Next pirate hot spot: the Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa, is a significant source of US oil. Rising piracy here could mean rising prices at the pump.

This image shows a boarding party from the EU NAVFOR French warship FS Nivose on Somali pirate skiffs off the Somali coast in this March 2010 file photo. The Gulf of Guinea, like piracy off the coast of Somalia, is the next hot spot to high-seas attacks.

High-seas piracy has found another home, in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea on the West African coast. The number of attacks in 2011 far surpassed the total number for 2010, and the pace could increase this year as well, as oil-rich nations of the region increase their production. With global oil supplies tight and the price of oil already rising, the costs of West African piracy will almost certainly be felt at your local fuel pump.

According to the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO), 64 incidents of piracy were reported in nine countries of the Gulf of Guinea region in 2011, up from 45 incidents in seven countries in 2010. There have been 10 reported piracy incidents in the first two months of 2012 alone, an indication that the pace of attacks remains steady, as oil prices rise.

Like piracy off the coast of Somalia, the high-seas attacks in the Gulf of Guinea – extending from Ivory Coast in the West toward Nigeria, and down toward the Democratic Republic of Congo -- are driven by a combination of economic opportunism by existing criminal gangs, and the lack of governmental capacity to rein in those criminal gangs on shore. Militias in Nigeria’s restive Niger Delta region have long carried out attacks on land-based oil pipelines, siphoning off crude oil in a practice called “illegal bunkering.”

In recent years, these attacks have extended to commercial shipping, and today’s West African pirates hijack ships and direct them to meet up with other large tanker ships specially contracted to offload the volumes of stolen crude oil.

Will the world’s navies begin to patrol the Gulf of Guinea, as they now patrol the Indian Ocean and the sea lanes off the coast of Somalia? The first step toward that possibility was taken this week at the United Nations, as the tiny nation of Togo called on the United Nations to help form a group of nations to fight piracy, similar to the one operating off the Somali coast.

Echoing this call were UN representatives from India, China, and Pakistan, and more quietly, the United States.

Wang Min, China's deputy permanent representative to the UN, this week told the UN Security Council that China urges the “countries with capability” to help West African nations deal with piracy, adding, “The Chinese government will also continue to provide assistance within our capabilities.”

India’s permanent representative to the UN, Amb. Hardeep Singh Puri, told the UN Security Council that India too would do its part. “India stands ready to contribute to international efforts aimed at increasing effective cooperation among States in the region to tackle the threat of piracy and armed robbery at sea,” he said.

The costs of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea region – both from stolen cargos and higher insurance premiums and security costs-- are estimated to reach $2 billion each year, compared with $7 billion from Somali piracy.  

For consuming nations such as the US – which currently relies on the Gulf of Guinea for 15 percent of its oil imports, but its reliance could increase to 25 percent over the next five years – is higher fuel prices. For producing nations, piracy eats into revenues and scares off potential investors. Benin, which derives 80 percent of its government budget revenues from oil production, has seen the number of ships using its port city of Cotonou drop 70 percent since pirate attacks started a few years back.

Through its new Africa Command, the US military has begun joint training exercises with West African navies to “enhance regional and maritime security and safety by assisting African nations in developing proficiencies in areas such as maritime interdiction operations, search and rescue operations, counterterrorism, and overfishing of African waters.”

This joint training occurs aboard US Navy ships, allowing the US to maintain a military presence in Africa, called an “Africa Partnership Station,” without actually maintaining a physical naval base on the continent. To allay fears that the US military was building a beachhead in Africa, similar to its past leases of foreign bases, such as Okinawa, Japan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Subic Bay, Philippines, Africom has been careful to describe its partnership station as “more of a concept than a platform, and does not include a specific ship, unit, or aircraft.”

“Since APS is typically based aboard a ship, it does not leave a permanent footprint in Africa,” says an Africom briefing paper. “The ship functions as a mobile university, moving from port to port fostering long-term relationships between the United States and international partners.”

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