By Ayesha Kajee

While piracy in Africa has tended to be associated with Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, the past decade, and especially the past five years, has seen a significant rise in piracy in West Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), throughout 2016 there were just two attempted attacks reported in the Gulf of Aden, while fifty-five acts or attempted acts of piracy and armed robbery were reported along Africa’s west coast for the same period. The April 2016 United Nations (UN) Security Council Debate on Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, noted that, since 2011, frequent incidents of piracy have threatened navigation safety and caused billions of dollars of economic losses to the states in the region.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as any illegal acts of violence, detention or depredation by crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft, directed on the high seas, within or outside territorial waters, against any other ship or aircraft (including persons or property on board). The definition also includes inciting or facilitating such acts.

Richly endowed with mineral and marine resources, including hydrocarbons, gold, fish and diamonds, West Africa has huge maritime and geostrategic potential. Its more than 6 000 kilometres of Atlantic coastline, with numerous natural harbours, is devoid of any strait or chokepoint to constrain shipping. The Gulf of Guinea is thus a major shipping destination, compared with the Gulf of Aden, which is a maritime transit area. West Africa is an important global oil reserve, comprising about 5 per cent of worldwide stocks, of which 90 per cent is exported, primarily by sea. Most of the outputs of the extensive mining and fishing interests in the gulf are also exported, while manufactured goods and foodstuffs are imported.

However, this maritime potential is countered by a variety of maritime challenges, including economic, environmental and political threats. Piracy is but one result of the socio-political deficit. In West Africa, weak states with high poverty levels are prone to socio-political instability. The diversity of ethnicity, religion and culture provides fertile soil for manipulated social fractures, exacerbated by conflicts over the rich natural resources of the region. In the Niger Delta, where most of the oil is extracted, armed groups routinely attack oil tankers and sell the stolen cargo. Chatham House estimates that such attacks cost Nigeria alone almost US$ 1 billion per year in lost revenues. Poor governance has also made the area a drug trafficking hub, particularly for cocaine from South America; which adds another avenue for illicit transactions and criminal networks linked to piracy.

UN Resolutions 2018 of 2011 and 2039 of 2012 were both aimed at encouraging countries in the Gulf of Guinea to develop specific political tools to tackle piracy and insecurity in the region. However, the mismanagement of oil revenues, plus the absence of socio-economic reforms and the thriving criminal enterprises in the region, has meant that any stability is usually short-lived.

The impact of piracy on maritime commerce has been marked. The UK Chamber of Commerce noted that almost all of the estimated US$ 10.2 billion worth of regional trade with the United Kingdom moving through the Gulf of Guinea in 2013 was at risk of theft. Consequently, insurance premiums have soared, with underwriters deeming the waters off Nigeria, Benin and Togo a ‘war risk area’. Companies have had to take additional steps to secure their ships and cargo.

Modus operandi and prevalence of piracy in West Africa

Former UK special forces member Sven Hanson, identifies three types of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea: Classic armed robbery at sea, where pirates board a vessel to steal money, radios and other valuables, is the first category, exemplified by the case where heavy-lift vessel Teal was boarded on 3 July 2016 while anchored off Conakry, Guinea. Six men armed with knives and automatic weapons opened fire, damaging the accommodation block, then held the crew at gunpoint and robbed them of cash and personal belongings. Though local agents contacted the port authority, the security boat only arrived an hour later after the attackers had already left. The next scale up is cargo theft, until recently the predominant threat in West Africa, when pirates hijack an oil tanker, take her to a quiet place, bring another ship alongside and siphon off the oil. The third type involves kidnap for ransom.

Some observers, such as US-based Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), postulate that piracy in West Africa has undergone a shift in modus operandi, driven primarily by the tanking of global oil prices in recent years, and improved regional maritime surveillance and the purging of corrupt institutions in the Niger Delta. Whereas previously, most piracy was aimed at bunkering – seizing oil cargo for resale on the black market, ransoming of hostages is now seen as more lucrative and is therefore on the increase. Kidnapping is relatively quick, while tanker hijacking requires more vessels, manpower and time, as well as technical expertise.

