast, farmer–herder clashes in the Middle Belt region, and gangs operating in the Niger Delta, which simply assume higher priority in Abuja.
The shrewd negotiation tactics of West African pirates have set their enterprises up for ongoing success. By only asking for thousands of dollars per hostage, shipping companies are prompted to pay and recover victims quickly, rather than undertake extensive negotiation processes. The low costs lead some companies to not bother with armed security and choose to pay a low insurance premium to insure the ship, cargo, and crew for kidnapping instead. In so doing, the potential cost of kidnapping is settled as a business expense.
The lack of prosecution for piracy or piracy-related crimes is symptomatic of the legal quagmire that affected countries find themselves in. The lack of strong legislation to incarcerate those found guilty of maritime crime — as courts in Kenya and the Seychelles enacted for Somali pirates — means the gulf is missing a strong deterrent that will only prolong security concerns in the region.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea seems set to continue. With nine of the gulf’s countries ranking amongst the poorest thirty in the world, piracy and robber will remain issues in the Gulf of Guinea until its respective governments address the casual effects.