Why Piracy Is a Growing Threat in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea

In early May, a high-speed boat pulled alongside the Rio Mitong, a Panama-flagged cargo vessel, just off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. Using ladders to board the ship, a group of assailants kidnapped two crew members, taking them back to the shore, where they subsequently held them for ransom. Another ship was reportedly attacked that same night, elsewhere in the Gulf of Guinea.

These attacks are just two among many recent incidents in this vast and strategically significant body of water, where armed robbery, piracy and kidnappings at sea have escalated in recent years. Though piracy overall has decreased globally, the Gulf of Guinea—which borders more than 3,700 miles of West African coast, between Guinea and Angola—now accounts for 90 percent of maritime kidnappings in the world, according to the International Maritime Bureau. The IMB sounded the alarm and called for international cooperation after tracking an “unprecedented rise” in kidnappings in the region in 2019, up 50 percent from the previous year.

Piracy off the coast of West Africa first drew international attention in the early 2010s, as pirate activity on the other side of the continent, off the coast of Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa, was beginning to wane. By the time the crisis in East Africa had abated—thanks to a combination of international naval patrols, privately contracted security personnel and reforms to regional judicial systems—thousands of seafarers had been taken hostage off the Somali coast, and millions of dollars in ransom were paid. Meanwhile, regional governments in West Africa, along with international partners, launched their own comprehensive measures to address piracy and other crimes at sea on their side of the continent. Years later, these moves have yielded some positive results, but piracy and criminality continue in the Gulf of Guinea, and the criminal tactics of pirates and armed robbers are evolving. Coastal communities suffer the consequences, as the most vulnerable become trapped in a cycle of crime and poverty.

Evolving Criminal Tactics

The Gulf of Guinea is strategically important for shipping, with an array of developed ports and a wealth of hydrocarbon deposits that accounted for an estimated 40 percent of Europe’s oil imports in 2013. The importance of this thruway makes the gulf particularly lucrative for criminals, giving them ample vessels to attack. The potential for high profits—along with high unemployment along the coast, weak security and a lack of judicial enforcement of maritime laws in many West African countries—makes the Gulf of Guinea especially attractive for pirates and other criminals.

The Gulf of Guinea is strategically important for shipping, which makes the gulf particularly lucrative for criminals, giving them ample vessels to attack.

In the past decade, the strategies and tactics of these criminals have shifted along with the tides of regional and global markets. Much of the activity in West Africa is actually classified as armed robbery at sea, rather than piracy, because most of it takes place inside waters governed by specific nations, whereas piracy by definition takes place in international waters. Because the Gulf of Guinea borders many African countries with sizable oil and gas industries, with Nigeria being the dominant oil producer in the region, oil tankers are often the targets of attacks. Most criminals initially focused on targeting the cargo onboard these ships, including their oil, rather than the crew or the ships themselves. In what is known as oil bunkering, armed robbers would board a cargo ship and siphon oil onto another vessel to be sold on the black market.

Yet oil bunkering is a long, involved process that provides authorities with a considerable window of time to respond. When the price of stolen oil was high, the risk-to-reward ratio of bunkering was favorable. But a crash in global oil prices in 2014 forced criminals to reconsider the risk, and they pivoted to a different model in the Gulf of Guinea, long favored by pirates off the coast of Somalia: kidnapping for ransom. They kidnap the captain, first mate or chief engineer, along with other crew members, and take them off the ship, holding them for ransom onshore in order to extort a payment from either a shipping company or the hostages’ families. Kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea are resolved in a notably shorter length of time than those off the Somali coast, ranging from three to 10 days in 2018, compared to an average of 11 months during the peak of piracy near Somalia. But in the Gulf of Guinea, the kidnappings have still been violent. Former hostages have reported abuse against them by their captors that included amputation of fingers and cigarette burns.

