Gulf of Guinea/Flickr/Francisco Anzola

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats

Over the past five years, there has been a spike in piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea – a trend that has been accompanied by increased attention from international organisations, regional and foreign navies and countries further afield.

Maritime crime has affected the coastal area stretching from Mauritania to Angola for around 30 years. However, the suppression of piracy in the Gulf of Aden – in the Arabian Sea between Somalia and Yemen – and the approximately 100 attacks per year off the West African coast have made the latter the epicentre of African piracy.

A private workshop held by the IISS in Shanghai on 12 December discussed how piracy in the Gulf of Guinea differs from the Somalian experience, and what can be done to combat it.

The type of attacks recorded off the coast of Nigeria, Benin and Togo – the most-affected countries in the Gulf of Guinea area – have frequently been water raids (which were more common in the past) and inland water assaults on mainly static trading vessels. The risk of violence is high, and the target of the raid is often oil, which is siphoned from the ships.

In the Gulf of Aden, meanwhile, pirates have targeted transiting ships, with crew taken hostage for several months while ransoms were negotiated. Incidents are generally less violent – hostages are more valuable alive – but tend to be better organised.

Differences are found not only in the pirates’ methods. In Gulf of Guinea, there are no failed states, and no country in the region wants to be compared to Somalia or have its sovereignty infringed.

While this can be regarded as positive, it does however also limit the options available to the international community, which was able, due to the scale of the problem, to adopt a forceful approach in the Gulf of Aden. Further, given the number of adjacent costal countries, identifying in which jurisdiction the incidents take place – and therefore which country needs to take action – is challenging. Because incidents are often more accurately described as maritime robbery rather than piracy and take place close to shore, law enforcement, rather than navies, should address the problem.  

The issue is further complicated by the presence of a number of regional groupings, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission. Many countries in the Gulf of Guinea belong to some groupings but not others, which makes coordinating efforts more challenging.

The IISS discussion mentioned a number of anti-piracy operations and international initiatives from the International Maritime Organisation; NATO; various United Nations offices; the Combined Maritime Forces; the People’s Liberation Army; and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. All parties at the meeting agreed that piracy was ‘part of a milieu of disorder’, the root causes of which are found on land. Therefore, there is a need for capacity building: projects aimed at developing local economies, including the maritime sector, which is too often affected by the so-called ‘sea-blindness’ of local politicians. The latter need to show greater political willingness to address the factors that allow robberies and piracy to continue, such as weak rule of law and corruption.

Ultimately, there should also be efforts to quell the popular support pirates enjoy in some of the affected countries – and this applies to both East and West African coasts.

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