Swim together or sink alone: African states unite to confront pirate threat

Sunday Alamba/AP
Nigerian special forces board a vessel during a 2019 navy exercise in the Gulf of Guinea. The Nigerian government is spending $195 million on drones, fast patrol boats, and other equipment to combat piracy in its waters.
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The blockage of the Suez Canal has drawn attention to one of the dangers of the alternative route: piracy off the coast of West Africa.

Nearly half of all pirate attacks in the world last year occurred in the Gulf of Guinea, and most of the brigands operate from the dense mangrove forests of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, a poverty-stricken and notoriously lawless area.

Why We Wrote This

Piracy is soaring on the high seas off the coast of West Africa. Regional states are seeking to forestall outside intervention by stepping up local cooperation efforts.

Using speedboats and surprise, the pirates are venturing ever farther out to sea. Once they have seized control of a cargo vessel, they can expect the owner to pay a ransom for the ship and its crew.

The Nigerian government has had its hands full coping with insurgencies and ethnic conflicts; neighboring countries are too small and weak to be able to combat piracy on their own.

But there is hope. Regional countries are beginning to work together, and Nigeria has launched a $195 million program to buy drones and rapid response boats to improve security in its territorial waters.

The dense mangroves of Nigeria’s Niger Delta region are known for their rich flora and fauna, as well as vast crude oil reserves.

In recent years, though, the region has earned a more shadowy reputation, highlighted by the Suez canal blockage that has forced more cargo vessels to sail along the West African coast. Gun-toting gangs have made the complex network of creeks their home, waiting to pounce on ships sailing through West African waters.

Some 2,500 vessels pass through the Gulf of Guinea every day, ferrying petroleum products or other cargo. The area is a major route for global trade.

Why We Wrote This

Piracy is soaring on the high seas off the coast of West Africa. Regional states are seeking to forestall outside intervention by stepping up local cooperation efforts.

It’s also the most dangerous.

Whereas sea piracy is declining globally, attacks are soaring in the gulf, whose waters wash the shores of more than a dozen countries from Senegal to Angola. Of 195 attacks that occurred on the world’s high seas last year, 82 were recorded here, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), including almost all crew kidnappings. Last month, 15 Turkish sailors were freed, after being captured in January. One engineer died.

Between 2015 and 2017, West African economies lost $2.3 billion to high seas crime, according to the United Nations. Beyond the value of stolen goods, piracy costs countries security personnel, equipment, and insurance.

Combating problems at sea is so challenging, analysts say, partly because of the region’s terrestrial problems.

In some countries, like Nigeria, counter-piracy efforts are overshadowed by conflicts at home, as well as the poverty that helps drive piracy in the first place.

“Many Gulf of Guinea countries suffer vulnerabilities [because] of their [limited] capabilities,” says Kamal-Deen Ali, director of the Center for Maritime Law and Security Africa. “It’s even more difficult policing waters than land – once criminals get on water, they have the opportunity to go in any direction.”

International coordination is key – but fraught in a region where Western interventions are often perceived as overreaching.

High seas, high crime

To sea watchers, the methods are familiar. A ship sails too close to the coast, and heavily armed men in speedboats corner it. The crew may make it to the ship’s citadel – a fortified room – but once the pirates are in control of the vessel, they can expect the ship owner to pay a ransom for the ship and its crew.

Attackers come mostly from Nigeria’s restive Niger Delta, the hottest spot in the gulf, where many feel exploited by government and oil companies alike. Today’s pirates emerged in the aftermath of a militant uprising in the mid-2000s, when youth picked up arms against outsiders they accused of plundering resources and degrading the environment while leaving the delta poverty-stricken.

Second Capt. Boris Oyebanji got a good look at some in May 2019. Pirates attacked his tugboat off the waters of Equatorial Guinea and captured him. Equatorial Guinean and Spanish forces responded to his distress call, and the pirates fled. But Mr. Oyebanji’s ordeal didn’t end there. Equatorial Guinea’s navy locked him up for two weeks until it was convinced he wasn’t a pirate himself.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The whole episode was so terrifying that he considered quitting seafaring.

“I haven’t returned [to the area] since then,” says Mr. Oyebanji, who now works in the Persian Gulf. “Sailing on its own is risky, and fearing for my life every day I’m offshore is not something I want to do.”