Throughout 2016, pirate groups cemented this shift away from the hijacking of tankers for product theft (with only one attack, the MV Maximus case in Abidjan, detailed below), turning instead to the kidnap of crew for ransom, which provides a more favourable risk-reward ratio for the pirates. The Gulf of Guinea has become a kidnap hotspot, with the IMB noting that in 2016, thirty-four crew members were taken in nine reported incidents, and three vessels were hijacked in the Gulf of Guinea. Because piracy incidents are under-reported, OBP recorded eighteen incidents, with ninety-six hostages taken. The majority of kidnappings are from tankers or cargo ships, with a smaller number targeting offshore supply vessels.

In terms of tactics, Noel Choong, head of IMB’s piracy reports division, notes that pirates who are after oil typically hijack ships for five or six days, ransack the vessels, steal the cargo and leave the sailors, often taking the hijacked tankers across maritime borders or back to the country of origin, where the oil is siphoned off for sale on the thriving black market.

By contrast, OBP says that in ‘most kidnapping incidents the pirates board the vessel after firing at the bridge to suppress any opposition and intimidate the crew, and then proceed to isolate the ranking officers and engineers, who net the highest ransoms’. If time permits, the pirates may loot the vessel, before escaping with the three or four crew members who will be held onshore during negotiations. EOS Risk Group notes that in all but one case in 2016, the ship’s master was among the hostages. Hostages are held for between fifteen and forty-five days, often on small islands in the Niger Delta. They may be tortured or beaten, subjected to mock executions, denied medical treatment and fed limited rations.

Many of the recent piracy incidents occurred either while the vessels were steaming under way or anchored offshore. In most cases, the pirates approached via speedboat or skiffs, sometimes using multiple boats. The limited offloading capacity of many West African ports means that vessels must loiter along the ‘roadsteads’ and approaches to ports such as Bonny and Lagos in Nigeria, and Cotonou in Benin, leaving them vulnerable. The geography of West Africa’s coastlines also aids the pirates, with many convoluted inlets for hideouts and quick getaways; the vast number of unmanned and abandoned vessels near major anchorages are easily commandeered by criminals.

Firearms and knives were used in nearly all incidents of piracy and armed robbery during 2016 and 2017, with rifles and automatic weapons such as AK47s reported in several cases. The proliferation of arms in the region is thus a key concern. In at least one incident a homemade explosive device was reported. Most reports indicate that the vessels were ransacked and personal effects of the crew stolen. It is common for pirates to disable communication systems of victim ships before disembarking. In some cases, pirates attempt to disguise the name and flag of the ship to confuse local authorities.

OBP estimates the total costs related to piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea during 2016 at US$ 793.7 million.

Of the 191 incidents of piracy and armed robbery officially reported worldwide to the IMB last year, West Africa experienced a total of fifty-five reported incidents in 2016: thirty-seven actual attacks and eighteen attempts. By contrast, private organisation OBP recorded ninety-five total incidents for the Gulf of Guinea, evidence that many incidents go unreported. OBP noted a one-third increase in kidnappings for ransom from 2015 to 2016, and a 76 per cent increase in the total number of incidents for West Africa between 2015 and 2016. OBP also raised concerns that the operational range of pirates is increasing, with several attacks occurring between fifty and one hundred nautical miles off the coast. OBP noted that of the ninety-five incidents it recorded, fifty-five occurred in international waters, though within the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of West African states. This implies that the cases fall under universal jurisdiction.

With thirty-six reported incidents in 2016, Nigeria is the country with the second highest incidence rate in the world, after Indonesia. This compares to fourteen reported incidents for Nigeria during 2015 and eighteen during 2014. Of the thirty-six Nigerian incidents in 2016, eighteen were actual attacks, with the vessels being boarded in seventeen cases, and one hijacking. The ships were fired upon in nine of the eighteen attempted attacks, with several of these being almost one hundred nautical miles offshore.

