Troubled Waters; the Rising Threat of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Simon Copeland

Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are more prone to violence because of their lack of need for hostages.

Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are more prone to violence because of their lack of need for hostages. Photo Source.

Deep water piracy appears to have found a new home off the coast of Africa. Whilst attacks in the Horn of Africa are decreasing, pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea, which extends on the continent’s west coast from the Ivory Coast down to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have increased the number, range and violence of their raids in the region in recent months. Although instances of piracy have long been recorded in the area, the problem has recently exploded in conjunction with the upturn of traffic tied to expanding oil production and exports. Pirate attacks in 2012 were up 42 percent on the previous year with 51 ships targeted. The goal for these pirates, unlike their counterparts operating off the coast of Somalia, are the lucrative cargo of the thousands of commercial shipping vessels that pass through the region each year (usually oil which can then be sold on the black market) rather than their crews for the purpose of hostage taking. This lack of capital value in crew members may account for the much more violent nature of attacks (deaths have been a frequent feature).

Undue damage is being done to a burgeoning energy production market that is becoming increasingly important globally. The US relies on the region for 15 percent of its oil imports with this dependence set to expand to 25 percent over the next five years. Nigeria’s position as Africa’s largest energy producer is particularly at risk from this growing threat. At the heart of the Gulf of Guinea, the country is now the seventh biggest producer of oil in the world. However oil giants Exxon Mobil and Shell have declared it one of the most expensive oil-producing countries to operate in due largely to security concerns both on land and in its surrounding waters. Similarly Benin, dependent on trade through the port of Cotono for some 80 percent of its government’s budget, has seen the number of ships using the port has fallen by 70 percent since the recent upsurge in attacks due to safety fears and spiralling insurance costs. With confidence in secure access to the gulf’s resources wavering the potential damage is massive, not only for the profits of the oil companies and global oil markets but for the subsequent financial (albeit minimal in comparison, but nonetheless critical) benefits that local economies derive from such industry.

The critical question for the affected states, businesses operating in the region and international community is how then to best combat this threat?

As with Somalia, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is primarily fuelled by poverty, limited employment prospects and opportunist criminal gangs (many of which are equally active on land). Nigeria vividly demonstrates such causes. Despite the state’s huge oil reserves and exports, 90 million of its 151 million citizens continue to live below the poverty line. Wealth is simply not trickling down to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and many are forced to turn to piracy simply to survive. Like Somalia the underlying issues run far too deep to provide any solution to the current pirate threat in the foreseeable future.

Could the application of the model of multinational naval intervention that appears to be succeeding in the Horn of Africa bring about similar results in the waters of West Africa?

The answer for the Gulf of Guinea appears no. The primary hindrance is political. As Pottengal Mukundan, director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau explains; “Somalia is a failed state, where an international presence is necessary. In the Gulf of Guinea all the countries are sovereign states with functioning governments.” A potential solution then may be to aid local governments in raising their own forces capable of taking on the pirates. Both capacity and cooperation of the gulf states will have to be significantly expanded if such resolution is to be successfully met. The US has in particular looked to facilitate such outcome. Its efforts however have been somewhat curtailed by its own concerns of giving any impressions of it staking claim to another regional beachhead. It has therefore limited its military presence to an “African Partnership Station” which it describes as “more of a concept than a platform, and does not include a specific ship, unit, or aircraft.” No physical naval base is therefore maintained on the continent. Whilst this will no doubt improve cooperation it does little to help increase the capacity of the beleaguered military forces of countries like Nigeria tied down with other internal conflicts and problems.

Herein also however lies the key problem that has not affected anti-piracy efforts in East Africa; the necessity for international forces to work with potentially corrupt states. Many security experts believe that a high number of the region’s security officials and politicians are complicit with the practice of piracy. Michael Frodl, head of U.S. consultancy C-Level Maritime Risks, for example recently statedthat “there are many top people in Nigeria involved in commissioning these attacks and sharing the profits.”  The international community, especially the US, in the wake of the difficult experience of supporting a similarly corrupt government and military force may well be unwilling to readily undertake such task again.

With local authorities unable, or worse still unwilling, to effectively police even their own coastlines, and a lack of significant international intervention or coordination, the future security of the waters of the Gulf of Guinea looks increasingly troubled in the face of growing pirate capacity. The economic effects of such turbulence will be most felt by those who may in fact be drawn to piracy themselves. Political action must bring about real change or the region risks deteriorating into a dangerous cycle where piracy will eventually starve those who so depend upon it.

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