A New Dimension

Although pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa attract most attention the Gulf of Guinea is emerging as a new “hot spot”. According to a maritime security expert, increased assaults are threatening the economic development of the region.


By Taro Ichikawa, IDN-InDepth NewsReport

TOKYO (IDN) – Piracy attacks off the Horn of Africa and in Southeast Asia have attracted most attention but the Gulf of Guinea has emerged as a new “hot spot”. Increased assaults are threatening the economic development of the region, particularly the exploitation of its marine resources, according to a maritime security expert.

The menacing dimensions of such attacks are underlined by the fact that the Gulf of Guinea adjoins the shores of West and Central Africa between Guinea Bissau and Angola. Eminent countries in the region include Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria. Large quantities of oil, fish and other marine resources make the region a potentially rich economic zone, which produces more than 5 million barrels of oil each day and more than three quarters of the world’s supply of cocoa.

The Gulf of Guinea region, along with the Congo River delta and Angola further south, are in fact expected to provide around a quarter of the United States’ oil imports by 2015. The region is regarded as one of the world’s top oil and gas exploration hotspots.

However, as Sam Bateman points out, “the region has more than its fair share of problems, including civil unrest, political instability, border disputes, corruption and poor governance.” An increasing number of acts of piracy are posing another problem, which calls for regional cooperation and international assistance to address it effectively, says Bateman, a former Australian naval commodore with research interests in piracy and maritime terrorism, in a commentary for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

RSIS was listed among top 50 think-tanks in the world in the 2011 Global Go to Think Tanks results released by the University of Pennsylvania’s International Relations Program on January 18, 2012. RSIS was ranked 47 in the list of top 50 think tanks worldwide (non-U.S.), marking the first time the School had made it into this prestigious list. RSIS was also ranked 22nd among university-affiliated think tanks globally.


According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 52 actual and attempted piracy attacks were reported around the Gulf of Guinea during 2011, as opposed to 39 in 2010. 19 attacks occurred in the first quarter of 2012. The 52 attacks in 2011 represent about 12 per cent of the total attacks around the world during the year. Along with the Horn of Africa with 239 attacks during the year and Southeast Asia with 101, these three areas account for nearly 90 per cent of global piracy.

Analysing the IMB figures, Bateman says: While most attacks have occurred off Nigeria, more attacks occurred in 2011 in the waters off Benin with 20 attacks during the year as compared with only one in the previous four years. The situation off Nigeria improved during 2011 with 10 attacks that year compared with 19 in 2010.

The first quarter of 2012 saw a resurgence of two attacks off Nigeria, but there was some improvement off Benin, partly due to joint naval patrols by Nigeria and Benin. Some attacks off Benin and Nigeria involve a ship being hijacked and a significant part of its cargo stolen – losses from each attack range from US$2 million to $6 million.

“These attacks suggest considerable planning, organisation and sophisticated modes of operation by the pirates,” says Bateman, adding: “Most attacks occur at night and target oil and chemical tankers that are stationary while conducting ship-to-ship transfer operations, often at a distance of over 40 nautical miles offshore.”

In a recent incident, the 76,600 dwt product tanker BW RHINE under the Panama flag was seized from an anchorage off Togo on April 28, 2012. The vessel was released a few days later after some of its cargo of gasoline had been stolen. According to the IMB, at least 16 similar incidents have been reported along the coastline from Togo to Nigeria over the past year.

“Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has its origins in political instability, corruption and the economic problems of the region,” writes Bateman, adviser to the RSIS’s Maritime Security Programme. “Oil and gas developments, particularly offshore in the Gulf of Guinea, provide attractive targets. Attacks in Nigeria in the 1990s were often perpetrated by groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) which attacked pipelines and offshore platforms,” he adds.


According to estimates, piracy currently results in an annual loss of about US$2 billion to the economy of the West African sub-region. Nigeria is believed to lose about 7 per cent of its oil revenues to criminal activities. A large and highly developed black market for oil and its products exists in the region.

Piracy in the region also affects the operation of vessels associated with the exploration and exploitation of offshore oil and gas, such as seismic research vessels and offshore supply vessels. Seismic survey vessels are low and slow and thus vulnerable to ‘hit and run’ attacks to steal valuables or even kidnap crew members.

Unlike Somali pirates, writes Bateman, West African pirates have no place to hold a vessel securely while ransom negotiations take place; so they sometimes kidnap crew members, usually more senior or highly skilled technical people who may attract higher ransoms.

Countering Piracy

The RSIS maritime security expert notes that countries around the Gulf of Guinea are sensitive to foreign warships patrolling in their waters. An international naval response to piracy in the region would therefore be controversial. Regional leaders believe that the presence of foreign warships might be more destabilizing than helpful if they widened the strategic nature of the problem and attracted criminal or terrorist attacks.

“Countering piracy in the region requires extensive capacity-building assistance,” writes Bateman. “The required capacity includes the development of national legal frameworks; national and regional arrangements to better coordinate anti-piracy activities and information-sharing; and the necessary operational resources (ships, aircraft, skilled people and surveillance systems).”

He welcomes that various initiatives under the umbrella of the UN and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) are now underway to develop the required capacity in the region. “Fortunately there are several reasonably strong regional organisations, such as the Gulf of Guinea Commission and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to provide the necessary regional cooperation and dialogue,” says Bateman.

Nevertheless, he cautions, just as elsewhere in the world, the fight against piracy and sea robbery in West Africa begins on land. “Any viable or lasting regional strategy to combat piracy needs to take account of the root causes of regional piracy: high levels of youth unemployment, wide income disparities within society, the uncontrolled circulation of illicit weapons, and the prevalence of corruption.”

Source: IDN-InDepth News


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