Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been much in the news.

The kidnappings of Westerners by Al Shabaab militia and Kenya’s invasion of Somalia has added a new dimension.  Less reported is the rise of the practice off the west coast of Africa in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.  

So why is the issue of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea particularly troubling?

1. The problem is growing

The coast of Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, has long been a dangerous place to sail but now the risk has spread. Benin’s coast has seen at least 20 incidents in 2011 compared to none in 2010, raising alarm in the shipping industry.

2. This is where the oil comes from

The Gulf of Guinea produces more than three million barrels of oil per day  (bpd) equivalent to 4% of the global total, ultimately destined for Europe and the US.  Some estimates says that by 2015 America will be getting up to 25% of its oil supplies from here. The area also includes some of the newest players in the oil scene. Ghana, for example, which has huge reserves and only began production in December 2010, is already producing 77,000 bpd.

3. These pirates mean business

The pirates are targeting diesel and oil tankers. They don’t want hostages. They want the fuel or whatever else they can take. The pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are more violent than their counterparts off the coast of Somalia. Hostages are generally released within 72 hours, but are often maltreated and physically abused.

4. The problem’s even worse than it seems

Inadequate information-gathering from the region means that it’s almost impossible to assess the frequency of the attacks and they are seriously under-reported. One security analyst told Reuters that “in Nigeria it is estimated that approximately 60% of pirate attacks go unreported.”

5. Regional Countries Lack Resources

Affected countries are joining forces. The Togolese navy – which managed to foil an attempted hijacking of a Maltese tanker 15km off the Togolese coast in late September – is pooling monitoring resources with Benin and Nigeria.  The regional group, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to expand its maritime security committee from five to 10 members. Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo will now join Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria according to a press release issued by Defence Ministers. These initiatives don’t alter the fact that local coastal defences are weak and the coastline is craggy, offering hiding places for potential attackers.

6. International Efforts

Not much is being done yet on the international stage. The United Nations is worried and is sending an assessment team. A Security Council statement “expressed concern over the increase in piracy, maritime armed robbery and reports of hostage-taking … and its damaging impact on security, trade and economic activities in the sub-region.” Both France and the United States have sent warships to assist navies in Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo to track down the pirates.

Find out more with the following back issues of the Africa Research Bulletin

Gulf of Guinea, Rise of Piracy (Economic, Financial and Technical Series, Volume 48, Issue 9)

ECOWAS Defence Chiefs Meet on Piracy (Political, Social and Cultural Series, Volume  48, Issue 10)