Current counter-piracy initiatives in the Gulf of Guinea, and recommended counter-solutions

Tom Roberts, Senior Analyst at Drum Cussac, takes a look at the risks surrounding the Gulf of Guinea and the lengths that traders have to go to in order to avoid piracy

The Gulf of Guinea, encompassing the littoral states between Cote d’Ivoire and Angola, is a geo-strategically important region. Global shipping routes flow into the region, and it is rich in fish, timber and mineral resources. Perhaps most significantly, Nigeria is a major supplier of crude oil and Liquefied Natural Gas to the EU and is the third largest supplier of crude oil to the UK. Some accounts suggest that by 2050 the states in the Gulf of Guinea could account for 25% of the world’s oil output. However, the threat of regional piracy, in all of its manifestations, poses a significant threat to merchant shipping, commercial operations and trade in the area.

There has long been a threat to commercial shipping operating off Nigeria, which significantly precedes Somali piracy and pervades many of the structures of Nigerian society. However, despite positive developments towards the eradication of piracy off East Africa, there remains a persistent threat to vessels operating in the Gulf of Guinea. Reports from the region indicate that in the last two years Nigerian pirates have increased their operating range and diversified their tactics. Nigerian pirates have hijacked vessels off the anchorages of Angola in the south and Cote d’Ivoire in the west, and have kidnapped crewmembers from vessels off the Niger Delta in increasing numbers.

The various counter-piracy measures in place in the Gulf of Guinea, such as they are, have yet to gain traction. Indeed, many analysts anticipate a spike in pirate activity in the weeks leading up to the Nigerian elections in 2015. This is in direct contrast to the initiatives that are in place to counter Somali pirates, which have been successful in containing the threat.

The initiatives to tackle Somali piracy have been successful because the response from the international community was unparalleled in the maritime domain outside of interstate conflict. The broad objective of the measures off East Africa was to repress pirate activity at sea, while simultaneously targeting pirate groups ashore. The measures targeted three primary components of the Somali pirate business that had made it uniquely successful. The first component reduced the number of natural targets available to pirates. This was achieved by reducing the pool of vulnerable vessels through the adoption of ‘Best Management Practices’ (BMP) and the engagement of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP). The second component limited pirates’ ability to operate in mother ships unhindered hundreds of miles from the coast. This was achieved by establishing reporting bodies to work closely with the shipping community to provide accurate and actionable data on localised areas of high risk. The naval forces also used a wide range of assets more effectively to track and intercept pirate groups whilst they were making the long and arduous journeys. The final component sought to discourage coastal communities from engaging in piracy. This was achieved through long term initiatives which increased the likelihood of piracy trials through regional prosecution centres, and also improved the stability of the coastal communities. The measures have altered the ratio between the potential risks posed to the pirates and the potential rewards gained by piracy, which had traditionally favoured the pirates.

Many of the policies to reduce piracy in the Gulf of Guinea have attempted to mirror those initiatives off East Africa. However, a primary weakness with this approach is that not every measure is applicable, and those measures that are applicable have only been applied in a piecemeal manner. For example, there is a lower adoption rate of self-protection measures on board vessels in the Gulf of Guinea, versus on vessels off East Africa; the employment of PCASP is illegal in territorial waters and a significantly more complex operation in the international waters, which means that they are less common; and even though the regional naval forces are extremely challenged in responding to the piracy threat singlehanded, there are no multinational naval task forces on counter piracy mandates in the area.

A second weakness of merely emulating the initiatives off East Africa is that the measures to combat Somali piracy were successful because they specifically targeted the Somali pirate business model; there is no guarantee that they will be as effective in other theatres. Typically, Somali pirates were opportunists who attacked vulnerable vessels that were transiting vast distances from the coast. However, Nigerian pirates, who cannot be treated as a single homogenous group, have different tactics and generally target specific vessels in aggressive attacks closer to the coast. The application of BMP measures is a good example of the weakness of transposing initiatives from one environment to a different and more diverse environment. The BMP measures are a set of mutually supportive guidelines that were conceived to combat Somali piracy. They are not applicable wholesale to the Gulf of Guinea. Applying only those measures that are applicable in an isolated fashion – while obviously not detrimental – may not have the same effect as applying the measures within a mutually supportive framework and with the backing of international infrastructure. Another good example is the use of armed security detachments, which have been especially effective off East Africa because Somali pirates are opportunists and have generally been reluctant to engage with PCASP. However, Nigerian pirates commit more aggressive attacks, and often their militant background means that they are more likely to engage in a firefight and attempt to overpower armed security detachments, whether they are PCASP or host nation personnel. There have been numerous examples of Nigerian pirates boarding a vessel despite it being protected by armed security, something that has never happened off East Africa.

The weakness of transposing initiatives from one area to another is compounded by the fact that the presence of reporting schemes and the culture of sharing security information are in their infancy in the Gulf of Guinea. The reporting mechanisms that have been established off the Horn of Africa allow vessels to re-route and avoid areas of localised high risk. However, this is not always possible in the Gulf of Guinea when vessels are bound for regional ports, or are supporting offshore oil and gas operations in single locations.

The causes of maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea are multiple and complex. Most of the challenges have their roots in the instability and inequality prevalent in Nigerian society. Thus, transposing those measures from East Africa to the Gulf of Guinea will not provide long term solutions. Instead the approach must be fully integrated, with co-operation amongst regional and international stakeholders. The establishment of a naval force under a counter piracy mandate would be beneficial, but because many of the attacks are focused within 30 nm from the shore, enhanced regional maritime capacity and training initiatives would be more effective. This would allow for improved patrolling, and the possibility of increased joint patrols by the littoral states, which would restrict pirates’ ability to operate at sea with impunity.

The key difference between piracy off East Africa and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is that Nigerian pirates are the merely the maritime manifestation of long established and highly syndicated onshore criminal enterprises. Somali pirates were not as integrated in Somali society. Thus, the ultimate solution rests onshore Nigeria; the corruption that pervades society must be tackled and the inequality throughout Nigeria must be addressed. This requires political will and commitment, allied to co-ordination with West African structures and organisations.