West African Piracy Is On the Rise

West African Piracy Is On the Rise

The word “piracy” has in recent years evoked two images in the average Westerner’s mind: that of Johnny Depp as a swashbuckling Caribbean rogue in the Disney franchise, and the far less romantic Somali pirates that have haunted shipping lanes around the Gulf of Aden, hijacking commercial vessels and demanding astronomical ransoms for the return of ships and crew members.

However, according to a report released by three leading maritime research organizations last week, Somali piracy may be on the decline, with the last hijacking in the Gulf of Aden occurring in February 2012 and the number of crew members fired upon in attempted hijackings down roughly 80% since 2011. Unfortunately, piracy off the coast of West Africa is on the rise, posing an under-reported and significant threat to oil extraction, commodity exports, and other commercial shipping throughout the Gulf of Guinea.

According to data cited in the report, West African piracy is typically characterized by shorter but significantly more violent periods of captivity. In addition, personnel operating in the area are at a higher risk than their peers working off the Horn of Africa, mostly due to long waiting periods and different regulations regarding the use of private guards aboard ships working in the Gulf. The greatest threat is posed by heavily armed attackers boarding vessels to steal personal belongings and ship stores, which resulted in the deaths of four people in 2012, compared to no deaths from Somali piracy in the same year.

The West African attackers are frequently former militants and, unlike their Somali counterparts, are uninterested in hijacking cargoes or ransoming hostages.  While piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has yet to approach the epidemic levels seen recently in the Gulf of Aden, it poses a significant threat to shipping in the region and could retard the potential for economic growth in Ghana, Nigeria, and elsewhere.

West African states have recognized this threat and are developing plans to combat the rise of piracy in the region. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan traveled to Cameroon on June 24 for a joint Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) and Economic Community of Central Africa States (ECCAS) summit on piracy in the Gulf. It remains to be seen whether new resolutions are adopted to combat the rise in piracy, but early reports suggest a comprehensive agreement on joint security protocols will likely be signed by the end of the meetings.

However, prospects for any serious breakthroughs appear limited. Nigeria, the traditional powerhouse of the military wing of ECOWAS, rhetorically boasts a strong navy, but its ability to project power at sea is limited at best. According to globalsecurity.org, only about 28% of Nigeria’s ships are operational at any given time, and of those only a few are capable of remaining at sea for more than three or four days.

While there is clearly not the same security vacuum in the Gulf of Guinea as what plagued the Gulf of Aden for so long, steps to beef up maritime patrols in the waters off West Africa should be taken immediately by the international community. This offers a clear opportunity for Western states such as the UK, France, or the US to combat international security issues before they develop into major economic and political threats, and the UN is reportedly seeking financial support from these and other wealthy, developed countries to fund the West African states’ anti-piracy initiatives. Unfortunately, if the Somali example is any indication of the speed with which such support is granted, it could be years before any real progress is made at the state level.

In the meantime, steps should be taken to better protect vessels operating in high-risk areas. Given the violent nature of pirate activity in the Gulf of Guinea, it is unlikely that employing Best Management Practices (BMPs) similar to those used successfully off the Somali coast will significantly deter the West African pirates.  Such measures, which include use of concertina wire and high-pressure water cannons to counter pirates’ attempts to board ships, are unlikely to stop the kind of hardened attackers that appear to be targeting shipping through the Gulf of Guinea. Determined pirates, similar to those who famously attacked the Maersk Alabama in April 2009, will still be able to take control of vessels.

The use of safe rooms for crew members to hide in for protection during an attack, another lauded BMP, is reportedly unlikely to provide much protection in West Africa, where pirates have access to advanced arms that can breach the bulkheads of a ship’s “citadel.” Locally sourced guards are similarly ineffective, as these guards often hide alongside unarmed crew members when pirates are preparing to board a ship.

Clearly, new practices should be adopted, and private guards should be employed wherever possible. This will require a relaxing of restrictions on the use of private security guards by shipping companies operating in the Gulf, but it offers a major opportunity for Western private security companies (PSCs) to fill the security void left by West African governments. Despite well-reported concerns over the United States’ and other countries’ use of PSCs in recent years, these companies offer a depth and breadth of security-related talent that can provide a short-term patch on the piracy problem, while state anti-piracy capacities are developed.

While piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is far from the level of pandemic threat previously posed to commercial shipping off the coast of Somalia, it is a burgeoning issue to West African states that could damage their potential for future economic growth, and it should be addressed with well-crafted and regionally specific solutions immediately, lest it be allowed to grow into a more serious threat to regional economic security and stability.

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