For years, armed insurgent groups were the main threat in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta. In the 1980s and early 1990s, an influx of multinational oil companies, encouraged by the Nigerian government, sparked a popular backlash over grievances that the oil industry was also exploiting Nigeria’s economy and political system, and damaging the environment. These grievances coalesced into two notorious insurgencies that drove a decade of instability and targeted attacks on oil infrastructure: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Delta, or MEND, which was active from 2006 to 2009, and the smaller, but equally dangerous Niger Delta Avengers, or NDA, which took up arms between 2016 and 2017.

Both MEND and the NDA attacked undersea oil pipelines and offshore platforms, tankers and floating production vessels, aiming to cause enough damage to force the companies to withdraw from the Delta. These tactics proved to be highly effective. In June 2008, MEND attacked Shell’s Bonga Offshore Oil Rig, forcing the company to temporarily stop production at its $3.6 billion facility; more recently, in March 2016, the NDA used an underwater explosive to destroy Shell’s Trans Forcados Pipeline, causing $3 billion of damage. Kidnappings and oil bunkering also gave these insurgent groups new sources of funding, as well as political notoriety.

 A member of the Nigerian navy patrols near damaged oil pipelines.

The Nigerian navy patrols near oil pipelines damaged by militants in Lagos, Nigeria, July 13, 2009 (AP photo by Sunday Alamba).

The economic consequences for Nigeria were drastic. MEND reduced Nigerian oil outputs by 25 percent, while the NDA reduced oil production by 40 percent in 2016, driving outputs to a 20-year low.*

When MEND and the NDA left the scene, they were replaced by more opportunistic criminal groups motivated by profit instead of politics. Because these new groups aren’t aiming to disrupt a specific government, they have expanded their territories to attack ships in other parts of the Gulf of Guinea, and have inspired copycats in other countries. Today, piracy has spread beyond Nigeria to areas off the coasts of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the emerging hotspots of Togo and Benin.

Fears that terrorist organizations in these new frontiers will emulate pirates in the Niger Delta and assume their tactics—in particular, Boko Haram and its splinter group the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP—are not unfounded. Extremist groups elsewhere in the world have turned to piracy—like Abu Sayyaf, a group in the Philippines linked to the Islamic State, which has attacked vessels in the Sulu and Celebes Seas and taken crew or passengers for ransom. Somali pirates have, in turn, been accused of smuggling stolen weapons and cargo to al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabab, and the Islamic State’s faction there.

However, while the possibility cannot be completely ruled out, as of now there appear to be no organizational or tactical links between Boko Haram, ISWAP and the Niger Delta oil pirates. That is largely attributable to geographic location and operational capabilities, said Jacob Zenn, a professor at Georgetown University who closely studies Boko Haram and ISWAP, in an interview. Both Boko Haram and ISWAP primarily operate in northeast Nigeria, far away from the Gulf of Guinea and other major West African waterways, and they have not invested in the complex and costly capabilities needed for piracy to actually be effective.

In other words, just because terrorist groups can theoretically turn to piracy does not mean that they necessarily will, or that it would be in their strategic interests to do so. Instead, there will likely be more kidnappings at sea in West Africa by opportunistic but apolitical criminal groups, which will only serve to harm the shipping and oil industries, and hurt coastal populations most of all.

A Cycle of Crime and Poverty

Unsurprisingly, piracy and armed robbery at sea have significant ecological, economic and security implications for coastal communities throughout the Gulf of Guinea. Oil bunkering, which often relies on pirates hastily loading oil onto small, rudimentary vessels, can lead to massive oil spills that damage the health and livelihood of people who live by the sea. Attacks on offshore oil-production facilities also lead to spills and other environmental damage, while even kidnappings increase the likelihood of accidents by removing specially trained crews from ships.

