Piracy as an Emerging Security Threat in the Gulf of Guinea

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Several factors contribute to the insecurity of the Gulf of Guinea (GoG). But the historical root cause is social and boils down to inequality and the distribution of wealth. This goes hand-in-hand with weak institutions, corruption, and the absence of an overall vision of development to drive governance to advance social cohesion.

Onshore-offshore dynamics

Maritime (in)security is the most complex challenge in the region, not least because not one state or organization can unilaterally address the challenge at hand. The phenomenon of piracy as studied in the Gulf of Aden (GoA) has demonstrated a clear link between piracy and terrorism, but the situation in the GoG is not straightforwardly comparable. There is no doubt that maritime security in Africa benefits from the involvement of international stakeholders, such as the EU’s Operation Atalanta, as well as Indian and Turkish missions that have held piracy in check in the Horn of Africa. But the situation differs in Western Africa.

In Somalia we had complete state failure and, therefore, the involvement of international stakeholders was hardly contested. The littoral states of the GoG are sovereign states with functioning governments preferring to be supported rather than to abrogate their responsibilities to external powers. Incongruity with this reality, security in the region can only be improved by bolstering state capacity and fostering intra-regional cooperation.

Meanwhile, the challenge of piracy along the west coast of Africa, particularly in the GoG, is surging: from Côte d’Ivoire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Piracy in the GoG began in the early 2000s. At first, these were sporadic incidents targetting small fishing vessels off the Nigerian coast. But as the volume of oil exports increased, pirates changed tack. They disguise as fishing vessels and approach bigger ships, capture them, and take them to an obscure destination from where they make demands for ransom. In some cases, pirates have “inside” support: civil servants, border police officers and/or soldiers may.

The pirates themselves generally come from the turbulent Niger Delta producing the bulk of the nation’s petroleum, but which remains woefully underdeveloped, scarred by pollution and some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country. Men involved in piracy are drawn from a pool of desperately poor and unemployed youth, who engage in illegal activity, including kidnapping, stealing and refining oil. They often bring the kidnapped crew into the streams which wind through the swampy area. They use AK-47s, machine guns, RPGs, grenades, and knives and have the capacity to stop ships underway with firepower. The possibility of Boko Haram or another terrorist group, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), targeting offshore oil and gas installations in the GoG cannot be discounted while examining these piracy activities. As indicated by International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 135 crew members were abducted from their vessels in 2020 around the world, with the GoG accounting for more than 95 per cent of reported cases. In 2019 the incidents reached an all-time high of 130 crew members in 22 different incidents. In the last quarter of 2019 alone, the GoG recorded 39 crew abductions in two separate incidents. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre recorded 84 attempted attacks in 2020, up from 64 in 2019, and near the level of 2018 (82). Most assaults targeted the crew. Today, the region represents over 90% of seaward kidnappings around the world.

Third-party economic interests in the Gulf of Guinea

The GoG offers an economic lifeline for coastal and landlocked West African countries and is of strategic importance to the rest of the World. Safe arrivals to ports in the GoG and security within its waters are crucial to global energy security as Nigeria and Angola are among the world’s 10 biggest crude oil producers and exporters; the region is also crucial for West Africa’s fishing industry, a crucial labour-intensive and, therefore, strategic industry. Regarding oil-exporting and oil-importing, the GoG states produce approximately 500 million litres (three million barrels) of crude oil daily. For instance, in 2019, the EU sourced 9.5 % of its oil supply from the GoG. It comes as no surprise that since 2008, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has adopted anti-piracy resolutions both in the case of Somalia and the GoG as both regions are of crucial geoeconomic significance.

The narrow framing of ‘capacity building’ in the GoG

The real question of consequence is how to frame a maritime security policy as “capacity building” when there is no issue of state failure.

A significant transborder challenge is a deeply conflictual relationship between state and society. Among disillusioned subjects who do not feel they are treated as citizens, there is a sizable pool of recruitment for pirate or paramilitary groups. That is a common enough narrative. But as states in the region continue to be the sovereign and legitimate stakeholders in regional security, international stakeholders can only provide states with “empowerment” and “assistance” rather than take over as direct security providers.

After the passing of UNSC resolutions, the EU and the UN’s agencies have conducted several capacity-building projects in the region. These projects mainly focus on supporting local security groups to counter immediate threats and strengthen intra-regional cooperation, most notably via the African-led Yaoundé process. Nevertheless, these capacity-building activities have not sufficiently addressed key issues affecting societal resentments such as youth unemployment, weak governance and political power struggles among African ruling “elites”.

These narrowly framed capacity-building projects focusing on policing, and law and order, have a limited impact. They do not address the root cause of political resentment that bolsters the ranks of criminal organisations feeding instability across GoG, not least piracy. This would require a broader scope of “capacity-building”, looking in substance at poverty, unemployment, social and political inequality, and corruption. Paradoxically, state failure has become a precondition to substantial policy development.


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