Congo’s Pointe Noire anchorage, Lagos port in Nigeria, Takoradi in Ghana and Conakry in Guinea all experienced multiple incidents of piracy or armed robbery during 2016, making them high-risk areas. The regions around Bayelsa, Brass and Bonny Island in Nigeria have also experienced a dramatic surge in violent incidents, including hijacking and kidnapping of crews. The IMB urges vigilance in these areas, noting that many attacks have gone unreported. This is supported by statistics published by Piracy Report in April 2016, which details twenty-six piracy incidents in Bayelsa alone between January and April 2016, with two tanker hijackings and nine kidnappings during that period.

The number and frequency of attacks in Benin, Ivory Coast and Togo decreased during 2016 in comparison with previous years, but these countries remain risky as past attacks were effected by well-armed and often violent robbers, with cargoes stolen and crew injured in several cases.

For example, on 11 February 2016, while steaming south of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, fourteen pirates armed with guns hijacked the Panamanian tanker MT Maximus. All eighteen crew were taken hostage, while the pirates ransacked the vessel. Eight pirates and two kidnapped crew members disembarked on the high seas. The Ghana and Togo navies tracked the tanker. A Togo Navy patrol boat intercepted the tanker and took a picture, which was forwarded to the owners for verification, but the pirates had repainted the name (to Elvis-5) and provided false information to the Togo Navy. Once the tanker entered Nigeria’s EEZ, the Togolese handed over to their Nigerian counterparts who dispatched a warship to shadow and ultimately board the tanker on 20 February. One pirate was reportedly killed in an exchange of gunfire, but the pirates surrendered and the crew were rescued. The two kidnapped crew members were released on 20 March 2016, with no confirmation of whether ransom was paid nor by whom. The owners are thought to be Saudi or UAE nationals. Further investigations into the incident tracked an incoming call to the MT Maximus while it was under pirate control on 17 February. The call was traced to Charles Ekpemefumor (aka Charles Parker or Charles Agaba). The captured pirates also identified Ekpemefumor as the hijacking mastermind. The vessel MT Dejikun, used in the hijacking was leased through a third party from Mustapha Kenny Gani, chairman of KG’s Marine Limited in Lagos. Gani is reportedly a Nigerian-born Japanese national.

While the exact structure and organisation of piracy operations remains murky, investigations such as the example above suggest that vessels used for hijacking are often leased through seemingly legitimate individuals and enterprises with access to local and international networks, and the use of third parties is common.

In Piracy Report's monthly summaries of piracy incidents, to date, for 2017, Nigeria has had the most incidents of piracy and armed robbery. Between January and April 2017, twenty-nine crew members were kidnapped in four attacks in Nigeria. In West Africa overall, two incidents are reported for January 2017, five each for February and March 2017 and six during April 2017. In March, eight hostages kidnapped off the BBC Caribbean during February 2017 were released. Similarly, five hostages kidnapped off the Eleni M on 30 March 2017 were released on 25 April 2017 after payment of a ransom.

It must be noted that the IMB figures are hugely under counted, as the IMB itself estimates that only one-third of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea are reported, often because shipping companies avoid having to inform insurers and endure lengthy investigations. This in itself creates a vicious cycle, as noted by Ian Millen, CEO of Dryad Maritime, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine last year: ‘You’re not seeing the pirates and criminals captured and brought to account. That’s a risk-reward ratio that is pretty good for the pirates,’ he said.

Financing of piracy operations and links to terrorism and other transnational crimes

Bunkering and sale of pirated crude on the lucrative oil black market, as well as ransoms paid to free hostages, are assumed to be a major source of finance for piracy operations. In May 2016, a report by OBP noted that ransoms of up to US$ 400 000 were paid to pirate gangs that hijacked ships in the Gulf of Guinea. The crew of the Malta-flagged oil supertanker MT Kalamos, who were abducted in February 2015, were freed after the US$ 400 000 ransom was paid. The report did not identify who paid the ransom. The report also observed that ‘the same pirate gangs responsible for these attacks are likely the same groups responsible for kidnapping and violence in the Niger Delta’.