Oil spills can of course contaminate the Gulf itself, hurting fishing and other sources of food and livelihood. If they reach the shoreline, the spills can also pollute freshwater sources, contaminating drinking water and water used for farming. Piracy and armed robbery at sea damage communal health in other, less direct ways, too. The mere presence of these criminal groups can deter multinational corporations from cleaning up coastal oil spills due to fears of attack, leaving communities vulnerable to significant long-term health complications, such as cancer and asthma, and decreased overall life expectancies.

As piracy and criminality continue, coastal communities suffer the consequences, as the most vulnerable become trapped in a cycle of crime and poverty.

Piracy and armed robbery also deprive coastal regions of socioeconomic and infrastructure-related development opportunities. The Gulf of Guinea’s reputation as a high-risk maritime environment discourages economic investments from both private sector companies and other countries. In 2013, for example, Shell decided to close four onshore oil pipelines in the Niger Delta after a spate of armed robberies by militant groups.

Piracy and armed robbery hinder broader regional economies as well, disrupting critical industries like fishing and tourism, while increasing the cost of living. In East Africa, a spike in piracy in 2011 and 2012 led to a 6.5 percent regional reduction in tourism, and a 23.8 percent regional reduction in fishing exports. This lost income has further economic effects. It increases the costs of importing goods, thereby raising local costs of living. The higher costs to producing and shipping exports also decreases their competitiveness in foreign markets. Like countries in East Africa wracked by piracy earlier this decade, countries in West Africa along the Gulf of Guinea are bringing in less revenue because of piracy, leaving them with fewer resources to invest in the development of coastal communities.

These economic costs, in conjunction with already limited employment opportunities, create a cycle of crime that is both a cause and a byproduct of piracy and armed robbery. Because piracy can be highly profitable, individuals living along the coast without jobs may turn to crime for income and the sense of purpose and even dignity that comes with those better prospects. Yet criminality merely perpetuates the economic problems in these communities, while creating incentives for others to turn to crime, as well.

Finally, piracy and armed robbery puts people living in coastal communities at a higher risk of violence—not just from criminal groups but also from the often militarized response of authorities. Take Nigeria’s heavy-handed approach to attacks on the oil industry and infrastructure in the Niger Delta. In 2009, a major military counteroffensive in the Niger Delta caught hundreds of civilians in the crossfire and displaced thousands more. Unrest has simmered ever since. In February, after pirates killed four soldiers in the Delta, the Nigerian military retaliated against Delta residents, burning at least 20 homes in a nearby village. Rather than reducing crime and responding to popular grievances, this type of retaliatory violence from the state may in fact have the opposite effect, fueling local support for both militancy and piracy.

Regional Counterpiracy Efforts

The threats that piracy poses to West Africa have been clear for a while now. In 2011 and 2012, the United Nations Security Council passed two resolutions that paved the way for more regional cooperation to protect ships and deal with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The first resolution, adopted by the Security Council in October 2011, called on West African states to develop and strengthen domestic laws and regulations to officially criminalize piracy and armed robbery at sea, and to cooperate with the shipping industry, and each other, to establish an information-sharing mechanism that would record incidents in the region. The 2012 resolution built on that approach and urged countries along the Gulf of Guinea to work together to develop a counterpiracy strategy that would span West and Central Africa.

Nigerian Naval Special Forces conduct a joint navy exercise in the Gulf of Guinea.

Nigerian Naval Special Forces patrol during a joint navy exercise in the Gulf of Guinea, March 20, 2019 (AP photo by Sunday Alamba).

Then, in 2013, regional multilateral bodies—the Economic Community of West African States, the Economic Community of Central African States, and the Gulf of Guinea Commission, with support from the International Maritime Organization—cooperatively developed an agreement known as the Yaounde Code of Conduct. It encompasses a wide array of maritime crimes, including piracy and armed robbery. Signatory countries, including all states that border the gulf, and inland countries as far away as Burundi, coordinate using two regional information-sharing centers, the Regional Center for Maritime Security of Central Africa and the Regional Center for Maritime Security of West Africa, which are connected through the Interregional Coordination Center in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.

