Piracy Watch: Preventing the “Somalization” of West Africa

By: James Marcus Bridger 

An All Too Familiar Event

On September 14, armed pirates commandeered an idling tanker, the Matteus I, making off with its cargo of crude oil and 23 hostages. While such events no longer make headlines when they occur off the coast of Somalia, this hijacking took place on the other side of the continent, 60 nautical miles from Cotonou, the capital of Benin. The incident is the latest in a string of bold maritime assaults threatening to paralyze oil exportation and commercial shipping in the Gulf of Guinea. Though armed robbery at sea is not new to the region, the last six months have seen the attacks become more systematic and the criminals, more organized. It appears that West Africa’s pirates have now begun to mimic the tactics of their Somali counterparts—a development that regional states, multinational corporations, and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have all met with great concern. Highlighting this growing danger, Lloyd’s Market Association, a London-based group of insurers, recently added the Gulf of Guinea to its “Hull War, Strikes, Terrorism and Related Perils Listed Areas,” placing the waters of Nigeria and Benin in the same category as those of Somalia and Iraq. Seeking to examine the intricacies of this oft overlooked security threat, this article intends to do three things: chart the evolution of West African piracy, assess whether or not a “Somalization” is occurring, and assess regional and international plans to combat the growing crisis.

West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea

From Fishermen to “Freedom Fighters”

The problem of piracy in West Africa extends from Ghana in the north to Angola in the south. The historical epicenter is Nigeria, where pirates have parasitically fed off the country’s oil boom since the 1970s. The crime was initially one of simple economic opportunism. The ransacking of docked ships was common, while bolder pirates—equipped with little more than canoes and machetes—would venture slightly further from port in attempts to board and rob slow moving vessels. Over time, however, Nigerian piracy became more professional. Pirates operating in gangs of 20 to 30 began making use of outboard motors and automatic weapons, items that opportunistic fishermen were never able to afford. The clairvoyant-like manner in which certain pirates were able to identify and attack vulnerable vessels led many ship owners to conclude that the gangs were conspiring with port authorities and customs officials.

In the early 2000s, another drastic change occurred, as piracy became infused with political motives. The basic grievance was that the federal government had taken too great a share of Nigeria’s petroleum wealth, while distributing little back to the oil-soaked communities of the Niger Delta. Local accusations of corruption in Lagos were vindicated by Transparency International, who consistently ranked Nigeria as one of the most corrupt countries on earth throughout the early 2000s. A plethora of militant groups emerged to “readdress” the oil issue during this period, the most significant of which was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Seen as an effective tool for the “redistribution” of oil wealth, pirate attacks increased dramatically at the turn of the century. From 2000 to 2005, Nigeria’s waters were more pirate-prone than those of Somalia. By 2004, Lagos had become the most dangerous port in the world.

Politically motivated attacks on offshore platforms, the kidnapping of oil workers, and the theft of crude oil challenged the traditional definition of piracy, as the crime is only recognized as such under international law if it is committed “for private ends.” Certain incidents are clearly socio-political in nature. In 2000, militants stormed a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig, taking 165 employees hostage before releasing them in exchange for profit redistribution talks. Other attacks seem much more motivated by “private ends.” Oil workers taken hostage by MEND in 2007 were reportedly released only after an $800,000 ransom was paid for each victim. The theft of crude oil from refueling ships (a crime referred to as ‘bunkering’) also brings in a tidy profit as the cargo is resold on a black market that spans the continent. Piracy expert Martin Murphy concludes that in West Africa, the “line between the political and the criminal is hard to draw.” Karen Leigh of Time concurs that what has evolved in the Gulf of Guinea is “a combination of brazen criminality and vigilant redressing of economic imbalance.”

Go Forth and Multiply

Attacks off the coast of Lagos have declined in recent years, a trend attributed to intensified naval patrols and a 2009 government amnesty offered to Delta militants. As is too often the case in the global fight against organized crime however, a concerted effort to suppress piracy in one area has had the unintended consequence of pushing the problem on to surrounding countries. While neighbouring Benin reported no incidents of piracy in 2010, it has already posted 20 documented attacks this year; a similar trend is also evident in Cameroon. According to J. Peter Pham, the Africa director for the NATO Council of the United States, the gangs now operating across the Gulf of Guinea are “composed mainly of, and certainly led by, Nigerians, with perhaps a smattering of other nationalities.” They have shifted their operations into neighbouring states as the authorities there lack the capacity to survey and patrol their own waters. The fact that Benin’s meager coastguard was hours away and powerless to intervene during the Matteus I hijacking is telling of this weakness.

