U.S. Sailors Practice counter-piracy tactics. U.S. Navy photo

Deadly Bandits of the Western Sea

Peter Dörrie explains escalating piracy in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea

Being a pirate has lost a lot of its appeal over the last few months — but only off the Somali coast, where security is improving by the day. Now sea bandits are looking west to richer waters.

Once relatively safe from seaborne crime, West Africa is about to become the world’s piracy hotspot.

In their glory days beginning around 2008, Somali pirates armed with speedboats, grappling hooks, ladders and AK-47s attacked hundreds of commercial and fishing ships per year and captured dozens of them along with their crews. The average ransom paid by ship owners in 2010 was $5.4 million.

Those times have passed. Seeing the vital shipping lane through the Gulf of Aden threatened, the international community reacted with a massive deployment of naval power to the region. Shipping companies hired armed guards for their vessels. Somali pirates were getting arrested — and some even killed. And as security on land in Somalia improved, the pirates ran out of safe havens on shore.

But Somalia isn’t Africa’s only piracy zone. Largely unnoticed by the world media, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea on the West African coast are hard at work. In 2012, they finally outdid their eastern counterparts.

A Gabonese sailor on patrol. U.S. Navy photo

Gulf of danger

The Gulf of Guinea is the part of the Atlantic Ocean that stretches from the Republic of Guinea to the coast of Nigeria. It’s a vast area of water, bordering one of the most densely inhabited coastlines in the world.

Championed by the Portuguese, sea trade took off in the region in the 16th to 18th centuries. European nations fought for the best harbors along the so-called “Ivory and Gold Coast.” With colonization, the slave trade vanished. France and Britain further invested in the harbor infrastructure to give easy access to their colonies. Meanwhile the colonizers suppressed centuries-old trade routes that linked the coastal societies to the trans-Sahara trade network.

As a result, today all African nations bordering the Gulf of Guinea are oriented towards the sea. Economically underdeveloped, with weak regional trade and a small tax base, these states rely almost exclusively on export for hard currency income. Some like Nigeria are blessed with large reserves of oil, while others — Côte d’Ivoire, for example — depend on agricultural exports. All import large shares of their fuel and consumer goods.

This system relies almost totally on sea trade. Freighters and tankers navigate the Gulf of Guinea by the thousands, heading for deep-water ports like Abidjan, Takoradi, Cotonou or Lagos.

More and more of these ships are being targeted by pirates. So many, in fact, that in 2012 there have been more sailors impacted by piracy in the Gulf of Guinea than in Somali waters, according to a recent report of the International Maritime Bureau.

A typical pirate attack in the Gulf of Guinea starts out a lot like it might out east off the Horn of Africa. A group of pirates armed with AK-47s and RPGs approaches a vessel. They try to board it and, if successful, round up the crew. It’s common for the bandits to fire on ships to compel them to stop and they often act brutally against the sailors. Of the 206 hostages taken last year, at least five were killed and many more injured, according to the IMB.

But this is where the similarities end. Piracy in West Africa is a whole different problem than piracy off the Horn — and may be even more dangerous.

U.S. and Chinese forces train off the Somali coast. U.S. Navy photo

East vs. west

Firstly Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and other states where western pirates operate are not failed states like Somalia. While their institutional capacity varies, they have governments, security services and a reasonably well-developed economic infrastructure.

Their coast are also densely inhabited, which makes it virtually impossible for hijackers to hold a ship and crew for months while awaiting a ransom deal, as is common in Somalia.

Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea therefore try to board ships by night, sometimes while they are still docked in one of the harbors along the coast. Often, they content themselves with relieving the ship and crew of all valuables and take off again after only a few minutes, long before any navy can react.

But in other cases, they go further. Especially with pirates hailing from Nigeria, abductions are common. The master and crew members are taken hostage, brought ashore and only released after a ransom is paid. People can be more easily hidden than ships and kidnapping is an established business sector in Nigeria, with not even family members of government ministers being immune.

Other pirates are worse. They like to target tankers delivering processed fuel. Once they have taken control of such a ship, they steer it to the Nigerian coast and pump off the precious load in makeshift harbors. Afterwards crew and ship get released and the stolen product gets sold on the black market.

All this makes piracy in West Africa more difficult to fight than in Somalia. In Somalia, the international community basically put a lid on the problem by throwing money at it: dispatching dozens of warships and hundreds of naval personnel. They were successful, because they could effectively fight the symptoms of the problem.

Piracy in Somalia usually happens hundreds of miles off the coast. By deploying modern surveillance techniques and coordinating merchant movements in the waters, pirate boats can be detected and stopped long before they become a threat. Eastern piracy will remain a problem as long as Somalia remains unstable, but it will remain a marginal problem if the international community is willing to keeping spending money.

Cameroonian sailors develop counter-piracy tactics. U.S.Navy photo

Rough sailing

It’s different in West Africa. Piracy happens much closer to the coast, sometimes even in harbors. Small boats, like those used by pirates, are the norm in these waters and can’t be easily spotted before an attack happens. Because pirates are not interested in the ship itself, only its crew and load, there is little time to plan and execute rescue missions. Soon after pirates board a ship, they return to the coast with their loot.

The international community will also find it much harder to operate in the Gulf of Guinea. States like Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire won’t tolerate foreign navies operating in their waters unless these operations are closely coordinated with their own security services.

And herein lies a problem: Nigerian pirates for example are unlikely to attempt stealing a ship without first paying off the local police. Security services in this part of the world are notoriously corrupt. They’re part of the problem.

Piracy in West Africa can’t really be solved by sending warships. It has to be solved by local governments removing the incentives for piracy — that is, poverty and marginalization. Security services have to be reformed and their capacity and training have to be improved. These are complex issues.

But they’re issues that have to solved — and fast. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea already hurts local economies to the tune of billions of dollars annually. In just one tragic example, the number of ships arriving at the port of Cotonou in Benin has dropped by 70 percent since pirate attacks started — a catastrophe for a nation that derives 80 percent of its government income from port fees and taxes.

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