Enhancing maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea
A report on rising piracy in Nigeria’s coastal waters and its negative economic impact has put the country on the global map again for the wrong reasons. The 28 incidents of armed attacks and piracy against ships at port anchorages recorded in various parts of the country in the third quarter of this year, according to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, demonstrate the frightening dimension piracy has assumed. Nigeria needs to take strong, decisive actions to roll back the assault.
Raising the alarm, the Director-General, NIMASA, Bashir Jamoh, said piracy, both at the anchorage and the Gulf of Guinea, was devastating on seafarers and shipping activities, adding to the general insecurity gripping the country. Underscoring this is the recent skirmish where a Danish naval patrol killed four pirates and injured one other off the coast of Nigeria.
Among the many rivers that drain into the Gulf of Guinea are the Niger and the Volta. The coastline includes the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Bonny. This area facilitates trade between Southern and Western Africa and is a key route for valuable cargo, including crude oil emanating from Angola and Nigeria. Other countries that make up the basin of the Gulf are Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Republic of Congo, and Congo DR.
Some 31 crew members were kidnapped in five separate incidents in Q1 2020. The Gulf accounted for 43 per cent of all reported piracy incidents worldwide that same quarter, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau. The region accounted for all 40 kidnapped crew incidents, as well as the sole crew fatality.
The IMB’s global piracy report has recorded 38 incidents since the start of 2021 – compared with 47 incidents during the same period last year. In the first three months of 2021, 33 vessels were boarded, there were two attempted attacks, two vessels were fired upon, and one vessel was hijacked.
Despite a drop in reported piracy incidents in Q1 2021, violence against sailors is on the rise. Since the start of 2021, a total of 40 crew members have been kidnapped, compared to 22 crews in Q1 2020. A crew member was also killed in Q1 2021. In contrast, the Gulf of Aden in the turbulent Middle East witnessed only one incident around Somalia in Q1 2021. The Singapore Straits recorded six, compared to five in Q1 2020.
In the Callao Anchorage, Peru, five incidents were reported in the first three months of 2021 compared to just three in Q1 2020. The Nigerian Navy estimates 10 to 15 attacks every month in recent years, saying the monthly tally could rise as high as 50.12. In contrast, the International Maritime Organisation has recorded about 50 successful attacks annually for the entire region in recent years.
Much of the piracy in West Africa thrives on the disorder, opacity, and corruption in the regional oil industry. A large share of the recent piracy attacks targeted vessels carrying petroleum products to feed the region’s booming fuel black market and illicit crude export market.
Accounting for half the population of the region, and half of the regional GDP, Nigeria must take the lead in the regional anti-piracy war. Oil exports provide 95 per cent of the country’s foreign earnings and 80 per cent of budgetary revenues. Region-wide, the industry has for two decades been threatened by transnational organised crime.
Worried, the European Union has since 2014 contributed more than €55 million to fight piracy. This included funding for security upgrades for harbours, and programmes to improve cooperation between security forces in the region. In January, EU heads of government took things a step further: European navy vessels are already active in the region, and these are to be networked to communicate patrol responsibilities and exchange information on pirate activity.
In November, an Italian fleet used a helicopter to chase off pirates who had boarded a Danish ship. A month earlier, pirates had violently attacked a vessel in the Gulf, injuring two crew members with another reported missing. The United Nations said the surge in maritime piracy in the Gulf costs coastal nations over $1.9 billion annually. The region suffered 106 incidents in 2020 with 623 seafarers kidnapped.
To solve the problem, Nigeria should effectively implement its Deep Blue Project, which has cost $195 million. It should aid neighbouring states in training their navies and acquiring functioning radar systems to monitor their waters and initiate an effective regional response. Being the principal security agency in anti-piracy operations, the Nigerian Navy needs adequate funding, equipment and specialised training for sailors and naval commandos to meet the evolving challenges.
Most importantly, it should clean up. The recent allegation of collusion by security personnel with criminals made by the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, echoes a similar admission by the Chief of Naval Staff, Zubairu Gambo, when he assumed office earlier in February that some naval personnel collude with “drug traffickers, bandits, kidnappers and economic saboteurs.” He should fulfil his promise to identify and punish such officers.
The IMO recommends that member states, national authorities, the UN, and other relevant organisations strengthen law enforcement to arrest and prosecute pirates in relevant jurisdictions, in accordance with international law and national legal frameworks, while coastal states are urged to harmonise criminal penalties.
Greater collaboration with all critical stakeholders is essential, including information-sharing on maritime criminality and illegality, use of maritime domain awareness such as the Maritime Domain Awareness for Trade for the Gulf of Guinea, and use of surface and/or air patrol capabilities.
The World Economic Forum identifies four steps needed to counter piracy in the gulf: affected states need to share information on what is happening on their coastlines; develop strong legislation and prosecute maritime criminals; conduct joint training activities so that countries can develop procedures and improve their interoperability; and set aside funds to build local security capacity. Nigeria should enthusiastically adopt these measures and seek greater international assistance to stamp out piracy.