Foreign Policy Blogs

Taking the Wind out of the Sails of Piracy in West Africa

West africa PiratesAs 25 leaders from West and Central Africa convened for a two-day conference in Yaounde, Cameroon, global leaders awaited solutions from the summit on how to fix the challenges of security in the Gulf of Guinea. The region is crucial in the geopolitical scope for many world powers as its vast oil resources account for large portions of Western and Eastern consumption.

A gathering of this magnitude was long overdue as West African pirates leapfrogged Somalia with the most pirate attacks of any region in Africa, the first time the area posted more attacks than the Horn of Africa. A recent report released by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported that there were 960 sailors attacked off the coast of West Africa in 2012, while the coast of Somalia only reported 851 such attacks. The map released by the IMB showed that the coasts of Nigeria remain the most volatile. In addition, the political and economic makeup of the region certainly present ample opportunities for piracy. While most Somali piracy crimes are hostage situations, in the Gulf of Guinea, the primary objective is to steal oil, whether crude or refined.

Much of the problem stems from corruption and mismanagement within the Nigerian government as poor security is provided in and out of the waters. However, more alarming is the fact that over half of the ships attacked were at anchor, drifting or performing ship to ship transfers, signaling that the attacks have become more detailed and sophisticated. Due to the lack of a quality refining system in the oil-rich country, the waterways are filled with ships transporting crude oil out of the area or returning with refined oil from overseas refineries, as Nigeria does not possess the infrastructure to refine all of its resources internally. This produces plenty of targets for opportunistic pirates to strike at the weakly secured vessels. This problem cost West Africa nearly U.S. $ 1 billion last year alone.

This symposium definitely turned the ears of the international world as well. Europe receives an estimated 40 percent of its oil from the gulf region and the U.S. just under 30 percent.  These numbers alone provide assurance that the area holds a significant geopolitical interest to both. Therefore their assistance in securing the gulf should be offered, at least in some capacity. In addition, China and India have shown significant interest in the region as of late, attempting to secure exploration deals in the area for both oil and natural gas. Currently patrols from China, Europe and the U.S. occupy the Gulf of Aden.

The group of leaders discussed an anti-piracy force to be supported by all of the countries in the region.  The only problem now is how to pay for it. With corruption fairly rampant in the Nigerian oil game, very few civilians of the country actually see any real gain from the business. This means that enforcing new taxes to pay for such a force may create complications. However, too much interference from external forces, namely the U.S., Europe, China and India could also create problems as such forces may increase their influence on regional politics, leading to a distrust and disconnect with the regional inhabitants.

Inevitable it will come down to the countries in the region to create a balance between external support and internal lead on a security force to quell pirate attacks. A stand-by security force was discussed and preliinary agreements regarding country commitments in three years were established. While Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara and Cameroon President Paul Biya were extremely vocal in improving the security sector in the region, it is Nigeria that must take the initiative in this operation for it to be successful.

Nigeria possesses the largest oil reserves of any country along the coast of Guinea. In addition, with over 174 million people and a annual gross domestic product that eclipses US$ 450 billion, Nigeria’s population and economy outdistances all of the other coastal countries combined. However, corruption and inconsisitencies in fuel policies from Nigeria create the near constant stream of ships maneuvering in and out of the Gulf of Guinea making themselves prime targets for efficient and profitable pirate attacks. Investment in refining infrastructure would cut down on the traffic, but corrupt players within the oil industry may block any movement on this.

The bottom line in this scenario is figuring a way to reduce piracy without depending completely on external forces. With commitments being outlined for all countries, the initial framework for such an agreement remains in place, the problem is, will it be enacted?

If Nigeria can spearhead the security force with sufficient investment and forces, a stand by force may be effective. However, investment in onboard security will also need to be made as by definition a standby force is strictly reactionary. A multi-tiered plan would involve prevention as well as reaction. So investing in security forces for vessels will make pirates think twice before leading such daring attacks. Finally, with backup support from external forces, the potential to slow the piracy could be established. Creating the framework for a system with several safety nets ensures that piracy is being repelled through several channels, offering the best chance for success. Because continued numbers like these would severely damage the regions potential resources profit and private investment.



Daniel Donovan
Daniel Donovan

Daniel is the Executive Director of a non-profit development organization that focuses on building infrastructure and training in rural Sub-Saharan Africa called the African Community Advancement Initiative ( . He has a Master's degree graduate in International Relations with an emphasis on conflict resolution and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with his extensive financial background, Daniel also works as a consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence in Pretoria and the Centre for Global Governance and Public Policy in Abu Dhabi. In addition to his work at FPA, he is also a regular contributor to The Continent Observer and International Policy Digest. He currently resides in Denver, CO.

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