Over the past year, pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) have increased in number and expanded in geographical range. It appears that West Africa’s pirates are becoming more organized and have now begun to mimic the tactics of their Somali counterparts, a development that regional states, Atlantic powers, and the UN Security Council have all met with great concern, but a lack of effective policies.
When confronted by increased international naval pressure, Somalia’s pirates shifted their area of operation away from the Gulf of Aden and out into the wider Indian Ocean. Pirate gangs in the GoG have been similarly expansionist. After a government crackdown on pirates in Nigeria, the historical epicenter of West African piracy, in 2009, pirates moved out of Nigerian waters into those of Benin, Cameroon, Togo and Ghana. Recent attacks, like that on the oil tanker Matteus I, have been launched against ships and oil platforms over 100 kilometers from the coast. In total, oil theft is believed to cost the region some $3 billion a year. As the menace expands, the export of metals, cocoa, and agriculture products—vital to both local development and world markets—will also come under threat. Though present conditions are not ideal for long-term hostage taking, West Africa’s pirates are also clearly making attempts to copy the highly profitable Somali business model of ransom-based piracy.
As was the case in the Gulf of Aden, the need for a robust counter-piracy strategy for West Africa has been loudly proclaimed by regional states, foreign powers and international organizations. On October 31, the UN Security Council passed a resolution recognizing that piracy in the GoG threatens international navigation, security and economic development in the region, and stressed the need for regional coordination and international assistance to confront problem. The worry however, is that this will amount to little more than platitudes if political will and local security capacity remain in short supply.
The centerpiece of the current strategy is a Nigerian initiative which calls for joint naval patrols to be conducted by the region’s littoral states. Though multilateral maritime security cooperation is a commendable concept, the reality of the current patrols is that they are a largely a Nigerian effort with only token participation from its small neighbors. Nigeria is the only state in the region that possesses frigates, corvettes, and an aerial surveillance capacity. The other littoral nations “navies” are more accurately described as coastguards. Given that a coalition of the world’s most powerful navies has been unable to suppress piracy in East Africa, it is highly unlikely that a collection of impoverished West African states with little manpower and equipment will be able to secure a coastal perimeter that spans 12 countries. Foreign assistance is therefore essential.
In late September, Benin asked the UN to send an international force to help police the GoG. However, with the naval forces of NATO, the EU, and other maritime powers currently committed to costly operations on the other side of the continent, there is little appetite for a West African deployment. Instead, the UNSC has called on the international community to assist local organizations through “information sharing, coordination improvement and capacity building.” If managed effectively, this strategy presents the best option for achieving long-term maritime security in the GoG.
With West Africa becoming increasingly important to Washington (it is estimated that the region will supply a quarter of US oil imports by 2015), US naval vessels have been sent to build local capacity as part of a cooperative program known as the Africa Partnership Station. France, which maintains close ties with its former colonies, has also been actively engaged in West African counter-piracy, and drawing on lessons learned in East Africa, the UK has advocated for the expansion of coastal surveillance and law enforcement facilities in the region.
While the bilateral programs already initiated are a step in the right direction, a more comprehensive strategy is ultimately required. As the German Ambassador to the UN recently recognized, an effective counter-piracy policy must place security assistance within a political and legal framework. This presents an opportunity for NATO and the EU to improve cooperation with the multinational organizations of West Africa, primarily the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Regional maritime security could be improved through the military assistance of additional NATO members, a project that would combine maritime training with the provision of patrols boats and radar and intelligence sharing installations. The EU is better positioned to address the political and economic causes of piracy. Drug trafficking, government corruption and the unjust practices of foreign oil companies are all exacerbating the offshore crisis. Simply throwing money at regional states will not solve the problem if these issues go unaddressed.
If the international community does not wish to see a complete bicoastal breakdown of African maritime order, then the time to act is now.
James Bridger is a maritime security research analyst currently working with the Atlantic Council of Canada.