Why is Piracy in The Gulf of Guinea Increasing?

Nine Chinese sailors and eight Ukrainian seamen were kidnapped by pirates in attacks on two merchant ships off the coast of Cameroon. Seventeen people in total were abducted on the attack that took place on the 15th of August. A Cameroonian navy source said the kidnappers were “probably Nigerian pirates”, as security forces launched a search for the abducted men.

West Africa “is becoming the world’s new piracy hotspot”, according to One Earth Future, a global foundation for sustainable peace.

In 2017, West Africa had the second worst rate of coastal piracy in the world, costing $818.8 million in losses, as opposed to East Africa’s $1.4 billion. The State of Maritime Piracy Annual Report 2017, published by watchdog, Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), also stated that pirate attacks off the West African coast were on the rise.

This year, One Earth Future produced the annual State of Maritime Piracy report, citing the West African region as having the most frequent pirate attacks in the world. Along the Gulf of Guinea, which spans the coasts of twenty-one Sub-Saharan nations from Senegal, reaching South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, maritime security is a facing a “severe” challenge.

Stable Seas, a One Earth Future programme, reports that this is caused by: “Tremendous natural resources, proximity to onshore violent non-state actors, and limited maritime law enforcement capabilities [which] leave countries vulnerable to piracy, crude-oil related crime, smuggling, and more.”

“There have been repeated attacks against shipping and oil infrastructure both at sea and on shore within the Niger Delta. These events have the potential to affect international shipping traffic,” the report continues.

“Even more worrisome for the workers who either transit the Gulf of Guinea as seafarers or as employees of extractive industries is the highly efficient system of kidnapping for ransom that has developed over the last few years. The frequency and violence of these kidnappings have earned the Gulf of Guinea the distinction of being the world’s most violent maritime space.”

On the Nigerian coastline, Petro-pirates target tankers from rich Nigerian oil and gas fields. In 2017, for example, 100 crewmembers were taken hostage off the West African coast. Oceans Beyond Piracy reports that 463 seafarers were “exposed to piracy and armed robbery at sea” in the same year. These included seafarers from the Philippines Ukraine, India, Nigeria, China, Myanmar and Spain.

In East Africa, there is hope that new intraregional and multinational developments to enforce maritime law and security (such as the 2017 Jeddah Amendment to the Djibouti Code of Conduct) will further reduce piracy in the Horn of Africa.

Ocean piracy on the African coast is complex, with a host of factors underpinning the problem. These include: international maritime law, the geographical expanse of the seas; non-existent or badly-invested air and land security and surveillance systems; a lack of collaboration between intercontinental and international regions; inadequate navy-coast guard protection, economic poverty in many African countries, driving citizens to piracy; and the use of sophisticated technology and modern weaponry by pirates.

“Fortunately,” reports Stable Seas, “Africa’s Atlantic coast is also home to some of the region’s best-established multilateral maritime security strategies”. “Through agreements like the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, coastal countries are increasing maritime domain awareness and coordinating their responses to the region’s maritime security challenges.”

Indeed, no hijackings were reported in the Western Indian ocean in 2018. According to Stable Seas, this was because of security efforts by international land and naval agencies, including the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR). Stable Seas also accredits this success to the The Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy and Enhance Maritime Security (BMP5).

Produced by many international maritime organisations, including Interpol, Intercargo, The International Chamber of Shipping, the Joint War Committee, the Royal Navy and more, the BMP5 provides a risk assessment for sea vessels in the ocean.

As political and economic instability increase, piracy is also increasing in the Caribbean, and off the coast of Latin America and Venezuela. However, the recent anti-piracy successes of the Western Indian ocean and the Horn of Africa demonstrate that global piracy can be successfully tackled.