When it comes to discussing the concept of maritime security, the concept can be discussed in a variety of contexts. Broadly defined, maritime security concerns the protection of states’ land and maritime territories, and is affected by a broad range of illegal activities, including arms, drugs, and human trafficking, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and pollution at sea. But, such acts only tends to get media coverage when pirates are involved.

African maritime security is particularly severely affected by maritime piracy and armed robbery at sea. Maritime piracy is not a new phenomenon; it has existed for as long as people and commodities have traversed the oceans. Under article 101 of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, piracy is defined as:

“Any acts of violence, detention, or depredation committed on the high seas by the crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft against another ship, aircraft, persons, or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state for private ends.”

Two maritime regions are chiefly troubled by maritime piracy: the Gulf of Aden to the East of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea to the West. The most common form of modern-day piracy and armed robbery at sea in both Gulfs is the hijacking of ships, with a focus on kidnapping and ransom payments. Aside from national and regional effects, maritime piracy and armed robbery at sea are considered a threat to the global economy.

From an economic point of view, maritime piracy is a threat for regional and global economy, as Africa’s key maritime routes (Sea Lanes of Communications) are affected adversely. Over 90% of Africa’s imports and exports are moved by sea. While it is difficult to quantify the exact cost of piracy on the two Gulfs, the costs incurred are nevertheless significant.

Therefore, in order to protect the territorial waters, primary trade routes, and exclusive economic zones, and ensure sustainable exploration of marine resources, significant law enforcement capacities, information sharing tools, and working maritime governance structures are required. Subsequently, national states, regional actors, and international communities are dedicated to fighting maritime piracy in Africa. Various regional cooperation structures, such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC), the African Union’s Lomé Charter, and the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, are functioning as the basic structure for anti-piracy efforts on the continent.

Modern day maritime piracy primarily affects three regions of the world: Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Whereas attacks on vessels were relatively uncommon in Latin America and Caribbean just few years ago, Southeast Asia had already seen a decade of violent attacks in 1990s. However, the number of pirate attacks is falling steadily in Southeast Asia.

From 2013 onwards, there has also been a significant drop in international piracy due to the falloff in Somali-related attacks on Africa’s east coast. This is in large measures, a result of a successful multi-national effort to patrol these waters. Concerted actions by regional and international naval forces have reduced the problem of piracy in Gulf of Aden.

From 2013 onwards, there has also been a significant drop in international piracy due to the falloff in Somali-related attacks on Africa’s east coast. This is in large measures, a result of a successful multi-national effort to patrol these waters. Concerted actions by regional and international naval forces have reduced the problem of piracy in Gulf of Aden.

Piracy in Somali waters has declined dramatically

But in stark contrast, maritime piracy in West Africa is on the rise again and is slowly becoming the world’s new piracy hotspot. In 2015, 54 incidents took place, 95 in 2016, 97 in 2017, and a worrying 112 in 2018.

This trend of piracy-related attacks in West African waters have continued even in the first quarter of 2019, especially in the Gulf of Guinea where political and economic instability is increasingly encouraging criminal groups to conduct violent attacks at sea. But what makes the waters of the Gulf of Guinea vulnerable to piracy?

Stretching from Senegal to Angola, the Gulf of Guinea covers over 6,000 kilometers of coastline and comprises of 20 coastal states, islands, and landlocked states. This sea basin is of geo-political and geo-economic importance for the transport of goods to and from central and southern Africa. Additionally, it is a chokepoint for African energy trade, with intensive oil extraction in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

Most attacks in Western Africa take place in Nigeria’s Niger Delta Region, although there have been reported attacks in Benin, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Togo, and Sierra Leone among others.

Gulf of Guinea

The Niger Delta has been at the epicenter of West African maritime crimes due to several factors. Quite paradoxically, the discovery of large amounts of offshore hydrocarbons has generated poverty rather than wealth. It has exacerbated social tensions and increased environmental pollution.

Only the central government, oil companies, and local elites have benefitted from oil production. Those excluded from the benefits have turned to organised crime in the form of ‘petro piracy.’ This form of piracy is aimed at stealing crude-oil from tankers and pipelines so as to process the gains in illegally set up refineries.

Driving factors behind piracy in the region

In Nigeria in particular, weak law enforcement capacity, corruptible officials, and a largely unregulated oil market makes it easy for criminal organisations to move stolen and refined products back onto legitimate markets. Corruption and fraud are rampant in Nigerian oil sector and the lines between legal and illegal supplies can sometimes be blurry.

A number of militant organisations operate in the region such as the Niger Delta Avengers, Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate, Bakassi Strike Force, and Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) have been responsible for kidnap-for-ransom operations in Nigeria.

Most of the kidnapping incidents usually occur within 12 to 50 nautical miles from land. Their reasoning for committing these acts of violence and theft is to seek economic justice, as the region despite being one of the richest in Africa, remains predominantly underdeveloped and polluted.

Attacks are carried out against all types of vessels. Crews have been taken hostage and kidnapped from fishing and refrigerated cargo vessels as well as product tankers

Along with corruption, unemployment is also driving privacy in the Gulf of Guinea, and the Niger Delta in particular. Most often, ships are hijacked for amassing monetary gains. Due to lack of jobs, when people see there is nothing on the ground for them to benefit from, they go to any length and use any means to disturb the economic activities that bring money into the nation.

Also, certain vessel characteristics such as speed and low freeboard make certain vessels more attractive to the pirate gangs, but all commercial vessels that can be boarded while navigating the waters remain at the risk of getting attacked. Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea are carried out against all types of vessels. Crews have been taken hostage and kidnapped from fishing and refrigerated cargo vessels as well as product tankers.

Nigeria’s geography also makes for easy flight as pirates conceal boats and stolen commodities in the thousands of inlets, rivers, and mangroves that comprise Nigeria’s coast. In addition to these factors, under-reporting of piracy attacks in the region also remains a major issue. Therefore, shipping containers and vessels are urged to report all incidents. Proper incident-reporting is necessary as it helps to assess the actual levels of piracy, and increase cooperation among the respective navies, patrol ships, and international organisations operating in the region.

Efforts to counter piracy

Piracy and armed attacks are not new ventures in West Africa. Even though several legal instruments and institutional infrastructure like Yaoundé Code of Conduct, Gulf of Guinea Commission, etc. are in place to combat the menace of piracy, trends of last year and in the first quarter of 2019 are alarming.

Two of Africa’s top crude oil exporters, Nigeria and Angola respectively, lie in the region. But with growing export volumes out of the region destined for Europe and China among other states, piracy will continue to grow as a critical issue for regional governments and international energy organisations. Also, unlike the waters off Horn of Africa in the east, powerful international navies are not patrolling the Gulf of Guinea. While states in the Gulf of Guinea have their own national navies, they are generally weak.

Therefore, a few steps need to be taken to counter piracy.

Firstly, affected states need to share information on what’s happening on their coastlines and their neighbours.

Secondly, states that face maritime and piracy challenges must look to develop strong legislation to prosecute criminals.

Thirdly, joint training activities are required so that countries can develop procedures and improve their inter-operability.

Lastly, states should also set aside enough money or funds to build local capacity.

Both maritime security and governance development are hampered by capacity issues. Therefore, it is imperative for African states to work towards bridging the disjuncture between political will and readiness on one hand, and operational capability on the other.

Piracy is back to infest West African waters, but what’s driving it? Abhishek Mishra, the Observer Research Foundation