Pirates take new territory: West African Gulf of Guinea

Pirates are making headway off the West African coast – the Gulf of Guinea is second only to Somalia in terms of pirate attacks.

It was Nov. 24, and the German-owned oil tanker MT Cancale Star was plying the blue ocean water 18 miles from shore when the crew spotted a speedboat full of pirates, approaching fast.

If this sounds like just another day in Somalia, think again. The MT Cancale Star was off the coast of the West African country of Benin, and the pirates were Nigerian.

The Gulf of Guinea is second only to Somalia in terms of such attacks, with some 32 pirate strikes reported in the first nine months of 2009.

Already home to an insurgency in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta – where attacks on oil facilities routinely cause world prices to spike – piracy is now turning the Gulf of Guinea into a region of increasing international concern. A growing number of US, British, and French ships patrol here and carry out joint exercises with the navies of Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. But the scale of the problem has become so vast, and the capabilities of local navies so small, that even local officials admit that the pirates have the upper hand.

“This is a very serious concern for us,” says Nigerian Navy spokesman Cdre. David Nabaida, speaking by phone from the Nigerian capital of Abuja. “When we got out to sea off Lagos, there are well over 200 ships out there, and a good number of them are carrying out activities that are not strictly legitimate. It is difficult to monitor all of those ships. The sea is very large, but we are hopeful, and what we need to do is build capacity so that when we know that something is happening, we can make arrests.”

Worse than Somalia?

On average, the Nigerian Navy hears of some 10 to 15 pirate attacks per month.

Some experts say that the waters of the Gulf of Guinea are at least as dangerous as those off the Somali coast, if not more so.

“The International Maritime Board reports any movement against ships on the Gulf of Aden, but you don’t have the same data from the Gulf of Guinea,” says J. Peter Pham, Africa program director for the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a New York think tank. “There are fishing boats attacked at dockside or close to shore, which don’t meet the definition of piracy on the high seas, and if you add all that, the number of attacks certainly would be equal to those off Somalia.”

In the not-too-distant future, piracy off the coast of West Africa could mean higher fuel prices for US consumers. While Nigeria itself represents only 3.1 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, the Gulf of Guinea, together with Angola and the waters off Congo, are expected to supply up to one-quarter of all the United States’ imported oil by 2015.

But for Nigerians, the cost is both economic and political.

“In West Africa, you don’t have strong states in the area that have the capacity to fight piracy, and you may not have the political will, because there is historic evidence of certain organs of state themselves being involved in attacks,” says Mr. Pham. “So in West Africa, you need international pressure to bring states together to deal with this problem.”

Too few naval patrols

Unlike the Gulf of Aden, where US and European naval groups patrol to defend commercial ships against Somali piracy, the Gulf of Guinea has precious little in the way of foreign naval patrols.

The US Navy has an African partnership station in the region, part of its effort being to help African governments build capacity to defend their own territories more effectively, and to combat militant activity.

But “with two wars going, the African partner station is struggling,” says Pham. “As the war winds down in Iraq, we may see greater resources made available for the Gulf of Guinea and for AFRICOM [the Africa Command of the US military]. But for the moment, they are stretched.”

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