The Gulf of Guinea, which stretches over 5,500 kilometers of coastline across several countries, has a complex geographic environment that always posed a security challenge. It includes about six islands in its perimeter and has multiple rivers pouring into its waters, including the Volta and the Niger River connected to the Niger Delta.
Most of the countries overlooking it are vulnerable states that have faced difficulty in exercising control over their territorial waters, even within their ports. This has created a vast area of lawless waters where maritime attacks range from low level robberies and armed robbery to kidnappings for ransom and the hijacking of entire tankers.
Globally, the number of piracy incidents has fallen in recent years, mainly due to the decrease in the number of attacks by Somali pirates following an international naval campaign against them. In 2012 the International Maritime Bureau reported that piracy incidents had dropped from 266 to 177 during the first half of the year as attacks by Somali pirates fell from 163 in the first six months of 2011 to 69 in 2012.
Increasing piracy in West Africa
However, the decrease in attacks by Somali pirates seems to have been accompanied by an increase of attacks by Nigerian pirates marking a shift of the continent’s maritime hot spots.
In the first half of 2013, eight piracy incidents occurred off Somalia’s coasts whereas 31 piracy incidents were recorded off the West African coast. In the same year, Nigerian piracy attacks reached their highest level since 2008 accounting for 31 of the 51 attacks reported in the region during that year, whereas attacks on ships in West Africa accounted for 19% of attacks worldwide.
Between January 2012 and mid-2013, at least 50 vessels had been boarded off West Africa’s coasts and nine vessels were hijacked. Five crew members were killed and 44 crew members were abducted, during 11 attacks, and an unknown number of crew members were injured.
Multiple factors distinguish the West African pirates from their counterparts operating off the Somali coasts. The use of excessive of violence has gained the West African pirates the attention of specialists and international organizations. In April 2014, pirates attacked the vessel SP Brussels about 35 nautical miles off the coast of Nigeria. The pirates, who boarded the ship but failed to reach the ship’s citadel, killed the ship’s chief engineer and injured another crew member.
A UN report about maritime piracy between 1995 and 2013 reveals that the attacks by Nigerian pirates have grown more violent particularly from 2011 onwards. According to the data accumulated by the International Maritime Bureau, from 2012 to the first quarter of 2014, more crew members were injured and killed off Nigeria than any other country.
Novel and sophisticated tactics
A possible explanation is the fact that the Nigerian pirates target stealing the cargo rather than kidnapping the crew, unlike the Somali pirates whose main profit is based on ransom and who therefore tend to keep their hostages unhurt. Studies show that, on average, Nigerian pirates hold hostages for a few days whereas Somali pirates hold them for several months.
Another factor is the extended geographical outreach of the operations of West African pirates and their relatively sophisticated tactics. The Gulf of Guinea has become a base from which they launch attacks in the distant regional waters of other countries.
In January 2014, the product tanker MT Kerala was hijacked by Nigerian pirates hundreds of kilometers to the south of the Gulf of Guinea, precisely off the coast of Luanda in Angolan waters. The ship was held for eight days during which the cargo on-board was illegally transferred in a ship-to-ship operation along the West African coast. Not only did this operation show how far the pirates reach, but it also highlighted their increasing efficiency in unloading cargo and shipping it back to the coast.
Targeting the oil industry
Naval transportation is not the only sector hit by piracy in this part of the world. The oil industry has been a main target of maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, where countries produce three million barrels of crude oil every day, of which EU countries buy around 40% and the US buys around 30%.
The operations conducted by West African pirates have largely targeted the oil tankers, which they drain of oil in what is known as “oil bunkering.” The oil producer Shell Nigeria was reported to have lost whole cargoes of crude oil to pirates. Attacks are also launched on fragile offshore oil platform installations.
Intelligence reports and analyses suggest that many of the attackers are linked to the thriving and well-established oil black market in West Africa in general and Nigeria in particular. In early 2014, a Nigerian navy official evaluated the country’s loss, caused by piracy and smuggling, at $1.5 billion.
More difficult to counter than in Somalia
Combating piracy in West Africa seems to be a more challenging task than combating it in the eastern part of the continent, not only logistically, but also for legal reasons.
Most of the international conventions and agreements define piracy as attacks happening outside the jurisdiction of states’ territorial waters (i.e., more than 12 nautical miles (nm) off its coast). But the fact is that out of the incidents that happened during the past 10 years in the Gulf of Guinea, only 108 have happened in international waters, whereas 170 were within territorial waters and 270 took place in port.
The states overlooking the Gulf of Guinea might be vulnerable, but they are not failed states like Somalia. Local concern over these countries’ sovereignty is one of the main reasons the international community is avoiding a direct intervention and instead referring the piracy problem to the local authorities.
Furthermore, national laws of these countries prohibit private maritime security companies’ foreign guards from carrying weapons within the 12 nm limit of territorial waters. Hence, vessel owners rely on armed guards contracted from littoral states. Unfortunately, local forces have not proven very effective in combating the attacks on ships due to the lack of equipment and proper training.