Piracy’s decline in Gulf of Guinea is good news for African Trade

Analysis in brief: Compared to media coverage given to piracy in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea at its height two years ago, relatively little attention has been given to this year’s decrease in the area’s piracy. Piracy is one of several economic and security threats to the region that originates in its coastal waters.

Still a grave threat, West Africa’s pirates no longer pillage without impunity

For centuries, the Gulf of Guinea has been the transportation and trade lifeline between 20 Central and West African coastal and five landlocked nations. The waters of the coastline that measures 6,000 km is also vital to the economies of landlocked Central African nations whose imports and exports travel by road, rail and river barge to and from Atlantic Ocean ports. The gulf is defined by Senegal in the north and Angola to the south – a maritime area encompassing 11,000 square km (4,247 square miles). Because of oil shipped through the gulf from Nigeria and Central, Southern and West African sources, the Gulf of Guinea remains one of the world’s most important shipping routes. One out of four ships sailing to and from Africa passes through this gulf, which is 25% of African maritime traffic.

The word ‘hotspot’ has been used to reference the Gulf of Guinea for the past two decades by virtually every security report and media account when the maritime area replaced the Gulf of Aden (off Somalia) as ‘the world’s piracy hotspot’. Even the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which provides the maritime security data used by the media, employs the ‘hotspot’ trope. However, little media acknowledgement has been given this year to the commendable development of the hotspot cooling. Any waning crisis is viewed in newsrooms as less newsworthy than a waxing crisis.

Whether publicised or not, the data is encouraging. Just two years ago, in 2020, 40% of the world’s piracy incidents occurred in the Gulf of Guinea – 81 incidents out of 195 that occurred throughout the globe. In 2021, piracy incidents had declined to 34. By that year, the trend in piracy was away from stealing ships’ cargos and instead seizing ships’ crews to be held onshore for ransom. In 2021, the Gulf of Guinea was the site for all piracy acts of kidnapping committed anywhere in the world. However, these had declined from 130 in 2020 to 57. During 2022, there were only 12 piracy incidents recorded as of mid-year, and no kidnappings recorded at all.

One aspect of piracy activity that has remained consistent, according to the International Maritime Bureau that collects data on piracy, is that it almost all originates from Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Militant groups fighting for years for the rights of Delta residents, who have never profited from the oil wealth that the federal government exports from their area, have been engaged in guerrilla warfare, acts of sabotage and acts of piracy. The piracy began with stealing from oil tankers and evolved into other activities, such as kidnapping. UNODC estimated that, by 2021, pirates were garnering US$ 5 million per year in ransoms.

Over the years, the trend in piracy activity was to move out of nations’ territorial waters, which are policed by national navies, and into international waters. It is this movement that allowed a co-ordinated international response that was responsible for the lessening of piracy activity in 2022. That said, the ongoing threat from piracy is so great that the crisis, while less acute, continues to pose a commercial and security danger to the West and Central African regions. Piracy is also one of several criminal activities that plague the high seas, including armed robbery of ships), illicit trafficking of arms and drugs, human trafficking, and smuggling, as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Seafaring criminals have endangered the lives of coastal communities and the livelihoods of local fishermen, compromised state control over coastal and offshore areas including islands, undercut nations’ plans to develop ocean-based ‘blue economies’ and discouraged foreign investment. Because piracy gets more attention in the media, and this raises demands that governments do something about it, national navies must be pressed into anti-piracy service. This draws navies away from countering more economically damaging matters like illegal fishing.

It is a misconception that ship owners and their insurers are the entities that are primarily negatively affected by losses incurred by piracy. In fact, much higher financial damage is caused to gulf nations’ economies. Trade interruptions cause direct and indirect losses of US$ 2 billion annually, according to UNODC. The UN crime monitoring group notes that piracy’s economic harm is not restricted to the coast. Due to the dependency of Central African nations to ship and receive goods from Atlantic ports, the impact of piracy activities ”trickle along trade corridors to the heart of the continent,” according to the UNODC.

Gulf of Guinea Piracy Timeline

Building a response to Gulf of Guinea piracy

International criminal organisations are behind the piracy activities and have moved their attacks on shipping out of nations’ exclusive maritime zones and further into international waters. The African Union, the UN and regional political organisation began to organise an international response. This was the beginning of the demise of piracy and perhaps will see the further reduction of piracy activity until such incidents become isolated. However, a significant motivation for the international response beyond combatting criminal activity is that terrorist organisations are also using piracy as a means to finance their operations. Terrorist groups operating out of Africa’s Sahel region have been linked to acts of piracy.