Periodic fluctuations in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has been linked by some analysts to surges in the activities of ethnic militants in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region, in response to marginalisation of the region by successive Nigerian governments. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), designated a terrorist organisation by the Nigerian government, is perhaps the best-known of these militants, whose operational tactics have included hostage-taking of oil workers, sabotage of oil facilities, attacks on oil vessels, illegal oil bunkering, kidnapping and ransom receipts. Other emerging groups include the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate and Bakassi Strike Force.

In 2009, the Nigerian government granted amnesty from prosecution to over 15 000 militants, who surrendered large arms and weapons caches, including eighteen gunboats and almost 3 000 guns, as well as dynamite and assorted military accessories. Post-amnesty, piracy attacks decreased in 2009 and 2010, but rejection of the amnesty by a faction of MEND may partly explain the resurgence of pirate attacks since 2011. In addition, the previous administration’s strategy of using former warlords to help prevent maritime crime is problematic, as some allegedly still have arms and ammunition caches.

The bunkering and resale of oil depends on collusion between local gangs, corrupt officials and international criminal networks. In a perceived attempt to clean up some of the corruption, in 2016 Nigerian President Buhari sacked maritime security chief Patrick Ziadeke Akpobolokemi, and cancelled a security contract given to Global West Vessel Specialists, a firm which has links to former MEND commander Government Ekpemupolo, aka Tompolo, who was a key militant in the Niger Delta until he agreed to the 2009 amnesty deal. He has been on the run since February 2016, refusing to be questioned by Nigeria's anti-corruption agency in connection with US$ 231 million in missing government funds.

In May 2017, the Guardian and Newsweek reported that anticorruption investigators in Britain, the USA, Nigeria and Norway were scrutinising British firm Cas-Global over allegations that it paid a bribe of US$ 154 000 to a Norwegian official to disguise the 2014 sale of seven decommissioned gunships to Tompolo-linked firm Global West Vessel Specialists. The total value of the sale was US$ 10.4 million. The timing of the sale was critical, given Nigeria’s presidential election in 2015, where Tompolo was amongst those believed to be ready to resort to violence if then-president Goodluck Jonathan lost to Buhari. The resurgence of militants in the Niger Delta since 2016 has been spearheaded by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), which has been linked to Tompolo by local media, though he denies these allegations.

The Tompolo case sheds some light on how the piracy as well as other criminal activity in the region may be financed and facilitated.

In a 2013 report on terrorism and transnational organised crime in West Africa, the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies noted that piracy and oil bunkering have acquired a worrisome transnational dimension, as have arms and drug trafficking. Based on an Israeli Homeland Security defence update, the report cites ‘growing speculation of a possible link between piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the financing of regional Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, Boko Haram among others. Some of the millions paid to the oil gangs are thought to have made their way to Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda in northern Nigeria’. 

While it is difficult to find explicit links between piracy and so-called Islamist terrorism in West Africa, there are several reasons such potential links should not be discounted. First, there is a long history of cross-pollination and mutual support between piracy and on-land crime in the region. For example, oil pirates have been known to assist narco-traffickers to land their drug cargoes, while members of militant groups involved in piracy have also been implicated in on-land crimes including movement of arms and drugs, and hostage taking. Given that there alleged financial links from the drug and arms trades to terrorist groups, the potential for collaboration between pirates and terrorists is clear.

