Adjoa Anyimadu
Research Associate, Africa Programme

For the first time, piracy now affects more seafarers in West African waters than off Somalia's coast, according to figures from the International Maritime Bureau released this week.

The statistics show that the number of incidents of piracy and other maritime crimes has increased in West Africa, but the amount of pirate activity in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden has fallen dramatically. This suggests that the concerted and wide-ranging international efforts to counter Somali piracy have been a success – between May 2012 and May 2013, UN officials noted that there were no hijackings in the Indian Ocean at all. 

The rise in West African maritime insecurity primarily affects the Gulf of Guinea: a coastal zone stretching from Senegal to Angola that provides an economic lifeline to coastal and land-locked West African countries, and is of strategic importance to the rest of the world. Safe passage to ports in the region and security within its waters are vital. Firstly for global energy production, as Nigeria and Angola are amongst the world’s top ten crude oil exporters; secondly, West Africa’s fishing industry provides millions of dollars in revenue for European and Asian fishing fleets; and thirdly, for the prevention of the trafficking of narcotics, people and weapons into West African states and Europe.

On the 24 June, 25 state leaders from Central and West Africa will meet in Yaoundé, Cameroon, where it is anticipated that they will sign agreements to encourage cooperation in combating maritime crime, which costs the region over $2 billion annually. International action on the issue was spurred when Benin’s president made a speech at the UN in 2011 calling for assistance in combating maritime crime and drug-trafficking which had contributed to a 70% decrease in the number of ships entering the port of Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou. In response to the UN Security Council’s passing of Resolution 2039 in February 2012, which urged West African countries to counter piracy on regional and national levels, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (CGG) have ensured that maritime security features heavily on the agenda of the Yaoundé summit.

High risk areas

In the Gulf of Guinea, maritime threats are manifest in a variety of ways. Kidnapping of crews is rarer in West Africa, as criminals at sea tend to use extreme violence to extract valuables, equipment or cargo from a vessel and its crew. Tankers carrying oil or other chemical products are hijacked, and their cargos are siphoned off for resale by criminals. West Africa is also one of the world’s main locations for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Almost 40% of the fish caught in West African waters is taken illegally, costing the region’s governments up to $1.5 billion annually and damaging the marine environment. Trafficking, particularly of drugs, undermines democracy and state institutions. Guinea-Bissau is a stark example of this. By some estimates, the value of drug flows through the country rivals its official economy.

However, the majority of states in the Gulf of Guinea enjoy relative political and economic stability, functioning state institutions and strong rule of law. This offers some hope that if maritime security is prioritized on a national and regional level, criminality could be contained. Political will to reduce corruption and effective law enforcement would go some way to limit the time and space maritime criminals need to increase their scope of operation, as seen in the Indian Ocean. In Somalia, state collapse in 1991 and the subsequent lack of sufficient governance has meant that there has been no up-to-date legislation criminalizing piracy in its modern form, no effective coastguard presence and no Exclusive Economic Zone protecting the fishing rights of Somali citizens.

This contrasts with a number of West African countries that have fairly strong naval traditions. Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Angola for example, have engaged in naval partnerships and training exercises with the American, British and Brazilian navies, among others. If sustained and geared at the right level, such international efforts could help boost the local naval and coastguard capacity to monitor waters and to apprehend those suspected of committing maritime crime.


However, while the regional bodies of ECOWAS and ECCAS have highlighted the detrimental effect of maritime insecurity, West African governments still suffer from 'sea-blindness'. They have not prioritized the national action necessary to combat this insecurity. International policymakers must also recognize the impact of insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea on their own interests, and the culpability of international elements in some aspects of this. For example, fish illegally caught in West Africa is often destined for EU and Asian markets, and there are links between vessels involved in IUU fishing and other forms of organized crime at sea – including drug-smuggling. 

The EU could lead international efforts through its soon-to-be announced Strategic Framework for the Gulf of Guinea. This document has the potential to galvanize West African countries, EU member states and other international actors to adopt the comprehensive approach needed to tackle the interconnected types of maritime crime in West Africa. But action and attention on the issue must be sustained. One of the chief lessons from efforts to combat Somali piracy is that early action by policymakers, regionally and further afield, could do much to ensure that criminality does not evolve and increase to an unmanageable extent.

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The lessons for the Gulf of Guinea which could be drawn from successful international efforts to combat Somali piracy are highlighted in Chatham House paper, Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea: Lessons Learned from the Indian Ocean.