The co-operation shown by gulf nations and international bodies is credited with the significant reduction of piracy in the two years since 2020. However, the international efforts – like all such efforts – was years in the making and required treaties between stakeholders and the establishment of bodies, the acquisition of technologies and the stationing of personnel to do the work. Nine years ago, the process was begun when 25 Central and West African countries (including landlocked countries whose economies are dependent on coastal ports) signed the ‘Yaoundé Code of Conduct’ at a summit on maritime security held in Cameroon’s capital. The treaty committed states to share information, finance the security structures and pool necessary resources. Out of this came the creation of the Interregional Coordination Centre in Yaoundé, Cameroon, the Regional Centre for Maritime Security of West Africa in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Regional Centre for Maritime Security of Central Africa in Pointe-Noire, Congo.

Within the security framework, the coast was divided into zones, with each zone hosting a Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre (MMCC). These were established in Douala (covering Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon), Cotonou (covering Benin, Nigeria and Togo) and Accra (covering Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone). Plans are underway to open MMCCs in Luanda (covering Angola, Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo) and in Praia (covering Cabo Verde, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and The Gambia)

Bilateral and national initiatives are running concurrently. Denmark and the UK have had their navies conduct anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Guinea to protect their shipping interests there. In January 2022, one of the world’s major shipping countries, Norway, teamed with Guinea to petition the UN Security Council to revisit and update its 10-year-old resolution on Gulf of Guinea piracy, which was Resolution 2039 (2012), six years after the Security Council last met on the issue in 2016. As a result, in May 2022, the Security Council passed Resolution 2634, which recognised and ordered action to be taken against the ‘grave and persistent threat’ of gulf piracy, as well as armed robbery and other pursuits of transnational organised crime occurring in the gulf. The Council resolved that gulf nations must introduce domestic laws criminalising piracy if no such laws existed and actively prosecute maritime crime. The existence of piracy from Nigeria is attributed in part to corruption in the judicial system that hinders effective prosecution. Norway is among the six Security Council members (with Brazil, France, India, the UK and the US) and Ghana is one of two African states (the other is Gabon) that are also members of the G7++ Group of Friends of the Gulf of Guinea, which strongly advocates and gives support for the Yaoundé Code of Conduct against piracy in the gulf.

On a local level, Nigeria has acknowledged that much piracy originates from its territory and, in 2021, launched its Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure (the Deep Blue Project). To build this infrastructure requires an investment of US$ 200 million to be spent on patrol ships, public awareness campaigns and 600 dedicated troops. Nigeria’s Deep Blue Project is credited with much of the reduction of piracy activity in 2022.

Togo’s navy on patrol in the Gulf of Guinea
Image courtesy: Indian Navy/WikiCommons

Using lessons learned in Somalia to end West African piracy

The national and international policing efforts in the Gulf of Guinea will remain effective as long as they are undertaken, after which piracy will return like a reoccurring cancer. This is the lesson learned in Somalia, the world’s earlier piracy ‘hotspot’ before an international flotilla was assembled to put an end to such activity there. In East Africa, policymakers know that ultimately the root cause of piracy is the economic and societal chaos in Somalia that, when addressed, will provide institutional stability and employment to individuals. The same situation is being faced in West Africa. Piracy began when Nigeria’s Delta Region rebelled against exploitation, neglect, poverty and lack of opportunity. That genesis should be enough to convince policymakers that a solution is at hand when economic equality is achieved. Thus, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has its same causative roots as terrorism in northeast Nigeria and further along the Sahel region.

The policing of the gulf is reaping results: Piracy incidents are down significantly, but policing is a temporary and not a permanent solution. The security gains achieved this year off West Africa’s coasts must be understood through this lens.

The critical points:

  • The Gulf of Guinea remains the world’s piracy epicentre, impacting the security and economies of 25 Central and West African states
  • National, bilateral, regional and international initiatives have resulted in a significant drop in piracy incidents since 2020
  • As seen in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, the world’s earlier piracy hotspot, protracted policing is required to safeguard shipping, but piracy will not be eradicated until the root causes of poverty and inequality are resolved