Second, the ease with which pirates from one country infiltrate neighbouring countries (for example, between Benin, Nigeria and Togo), and the fact that victims of pirate kidnappings have noted that attackers spoke a mixture of languages, including both French and English in addition to local languages, suggests that there is already a strong transnational element among pirates in the region. This is also supported by observations that when one country increases its counter-piracy measures, the pirate activity shifts to neighbouring countries. This suggests a level of coordination between pirates and on-land criminals throughout the region. Both piracy and terrorism in West Africa are transnational activities. The March 2017 video showing a meeting between leaders of several terrorist groups in the Sahel underscores the transnational nature of terrorism in West Africa.

Third, there is a degree of complementarity between the kidnappings by pirates and hostage taking by terror groups such as Boko Haram and Ansaru. The preferred targets of both are foreigners and/or persons of high rank. The focus shift from cargo to kidnapping in West African piracy has seen new players getting involved. OBP has recorded that some of the pirate gangs operating in the gulf are the same ones that have operated inland within Nigeria, where kidnapping is a common crime. Though the primary motive for the pirates might be financial gain while those of the terrorists have an ideological dimension, the scope for collaborative endeavours is evident.

The Merbey case underscores possible transnational links between pirates, kidnap for ransom, drug and arms trafficking, and terrorism. On 19 January 2017, a report was filed indicating that pirates off Calabar, Nigeria, had hijacked the cargo vessel Merbey, with seven crew members of Turkish and Romanian nationality on board. While Piracy Report eventually concluded that this was a case of fraud rather than hijacking, the details are interesting in that they provide insights into how ship naming and flagging can be used to evade identification. According to Moroccan businessman Mohammed Oulahcen, he bought the Merbey in Turkey in 2015 in partnership with a Portuguese national, Jose. The understanding was that the vessel would sail to Casablanca, Morocco. Oulahcen claims he was double-crossed by his partner who used the vessel for illegal trafficking of arms and drugs to the Houthis in Yemen. The vessel was then relocated to Nigeria. According to AIS the vessel has been anchored off Calabar since 25 August 2016. IMO records indicate that the vessel was renamed in October 2015 from Omerbey 1 (Turkish flag) to Merbey (Comoros flag) and again in September 2016 back to Omerbey 1 (Turkish flag). The owner on record is Barchester Holdings Ltd in Gibraltar.

Who are the pirates?

The masterminds behind the piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are undoubtedly well-connected businesspersons and former militants in the mould of Ekpemefumor and Tompolo, with networks of individuals within the government bureaucracy and the private sector who ease their path by facilitating the sale of seized cargoes or the ransoming of hostages. While many of these masterminds and their lieutenants claim to be using piracy in their fight for a greater share of the region’s oil wealth, in reality many of the pirate gangs are motivated purely by financial gain. In the Gulf of Guinea, the lines between political grievances and criminality are very blurred.

The actual pirates who board vessels are recruited from much the same pool of disaffected, unemployed populations that also feed the drug trade and the militant and terror networks. In several regions along the gulf, fishing – once a major livelihood for many families – has been decimated, in some cases by illegal overfishing by international commercial fleets. In other cases, the rise of piracy itself has devastated the fishing industry, with fishing trawlers attacked and destroyed by the pirates. The existing underdevelopment and poverty in the area has deepened, and many young men see piracy as the only viable revenue-earner. It is relatively easy to turn them against the foreign owners and crew of the ships they attack, since the vessels are regarded as carrying resources plundered from their land for which they receive nothing. This is the rationale in Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, and increasingly, behind pirate attacks in Angola and the Congo too.

Between the pirates who actually board the target vessels and the masterminds are corrupt officials in formal state institutions and corrupt individuals within the infrastructure of the oil industry, who allow the pirate syndicates to access the information necessary to carry out the attacks and to on-sell seized cargo.

Victims of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have observed that the gangs have a mixture of English and French speakers and those speaking local languages, pointing to possible collaboration between those from Francophone and Anglophone countries respectively. It is presumably also a precaution that enables pirates to communicate with crews of various nationalities, given that the ships passing through the gulf hail from various parts of the globe.

How are ransoms negotiated and paid?