Piracy is but one symptom of the region’s lack of maritime order, endemic drug smuggling, human trafficking and attacks against oil infrastructure has earned West Africa’s seaways the label of a “criminal super-highway.” There are now concerns that the pirate gangs may move further west up the Gulf. Officials in both Ghana and Togo have expressed worries and made plans to bolster their nations’ maritime security capacities. As was the case in Nigeria, these states fear that piracy will spread to their waters once their incipient oil industries are further developed. Seaborne attacks against Nigerian oil infrastructure reduced the country’s exports from 2.2-million barrels a day in 2006 to 1.6-million in 2009. At the peak of pirate activity, it was estimated by Royal Dutch Shell that nearly 10% of Nigeria’s daily oil output was stolen. Cameroon similarly saw its oil production output decline by 13% in 2010. In total, oil theft is believed to cost the region some $3-billion a year. As the menace expands, the export of metals, cocoa, and agriculture products—vital to both local development and world markets—will also come under threat.

A Somalization of West African Piracy?

Most worrying of all, is the prospect that West African piracy will come to mirror that of Somalia in terms of tactics, geographical scope, and levels of violence. While several commentators, particularly within the shipping industry, have raised the alarm that the Gulf of Guinea will overtake the Horn of Africa as the world’s piracy hotspot, very distinct geopolitical conditions prevent the Somali business model from being easily transported to West Africa. To begin with, it is the abject failure of onshore authority in Somalia’s pirate-prone regions that allows the hijackers to keep their prey anchored for months at a time whilst they conduct ransom negations. The states bordering the Gulf of Guinea, by contrast, are weak, but not failed. While four countries in the region place in the bottom 20 of the Failed States Index, their rudimentary security institutions prevent ships being held ransom for long periods. Indicative of this distinction, no ransom demand was made for the hijacked Matteus I; the ship was released a week later, after the pirates had made off with her cargo and valuables.

West African pirates may not yet be able to secure multi-million dollar ransoms, but they have begun to ape many of the successful tactics of their Somali counterparts. When confronted by increased international naval pressure, Somalia’s pirates shifted their area of operation away from the Gulf of Aden and out into the wider Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Pirate gangs in the Gulf of Guinea have been similarly expansionist, moving out of Nigerian waters into those of Benin, Cameroon, Togo and Ghana. Attacks have now been launched against ships and oil platforms that are over 100 kilometers from the coast—the Matteus I’s hijacking 111km from land marked one of the furthest offshore grabs in recent West African history. According to maritime risk consultant Michael Frodl, the pirates are moving further out to sea not just to avoid coastal patrols, “but also to take advantage of ships letting down their guard in waters assumed to be safer.” The limited range of the pirate’s small skiffs used to act as a check on offshore expansion. Following the Somali model however, West African corsairs have overcome this limitation by using “motherships”— converted fishing trawlers that allow supplies and multiple skiffs to be transported further afield for more extended piracy ventures.

Though there does not appear to be direct links between the pirate gangs of West and East Africa, the former have paid close attention to developments in the latter theatre. Frodl notes that Nigerian pirates use the internet to “keep an eye on what the Somalis and other pirates are doing and incorporate inspired changes.” For example, it was recently noted that West African pirates have forced the captains of hijacked ships to radio authorities that all was fine in order to delay responses by naval patrols, a technique pioneered by some of Somalia’s more cunning corsairs.

While cargo theft remains the primary modus operandi of the Gulf of Guinea’s pirates, there have been recent cases of ransom-based piracy occurring in the region. Though present conditions are not ideal for long-term hostage taking, West Africa’s pirates are clearly making attempts to copy the highly profitable Somali business model. The pirates will be further emboldened in this effort if the Gulf of Guinea’s weak states experience a further deterioration of their onshore security. The destabilizing impact of drug trafficking has made this a very real possibility, as UN officials warn that “a string of nations along the African coast are rapidly becoming narco-states.” If institutional weakness allows ransom-based piracy to take hold in West Africa, cautions Ghanaian National Security Advisor, Gen. Nunoo-Mensahlf, “then the region will be in real trouble.”

Solutions on the Horizon?

As was the case in the Gulf of Aden, the need for a robust counter-piracy strategy for West Africa has been loudly proclaimed by regional states, foreign powers and international organizations. The worry however, is that this will amount to little more than platitudes if political will and local security capacity remain in short supply.

The centerpiece of the current strategy calls for joint naval patrols to be conducted by the region’s littoral states, a Nigerian initiative which Lagos hopes will be “a real force in the subregion to combat piracy.” The first series of multinational patrols was recently launched, consisting of six Nigerian ships and helicopters and two Beninois vessels. It is recognized, however, that the program will need to expand beyond a bilateral relationship. Commandant Maxime Ahoyo, Benin’s Naval Chief, argues that if collaboration is not widened, “this phenomenon, which has such long tentacles, will only spread.” Ghana and Togo have both expressed interest in joining, an invitation that could conceivably be extended to Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Equatorial-Guinea as well.

Though multilateral maritime security cooperation is a commendable concept, the reality of the current patrols is that they are a largely a Nigerian effort with only token participation from its small neighbours. Nigeria is the only state in the region that possesses frigates, corvettes, and an aerial surveillance capacity. The other littoral nations “navies” are more accurately described as coastguards. Given that a coalition of the world’s most powerful navies has been unable to suppress piracy in East Africa, it is highly unlikely that a collection of impoverished West African states with little manpower and equipment will be able to secure a coastal perimeter that spans 12 countries. Foreign assistance is therefore essential.

When Somali piracy first burst onto the world stage in 2008, the UNSC passed Resolution 1816 that allowed foreign naval vessels to combat piracy within Somalia’s territorial waters. During the resolution’s debate, France tried to extend the mandate’s jurisdiction to include the West African coast, but was rebuffed in this effort due to concerns over state sovereignty. Three years later, Benin asked the UN to send an international force to help police the Gulf of Guinea. However, with the naval forces of NATO, the EU, and other maritime powers currently committed to costly operations on the other side of the continent, there is little appetite for a West African deployment. Instead, the UNSC has called on the international community to assist local organizations through “information sharing, coordination improvement and capacity building.” If managed effectively, this strategy presents the best option for achieving long-term maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.

West Africa has becoming increasingly important to Washington, as it is estimated that the region will supply a quarter of US oil by 2015. Seeking to build up local capacity, both the USS Nashville and HSV Swift have been sent to train Beninois, Togolese and Ghanaian sailors as part of a US cooperative program known as the Africa Partnership Station. While the program began as a bilateral affair, it has recently expanded in scope. “We are now focusing on a regional basis because the solution is regional,” explains Phillip Heyl, the head of US Africa Command’s air and maritime program. France, which maintains close ties with its former colonies in the region, has also been actively engaged in West African counter-piracy. Aside from assisting with training and equipment, Paris has also deployed its own frigate, the Germinal, to help survey the coast and neutralize pirates. Indicating China’s growing concern for a secure maritime commons, Beijing also has taken an interest in counter-piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Though not deploying its own ships, as it has in East Africa, China has provided Benin with a $34-million security grant, of which $5.5-million will go towards the purchase of new patrol vessels.

Writing primarily about the Somali theatre, this author has long advocated local capacity building as the only sustainable solution to the piracy problem. While the bilateral programs already initiated are a step in the right direction, a more comprehensive strategy is ultimately required. An opportunity has been presented for NATO and the EU to improve cooperation with the multinational organizations of West Africa, primarily the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Regional maritime security could be improved through the assistance of additional NATO members, while the EU is better positioned to address the political and economic causes of piracy. Drug trafficking, government corruption and the unjust practices of foreign oil companies are all exacerbating the offshore crisis and require international attention. The Chief Justice of Ghana, Georgina Wood, has noted that law enforcement must be strengthened and corruption and endemic poverty tackled in order to deny the pirates an environment that is favourable to their activities.

According to maritime security expert James Kraska, the most serious piracy threats develop along a set course. It begins with independent operators, who, after initial successes and lack of resistance, become more sophisticated and organized—eventually forming a miniature paramilitary navy. Nearing completion in East Africa, this process is now well underway in West Africa as well.  If the international community does not wish to see a bicoastal breakdown of African maritime order, then the time to act is now.

 

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.

About James Marcus Bridger

James Marcus Bridger previously served as a Content Editor and Senior Research Analyst with the Atlantic Council of Canada as part of the Department of National Defence’s Security and Defence Forum Program. He is a now a Maritime Security Consultant with Delex Systems Inc. in Washington, DC.