Gulf of Guinea Piracy: Challenges and Constraints

7 MINS READMar 9, 2012 | 17:34 GMT
Nigerian security forces inspect a barge seized from oil thieves in Nigeria's Rivers state

The Gulf of Guinea off the western coast of Africa is a ripe environment for piracy. Ships that travel through the area are laden with oil and other valuable cargo, the region's maritime security capabilities are weak and lack coordination, and pirates benefit from robust organized criminal groups and rampant on-shore corruption. As a result, the number of reported attacks in the gulf has grown in recent years. But Gulf of Guinea piracy is distinct from piracy around the Horn of Africa in several ways, hindering the ability of pirates to hold ships for ransom and limiting the risk they pose to international shipping.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is thriving. Until a decade ago, the problem was virtually unknown — or at least unreported. But pirate activity hit a four-year high in 2011 with 64 reported attacks, primarily in Nigerian and Beninese territorial waters, according to the International Maritime Organization. Issues such as corruption, connections to organized crime, and the limited maritime security capabilities of gulf countries likely mean that low- to mid-level piracy in the gulf will continue, especially considering the expected doubling of the region's oil output over the next decade and the increase in shipping traffic that will come with it.

Yet piracy in the Gulf of Guinea does not pose nearly the same threat to international shipping channels as piracy around the Horn of Africa. Indeed, West African pirates have not had much success holding hijacked ships for ransom. Instead, due to multiple factors, piracy in the gulf will remain relatively limited in scope compared to other regions and it is unlikely to have a larger impact on international shipping.

Tactics and Trends

Pirate attacks have been reported in territorial waters of countries spanning the length of the Gulf of Guinea's coastline, from Guinea to the Republic of the Congo. Assaults usually occur within 110 nautical miles of the coast, including several within five nautical miles. Attacks have even occurred within various ports along the coast, such as Port Harcourt, Nigeria; Point Noire, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Attacks are generally conducted by two types of groups: low-level criminals who target ships anchored in port or near the coast, and more organized criminal groups equipped to launch a much wider range of assaults, including sophisticated long-range attacks. In the close-range raids, attackers generally arrive on canoes or small boats and use weaponry such as long knives and assault rifles to plunder ship stores, the crew's personal belongings and communication equipment.

The more sophisticated, better-equipped criminal groups can launch attacks much farther away from shore. These pirates — often backed by transnational criminal groups or corrupt port officials — focus more on "lightening" the ships of more lucrative cargo, such as fuel that can be resold on the black market, or on kidnapping crewmembers to be sold into human smuggling markets. Such groups include Nigerian cartels from ports in Lagos and Cotonou, which can provide ships to which pirates can offload and store stolen fuel and other cargo. Nigeria's Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militant group operates primarily in the Niger Delta region, but it offered to negotiate the release of three crewmembers kidnapped by pirates from a ship Feb. 28. MEND later retracted the offer, but it indicated some type of relationship between the militant group and regional pirates.

The short-term nature of Gulf of Guinea attacks makes piracy in the region unusually violent, with stabbings and beatings more common in the gulf than off the Horn of Africa. Seeking multimillion-dollar ransoms, Somali pirates generally will keep a ship's crew safe for negotiating leverage. Crew safety is far less important in the quick robberies of personal property and ship cargo common in the Gulf of Guinea. Still, Gulf of Guinea pirates have only killed one person so far in 2012.

Deterrence Challenges

Countries lining the Gulf of Guinea have limited maritime security capabilities and lack the infrastructure to sustain lengthy, coordinated maritime operations. In addition, the region does not benefit from an institutionalized international naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea similar to the U.N. counterpiracy mandate against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Lack of coordination between regional countries has allowed criminal groups to simply transfer operational focus from one country to another when pressured. For example, Nigeria has traditionally been the focus of most Gulf of Guinea pirate attacks. In 2011, however, Nigerian forces began interdicting piracy operations, leading to a reduction from 42 attacks in 2007 to just 10 in 2011. In response, criminal organizations began attacking vessels off the coast of Benin instead. After experiencing no reported attacks in 2010, Benin saw 19 attacks in 2011. The two countries launched Operation Prosperity — a six-month joint anti-piracy mission — but Nigeria had to provide 95 percent of its funding, limiting the operation's sustainability. 

Furthermore, a common deterrence strategy for ships off the Horn of Africa is for the crew to sequester themselves in a safe room and simply wait out an attack. While this "citadel tactic" can boost crew safety during a robbery-style assault, it does not deter the theft of ship cargo or discourage the type of attacks common to the Gulf of Guinea.

Countermeasures and Criminal Constraints

Following an appeal for help from Beninese President Thomas Boni Yayi in mid-2011, the United Nations encouraged the region to craft a unified anti-piracy strategy and a regional maritime security structure, into which ideas, training and international support could flow. In testimony before the U.N. Security Council, a Gulf of Guinea Commission representative said the region also must clarify piracy laws and expand judicial oversight in order to make criminal prosecution more effective.

Previously, gulf coast countries had launched loosely coordinated regional counterpiracy efforts. In addition to the joint Nigerian-Benin patrols, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has been conducting joint patrols in the Gulf of Guinea with Cameroon, Sao Tome and Principe, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The ECCAS divided its maritime area up into three zones, each supervised by a multinational coordination center. The ECCAS is also bolstered by a joint maritime force arrangement. However, the United Nations recommended an even larger maritime security structure encompassing not just the Central African gulf countries but also the West African countries as well into a larger institution. 

According to the Economic Community of West African States, oil production is expected to double in the next 10 years, from 4 million barrels per day to 8 million. This could lead to an increase of international anti-piracy assistance. Already, the United States has also provided limited support: In February 2011, the USS Robert Bradley (FFG49) spent two weeks assisting anti-piracy efforts in Togo, Benin and Ghana. In November 2011, the U.S. Navy organized training exercises in Togo to improve the Togolese navy's maritime capabilities. The United States also provided Benin with two Defender-class patrol boats to assist in maritime operations. These assistance efforts are part of the U.S. Navy's Africa Partnership Station, which was formed in 2007 to help train African maritime security forces.

Differences From Somali Piracy

Despite limited naval capabilities, West African countries still operate as sovereign nations and have some — even if minor — organizational capability and law enforcement presence. By contrast, Somalia lacks such national authority, which creates land-based havens for pirates. In the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, Somali pirates will often park a hijacked vessel just offshore from a haven, allowing them to ferry supplies and support needed to hold a ship for ransoms for months at a time. Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea do not have the same sort of land-based havens as seen in Somalia, making them more vulnerable to security crackdowns on land, where police forces have more control. 

The Gulf of Guinea is also not as integral to international shipping channels as the waters off the Horn of Africa. All ships transiting the Suez Canal between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean must pass through the Gulf of Aden. By comparison, ships only pass through the Gulf of Guinea while doing business specifically in West Africa.

While regional conditions make the Gulf of Guinea a target-rich environment for criminals, piracy in the gulf will not pose the same threat of long-term, ransom-motivated hijackings as around the Horn of Africa. And relatively low traffic in the gulf will further limit the pirates' potential impact on international shipping.

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