The Yaounde Code and its coordination network have already improved information-sharing markedly. The progress is perhaps best illustrated by a 2016 incident involving the MT Maximus, a Panama-flagged oil tanker that was attacked off the coast of Cote d’Ivoire in February 2016. Six countries spanning the region coordinated to respond to the attack, sharing information on the hijacked vessel’s location that helped the Nigerian navy board the vessel and free its hostages after 11 days.

Outside stakeholders have since moved to support the Yaounde Code of Conduct with their own initiatives. In 2016, the European Union launched its Gulf of Guinea Inter-regional Network, which covers 19 countries and aims to improve safety and security in the region by “supporting the establishment of an effective and technically efficient regional information sharing network.”

Another outside initiative called the G7++ Group of Friends of the Gulf of Guinea, which was established in 2013, is also supporting these anti-piracy efforts. It includes all the countries from the Group of Seven, as well as seven other European nations, plus Brazil, which attends as an observer, and international organizations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and INTERPOL. As with many of the institutions focused on maritime security in the region, it has expanded its scope beyond piracy and armed robbery at sea to encompass other maritime crimes, such as illegal fishing, human trafficking and the illicit trade of drugs, wildlife products and weapons.

In the Niger Delta, COVID-19 threatens to realign political priorities and decrease needed investments even as conflict between maritime criminals and the state continues.

Yet more work is still needed, especially to align these efforts with political and economic reforms onshore in individual West African countries. For Nigeria, in particular, these reforms include anti-corruption measures, economic development in the Niger Delta and increased accountability for state security forces. These are all longstanding problems in Nigeria that successive governments have promised to tackle but consistently failed to fully address. Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed an anti-piracy law, but it focused solely on prosecuting maritime crimes and compensating companies for stolen assets, rather than also addressing the deeper socio-economic issues and grievances behind piracy in the Niger Delta.

New Challenges During the Coronavirus Pandemic

If it wasn’t challenging enough, the threat of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea has now been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. In the Niger Delta, for example, COVID-19 threatens to realign political priorities and decrease needed investments in an area where conflict between maritime criminals and state security forces continues to spur on piracy and armed robbery, despite recent commitments by Nigeria to address criminality in its waters. Nigeria’s economy has already been hit hard by the pandemic, triggering emergency adjustments to its national budget. If these budget constraints end up curtailing the government’s ability to sustain its demobilization and reintegration programs for former combatants in the Delta, history suggests that piracy and armed robbery may rise.

Regional and international coordination is critical to ensuring that the interstate threat of piracy does not grow as the economic impact of COVID-19 forces many states to cut their budgets. Yet COVID-19 is already challenging those commitments. A French naval mission that was deployed to the Gulf of Guinea to support regional counterpiracy and maritime security efforts in early March was recalled to France weeks later over COVID-19 concerns. The Italian navy quickly deployed a vessel to replace the French ship, but these voluntary commitments may not be feasible as the pandemic continues. West African governments in particular will have to balance their limited capabilities to simultaneously address a public health crisis and the ongoing threats to maritime security.

Piracy and kidnappings have not stopped despite the pandemic. In late April, nine Georgian sailors were kidnapped by pirates from the Panama-flagged tanker Vemahope off Nigeria’s coast. While they were thankfully freed weeks later, the incident underscores the ongoing need for regional cooperation against piracy. Without it, piracy will continue to rise unabated, threatening the long-term safety and development of countries along the West African coast.

*Editor’s note: The original version of this article estimated the cost of attacks by MEND on Nigeria’s oil infrastructure at more than $202 million between 2005 and 2009. That figure referred to acts of piracy and oil bunkering, not MEND attacks. WPR regrets the error.

Maisie Pigeon is the Africa program manager for the Stable Seas program at One Earth Future, a foundation that supports peacebuilding programs internationally.

Kelly Moss is an African maritime security researcher at Stable Seas and an M.A. candidate at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.


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