Vessels traversing major global shipping lanes, including the Gulf of Guinea, often have kidnap and ransom (K&R) insurance. Platts Marine News reported in May 2017 that the upsurge in piracy has spiked demand for K&R insurance worldwide.

While most ransom demands are paid by the vessel owners, some are negotiated jointly with the governments of the hostages’ home countries. The US government has a policy of not paying ransom demands in cases of kidnapping, while the UK official policy is not to deal with terrorists, but these policies do not apply to private individuals and companies such as ship owners. European countries have been known to pay ransoms.

The first step is usually when the pirates contact the ship owners or operators and the government representatives, depending on the victims’ nationalities. The ship’s master or senior officers may initially be used to make contact, so that they can answer proof of life questions if necessary. Information on ownership and management is usually easily sourced on board the ship. Communication is usually by phone or satellite phone, but is sometimes also conducted by email or test messages. There is usually a middleman who negotiates on each side.

Most ransom demands are negotiated through the insurance companies and third party consultants specialising in this field; the majority of these are based in London. K&R consultants have expertise in devising the ‘target settlement figure’ based on the specifics of each situation. According to South African K&R consultant Mark Courtney, the ransom negotiation process is an art where timing is critical. If the ransom is paid too quickly, the kidnappers think you have access to more money, but if paid too late, the victims could get sick and die.

Because of the risks involved, it is rare for the consultants and the companies and countries who pay ransom demands to make this information public, as they are already perceived as playing into the pirates’ hands. If the companies that have paid ransoms are identified, they would run an increased risk that their vessels would be targeted in future, as they are known to have paid previously. In view of the secrecy involved it is therefore difficult to ascertain exactly who has paid what.

Ransoms are usually paid in cash, in international currency, with shipping companies using professionals such as former SAS personnel to deliver the cash. The pirates often have counting machines and technology to detect counterfeit notes. It is estimated that, excluding the ransom itself, the costs of professional negotiators and couriers, lawyers and insurance personnel can reach US$ 1 million.

While the kidnappers have a vested interest in keeping hostages alive, witness testimony suggests that kidnapped seafarers may be beaten or tortured, and may have to survive on limited rations with no access to medical care. In the eighteen kidnap-for-ransom attacks and five incidents of temporary detention offshore recorded by OBP in West Africa for 2016, 144 seafarers (five Nigerians, 47 foreigners, and 92 crew members of unknown nationality) were taken hostage. At least five seafarers sustained physical injuries.

Two case studies are presented here:

Case 1: The Comoros-flagged reefer MV Solarte was hijacked on 19 October 2015 by pirates armed with submachine guns, about one hundred nautical miles off the coast of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The pirates attacked, boarded and ransacked the ship for valuables, destroyed communication and navigation equipment, and then kidnapped four sailors (two Lithuanians and two Ukrainians), before making their escape. After weeks of negotiating, diplomatic sources hinted that the unnamed Russian owners paid the ransom demanded by the pirates in exchange for the kidnapped sailors. All four were released in good health on 16 November 2015.

Case 2: On 5 February 2017, about forty-five nautical miles southwest of Brass in Nigeria, cargo vessel BBC Caribbean was boarded by armed men who kidnapped seven Russians and one Ukrainian crew member and returned to shore with the hostages in the motor skiff in which they had approached. The owner and manager of the vessel is German company Briese Schiffahrt, while the operator is BBC Chartering. The Russian embassy confirmed the attack (via its twitter account), as did Briesse Schiffart representatives in St Petersburg. The kidnapped Russian captain made contact with the owners and the Russian authorities to confirm that the hostages were alive, and negotiations to secure their release began. Russian diplomats and the German managers were involved in negotiations. On 3 March 2017, the eight hostages were released, but no information was provided as to whether a ransom had been paid. The victims were in good health but had been held captive in the jungle in very poor conditions.

