IntelBrief: Somali Piracy Neutralized: West Africa Is Next

Bottom Line Up Front

• The International Maritime Bureau reports that incidents of maritime piracy hit a six-year low in 2013, mainly because of a precipitous drop in attacks off the coast of Somalia
• But piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is rapidly replacing the Somali threat. West African piracy accounted for 19 percent of worlwide attacks last year, and incidents have escalated from low-level robberies to violent attacks aimed at vessels carrying petroleum products
• Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is driven by the booming black market for petroleum products in West Africa
• Sea robbery of petroleum products has also made legitimate trade and investment more expensive because the Gulf of Guinea is now designated a high-risk area (like the Gulf of Aden previously), bringing higher insurance rates.

Beyond politics
This report should be read in conjunction with TSG IntelBrief: West African Piracy: Symptoms, Causes, and Responses.

This week, a 75,000-ton fuel tanker, the Greek-owned, Liberian-flagged MT Kerala, was reportedly hijacked by pirates off the coast of Angola in what is thought to be the southernmost attack on shipping off the western coast of Africa to date.

Until recently, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea was concentrated in the waters of Nigeria and its coast and tied closely to resource-based political conflicts in the Niger Delta, where, for more than twenty years, militants have targeted oil companies with sabotage, oil theft, property destruction and kidnapping. Now, the link between political activism and oil theft is weakening. Oil theft is increasingly driven by purely economic motives and committed by criminal syndicates adept at global money laundering. Billions of dollars of stolen Nigerian oil are now traded and laundered on the international market each year.  

In 2013, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB)’s Piracy Reporting Centre recorded 51 attacks off the coast of West Africa. Nigerian pirate groups perpetrated the majority of these attacks, 31 of the 51 recorded, operating across the Gulf of Guinea. These pirates killed one person, took 49 hostages, and—in a nod to Somali pirate operations—held 36 kidnapped crewmembers onshore for ransom.

Uncounted crimes
The activities of pirate groups in the Gulf of Guinea are vastly underreported. Many or most incidents occurred either at port or close to shore, and are therefore categorized as “crime at sea,” not piracy. These crimes are not systemically recorded, but it’s clear the pirate attacks and crimes at sea are not only increasing in frequency throughout the coastal zone between Senegal and Angola, but are becoming more severe. Low-level robberies of ships at port have escalated into violent thefts of cargo and kidnappings that involve international chemical tankers and other high-value cargo.

A large share of piracy and maritime crime in the region is directed at vessels carrying petroleum products, particularly as the coastal region becomes increasingly affluent in terms of oil production. Nigeria and Angola are two of the top ten global crude oil exporters and are responsible for 70 percent of Africa’s oil production. The Gulf of Guinea contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven reserves and produces 5.4 million barrels of oil per day. The region also boasts the fastest rate of petroleum discovery in the world.

As West Africa’s petroleum production continues to increase, so does the region’s coastal insecurity. A report from UK-based think tank Chatham House puts the costs of petroleum related crimes at $8 billion a year, with corrupt politicians, militant groups, oil industry staff, security forces, and even oil traders profiting.

International hands are tied
Forceful intervention by international navies (along with the increased use of armed security on board vessels) is credited with stopping Somali piracy in the international sea lanes of the Gulf of Aden. But international attempts to respond to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are inhibited by the fact that most maritime crimes are committed not on the high seas—where international laws governing piracy apply—but in states’ coastal waters. Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast, among others, possess sovereign control over law enforcement in their littoral, but none has adequate capacity to ensure maritime security or to coordinate an effective response with neighboring states. (In 2013, Benin’s President Boni Yayi’s anti-corruption campaign began to target customs officials, but the effort will affect just a 110 km of a 6,000-km coastline.)

The UN passed Resolutions 2018 and 2039, in 2011 and 2012, respectively, urging regional states to counter piracy at both regional and national levels; and joint meetings between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) have produced a regional strategy. But it is yet to be put into action.

Unlike the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Guinea has little in the way of naval assets. The US, UK, Brazil, France, and Spain have contributed to bilateral partnerships, and the US has spent nearly $35 million to train naval personnel in Nigeria and its neighbors to combat piracy, oil bunkering, and other maritime crimes. However, these efforts remain uncoordinated and insufficient, and regional political will to end oil theft is lacking.


• Maritime shipping and oil companies will have to rely primarily on self-help measures to protect their operations in the Gulf of Guinea. The annual cost of oil services-related security in the Niger Delta is already estimated to be nearly $3.5 billion: this figure will rapidly rise
• As the West African piracy threat escalates, international navies will push to develop the capacity of West African coastal defenses, including information sharing capabilities, coast guards, and port security. Best practices for ship protection developed in the Somali context, including the widespread use of Private Maritime Security Companies, will be widely adopted in the Gulf of Guinea
• Private energy companies will shoulder some of the burden of the response, directing an increased amount of foreign direct investment at bolstering coastal defense systems and promoting industry standards that combat maritime crime and the illegal oil market • As in Somalia, West African piracy has its roots on land, and will continue to thrive as long as corruption and oil crime remain rampant in Nigeria. Expect West African piracy to remain a growing problem for the foreseeable future.

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham