Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Rise of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea has become the world’s latest hotspot for piracy attacks. Just a few years ago the most dangerous waters in the world were off the coast of Somalia, but now the waters off the coast of Nigeria have become more dangerous. According to the International Maritime Bureau (2014), the Gulf of Guinea registers at least one attack every week, accounting for 19% of (reported) attacks worldwide. Analysts believe that number of attacks is much higher as some targets are regional smugglers, who, for obvious reasons, do not report attacks. Click on the map to view live piracy attacks in the region:

According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy group, the total economic cost of West African Piracy in 2013 was in excess of a half billion US dollars, and it also involved the kidnap of 73 seafarers for ransom (Ocean Beyond Piracy Organization 2014:54). Over the last few years, Gulf of Guinea piracy has escalated to become a regional problem: recent incidents have stretched all the way from Côte d’Ivoire to Angola. However, most experts contend that the root of the problem resides within Nigeria.

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The strategic importance of West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea —the stretch of coastline from Liberia to Gabon that encompasses the coastline of 9 countries—is high. Twenty percent of the United States’ oil imports, and 12% of Europe’s oil comes from the region. Indeed, 70% of Africa’s oil is derived from the Gulf of Guinea and recent discoveries indicate that the value will rise. As the primary access route to and from major oil producers such as Nigeria and Angola, it is a vital for international shipping. In and around Lagos (Nigeria), dense tanker traffic swarms the coast.

The nature of piracy is quite different in West Africa compared to East Africa, and it is unrelated. Most significantly, attacks off West Africa occur in both territorial waters (those extending 12 nautical miles (nm) (22.2 kms) from the coast) and international waters (those waters beyond the 12 nm territorial zone). Only local forces can legally provide armed security within territorial waters, and thus attacks are defined as “armed robbery at sea”. The majority of incidents in 2013 occurred within territorial waters, therefore these incidents fall within a specific country’s jurisdiction and protection. Dealing with them is the responsibility of littoral states, not foreign navies whereas in the case of the “failed state” of Somalia, United Nations’ resolutions authorized use of force on land as well as in the country’s waters.

A second different dimension is that the West African region has distinct sea traffic patterns. The Gulf of Guinea contains numerous ports actively involved in both international and regional maritime trade so that vessels not only transit through the region, but also enter ports to load and unload cargo. Thus, to date West Africa pirates have targeted vessels close to the port or anchorage areas. In contrast, Somali pirates tend to prey on ships transiting through the region. As a consequence, the opportunity for vessels to increase speed so as to avoid attacks, highly effective in curbing East African piracy, is not available to more stationary vessels.

Third, the nature of attacks is very different. Oil theft (also other cargoes and sometimes ship theft) is the modus operandi of West African pirate syndicates. Around the Horn of Africa, seizing ships and crews for ransom as well as venturing deeper into the ocean is more typical. Although kidnap for ransom occurs off the coast of Nigeria, seafarers from OECD countries remain the prime targets (for insurance pay outs). Gulf of Guinea oil theft is complicated and it entails sophisticated coordination. Syndicate gangs appear to have solid intelligence and extensive networks; their recruitment of personnel to operate equipment is noteworthy. Typically once the vessel is taken over, the crew is forced to navigate to a new location where the cargo is siphoned to another vessel or to a storage facility on land. According to the Joint War Committee, comprising underwriting representatives from Lloyd’s of London, US$2-6 million worth of oil is pilfered per pirate attack in the Gulf of Guinea. Stolen refined oil is channeled onto the black market.

Fourth, the human costs of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are immense. The level and rate of violence in West African attacks is high and so is the potential for longer-term physical and mental harm. The focus on cargo theft means that there is less financial incentive to keep seafarers safe (versus those who procure kidnapping for ransom). Piracy has devastated the local fishing industry. According to the Nigerian Trawler Association, 100,000 jobs have been lost in recent years (Nigeria now imports 80% of its fish) (Listen To the BBC’s 2014 podcast Chasing West Africa’s Pirates: Moreover, piracy has become deeply enmeshed with criminal and illegal networks and instability in the Nigerian Delta and other regions.

Fifth, the weak state of Nigeria encourages more sophisticated attacks, and it also provides the markets and communications and transport infrastructure necessary for operations where ships and cargoes can be sold for profit. On balance, weak states may turn out to be more problematic for international security than failed states such as Somalia. The combination of Boko Haram in the North and pirates in South are proving to be a lethal combination that is undermining the international reputation of Nigeria and in affecting the lives of ordinary Nigerians.