Conclusion: Enhancing maritime security in West Africa

Most West African countries have limited maritime capacity, which poses a challenge for already weak law enforcement agencies. The absence of robust legal frameworks, together with ineffective domestic justice systems, inhibits complete prosecutions related to maritime crimes. To date, there have been no successful prosecutions for maritime piracy in West Africa.

In a 2013 interview with Africa Renewal, Cardiff University’s maritime expert, Christian Bueger, suggested four steps to counter piracy. First, the key is for affected states to share information on what’s happening on their coastlines and those of their neighbours. Second, joint training activities are required so countries can develop procedures and learn how to use technology. Training not only educates future generations of maritime security professionals, but also creates confidence and trust between different agencies. Third, states that face maritime and piracy challenges should develop strong legislation to prosecute criminals. And finally, states should set aside enough money to build local capacity. ‘Even if a state has the information, even if the state has well-trained coast guards, and even if the state has incorporated all the right laws,’ Bueger explains, ‘without vessels, the state is powerless.’

The increasingly high incidence of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea over the past few years has spawned a plethora of national, bilateral, regional and extra-regional responses to improve maritime security, some of which appear to be taking Bueger’s advice to heart

In January 2012, the Nigerian government transformed its Joint Task Force ‘Operation Restore Hope’, initially established to combat militancy in the Niger Delta, into an expanded maritime security framework, known as ‘Operation Pulo Shield’, aimed at eradicating pipeline vandalism, crude oil theft, illegal oil refining, piracy and all forms of sea robbery within its area of responsibility. Benin, Togo and Ghana have also improved their maritime capacity and efficiency in recent years. Security agencies in the region continued to improve their capacities throughout 2016. This was underlined by the quick response to several attacks off Nigeria during which the Nigerian Navy averted potential kidnappings. Furthermore, the response to the hijacking of the product tanker Maximus – including tracking by the Ghana and Togo navies, and the proposed boarding of the ship by Nigerian Navy personnel – underlined improvements in terms of regional cooperation and response capabilities.

Though regional maritime strategies were separately implemented by the Economic Community of Central African States; the Gulf of Guinea Commission; and the Economic Community of West African States, in June 2013, these three organisations agreed to establish an interregional coordination centre for maritime security in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This centre has to cooperate with the regional maritime security coordination centres established in Pointe Noire for Central Africa and Abidjan for West Africa. In practice, though, these centres still have to prove their worth, since technical capacity is limited and funding by member countries varies widely.

At the continental level, the African Union adopted the Lomé treaty on maritime safety and security and development on 15 October 2016, which is aimed to overcome maritime crime in Africa and particularly in the Gulf of Guinea. To date, the treaty has been signed by thirty-two countries.

The international community has long supported West African maritime security measures. France, the former colonial power in many of these countries, imports more than a third of its oil from Africa, and has deployed one to two military ships off the West African coast on a permanent basis since 1990. In 2011, the French government implemented a four-year cooperation program known as ASECMAR, to support fifteen West African countries in developing an inter-agency and inter-governmental approach to maritime policy and security. The most concrete result of ASECMAR was the nomination of the first maritime prefect of Africa, in Conakry, Guinea, in 2012.

Since Europe as a whole is a key importer of African oil and gas, in 2013, France, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom launched a joint operation to help seven West African countries – Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe, and Togo – secure their maritime routes. They have assisted in training these countries’ coast guards and developing an information network for data exchange. Technological advances can also play an increasingly important role, both in tactical communications to identify and avert threats, and also through the use of coastal monitoring systems to track vessels. The newest technologies incorporate innovative subsea remote devices and aerial drones.

Given the increasingly transnational character of recent maritime crimes, these developments at the regional and extra-regional levels are encouraging. But Cynthia Glock, writing for World Politics Review, notes that while African countries seem determined to develop a successful strategy against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, beyond ambitious projects and promises, concrete results will only be obtained if funds are raised and agreements quickly implemented. Until that is done, as in the Horn of Africa, they will hardly be able to defend their own interests, and the security situation will still mainly depend on foreign countries.

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