His vessel had been escorted by the Nigerian navy to Equatorial Guinea’s waters – one of several routine precautions ship owners take. Others include human dummies mounted on vessels like scarecrows and wires of spiked steel wrapped tightly around decks. Some vessels stay hundreds of miles off the coast of Nigeria, where they can’t easily be reached by the lurking speedboats, but more attacks are being recorded farther out at sea.

Coastal communities say they too, suffer. Villagers are sometimes caught in the middle when pirates and security forces face off, according to Princewill Solebo, a businessman in the bustling city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Fishermen have stopped venturing deep offshore to avoid run-ins, and villagers who travel on canoes are wary.

Mr. Solebo is holding town hall meetings to encourage villagers to expose gang leaders. But it’s a lonely mission. Members of the gangs – groups with forbidding names like Vikings or Icelanders – are often well known in the villages they hail from, he says, but most villagers are too scared to speak up or have been bribed to look away.

“I realized the reason [the pirates] have been consistent is that communities have not come together to confront this issue,” Mr. Solebo says. “Some people know these actors but they won’t talk, and you can’t do anything alone.”

Teaming up

For several years, governments in the region have cooperated on joint missions to make the gulf safer – but with mixed results.

One crucial agreement, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, was signed in 2013, establishing faster information-sharing and response between member countries. Foreign navies protecting their countries’ interests also patrol the international waters outside each country’s territorial zone. And in 2019 Nigeria, the region’s biggest power, was the first to introduce legislation specifically criminalizing piracy. (Previously, pirates were tried under armed robbery laws.)

But deeper social and economic dynamics hinder progress, experts say. The Niger Delta, for instance, is chronically lawless, and militants-turned-pirates are striking farther out at sea. Nigeria’s security forces are stretched thin, battling an insurgency in the country’s north, and ethnic conflicts in the Middle Belt.

Nigeria “will continue to struggle with maritime policing because it’s fighting ‘wars’ on all fronts,” says Dr. Ali. Meanwhile, he adds, smaller countries can hardly tackle pirates alone.

“Fighting piracy and armed robbery at sea is a particular problem in the Bight of Benin,” around Togo, Benin, and Ghana, says Alex Vines, director of the Africa program at the think tank Chatham House, in London. “Over the last year, the Nigerian effort is having an impact in territorial waters [but] pirate activity has been pushed out deeper into non-Nigerian jurisdictions.”

Merchant ship owners associations are pressing for more international patrols and better law enforcement. Stepped-up international patrols helped in the world’s previous piracy hot spot, the Gulf of Aden, where piracy rose after Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s crumbled government control. Thirty-three countries in 2009 formed the Combined Task Force 151, which saw attacks decline to zero in 2020.

In Somalia, a U.N. Security Council resolution gave the international task force special powers because of the war. “It didn’t matter whether pirates were in international waters or territorial sea; the resolutions provided the opportunity to fully deploy and counter,” says Dr. Ali.

But that approach may not work in the Gulf of Guinea, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, because most of the attacks in the Gulf of Aden took place in international waters while those in the Gulf of Guinea have usually occurred in territorial waters not open to foreign navies – although now, she adds, “there appears to be evolution.”

Attacks in the gulf's international waters are ramping up. Data obtained from the IMB shows that more attacks took place in international waters (48) than in territorial waters (33) last year.

Still, IMB Director Michael Howlett says that new solutions will be needed for West Africa. “It has to be acknowledged that in the long term, Gulf of Guinea piracy is a regional issue requiring a regional response,” he says.  

Already, Dr. Ali points out, the region is smarting from a European Union move that some say undermines local agency. In January, the EU launched the Coordinated Maritime Presences, seeking permanence in the gulf, and in March, Denmark agreed to deploy a patrol vessel in international waters there. It’s unclear if African countries were consulted; Nigeria’s maritime agency did not respond to a request for comment.

But Nigeria’s Deep Blue Project (DBP), launched this year, is cautiously inspiring hope. The ambitious $195 million project aims to purchase assets like fast-intervention vessels, build interagency command centers for the country’s naval and port authorities, and train security forces.

Together with the Yaoundé agreement, the project signals progress in the gulf, experts say. “We will see what comes out of the DBP,” says Dr. Ali, adding that the Yaoundé program represents the ideal: regional cooperation.

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