Regional Cooperation Boosts Anti-Piracy Campaign

BMI View: A conference in Yaoundé saw 25 African states agree to coordinate their anti-piracy efforts in West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, an oil-rich region where attacks have been increasing in both frequency and violence. Weak local navies and a history of mistrust between regional states make effective international operations unlikely in the short run, but BMI believes that the attendance of 12 heads of state is a positive sign that political support is growing for a regional solution to trans-border piracy .

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathon may have been overly optimistic in saying that an anti-piracy summit held on June 24 and 25 in Yaoundé marked "the beginning of the end" of piracy in Africa's Gulf of Guinea, but BMI believes that the two-day meeting made important progress in stressing that the inherently regional nature of maritime piracy makes coordinated responses essential.

The creation of an Inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security will help West Africa's various political organisations to collaborate, and efforts to establish a common 'code of conduct' will help to spread best practices. Even so, BMI expects piracy in the region to rise in 2013 and doubts that any response on the scale of operations against Somali pirates is likely in anything but the very long term.

Already A Difficult Year
West Africa - Pirate Attacks Since January 1, 2013 (Niger Delta Highlighted)

While Somalia receives much more international attention, West Africa has suffered from a surge in maritime piracy in recent years. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports that attempted and successful attacks rose by 19.6% in 2012 , and 2013 has already seen more attacks in Nigerian waters - where the problem is most acute - than all of last year. Lloyds of London's Joint War Committee has added the territory of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo to its 'War Risks List'.

Estimates of the annual economic cost of this violence vary from US$700mn to US$2bn, but it is widely agreed that the attacks are harming a region that is highly dependent on international trade. Oceans Beyond Piracy, an American NGO, reports that 206 sailors were ta ken hostage and five killed in the Gulf of Guinea in 2012. The success of Western-backed anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean means that the Gulf of Guinea is now almost as dangerous as the waters off Somalia.

Catching Up
Africa - 2012 Pirate Attacks

Piracy With Nigerian Characteristics

Despite frequent comparisons with Somalia, West African piracy differs in three key ways : its targets are more local, its goals are less focu sed on ransoms, and the stat environment in which it operates is much more complicated.

First, West African piracy occurs much closer to shore than do attacks launched by Somali groups, which often take place in international waters. Ships are often targeted while they are moored, waiting for a berth in West Africa's congested ports. Others are captured by small skiffs launched from Nigeria's unstable delta region. Most targeted ships are small or medium-sized vessels travelling between African ports, rather than large transcontinental cargo carriers. This is one reason why Western involvement has been much greater in Somalia, where piracy threatens a major international trade route. It is important to note that, because most pirate victims are small-scale craft - often themselves engaged in smuggling or illicit fishing - piracy is almost certainly underreported in Nigerian waters.

Oil Production Fuelling Violence
Africa - Oil Production, 000s of barrels per day

Second, the goals of pirates who target regional merchant vessels are very different from those that capture large container ships. The primary objective of Nigerian pirates is often to steal their target's cargo rather than to ransom captured crew members. The Gulf of Guinea is the centre of Africa's petroleum industry, meaning that many ships are carrying cargos which are relatively easy to transfer to another ship and then sell on booming black markets. The inefficiency and corruption of Nigeria's domestic oil market - which is distorted by expensive price subsidies - mean that pirates can easily find buyers for stolen crude. Captured ships are usually navigated to an oil offloading point before being abandoned days later. In Somalia, on the other hand, 349 sailors were captured in 2012 by pirates hoping to be paid ransom money by international shipping firms. The average hostage spends 11 months in captivity, and 50% spend more than two years in pirate hands.

While this may seem like good news for West African seafarers, the IMB stresses that West African pirates' lack of concern for their hostages can lead to violent treatment as attackers steal mariners' cash and personal possessions. Many Nigerian pirates are members of armed gangs from the Niger Delta and are more prone to violent outbursts than their more 'professional' Somali peers.

Third, the fact that West African pirate attacks are spread across the territory of over a dozen littoral states has complicated the situation significantly. Pirates frequently flee across poorly-defined national maritime borders, exploiting the fact that national navies are unable to pursue them. The anti-piracy model used in Somalia, where a heavily-armed Western fleet used overwhelming force against pirate vessels and their land bases, is clearly untenable in a region governed by states that jealously guard their sovereignty. Despite the fact that the majority of attacks originate in Nigeria's unstable Niger Delta, it will take a regional response to deal with the trans-border threat of piracy.

Regional Cooperation Increasing

While the Gulf of Guinea is littered with an alphabet soup of failed political agreements, BMI believes that the Yaoundé Declaration has the potential to make a tangible difference. It has already achieved more than previous attempts by establi sh ing a regional monitoring centre. Previous attempts all collapsed following disputes about where to host the facility. The presence of twelve heads of state indicates that political will for a stronger response is growing.

We also note that, even before the conference, cooperation between regional states was increasing. 'Operation Prosperity', a joint Benin-Nigerian mission , has been quite successful at reducing the risk of piracy in Benin's territorial waters. Further such 'mixed patrols' should be launched in Cameroon and Togo.

Even so, the region's naval capacities are minimal and the challenge is daunting. Most West African states are economically underdeveloped, poorly-governed, and have small navies hobbled by out-of-date vessels and endemic corruption. Benin, which suffered rep eated attacks near its principal port of Cotonou in 2012, has a navy made up of just two non-functional patrol craft and two 8m Defender class coast guard boats. Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe have four patrol vessels between them. Radar and remote sensing capabilities are weak or non-existant , leaving most coastal states totally 'sea blind', unable to monitor their local waters.

In the long run, the solution to West African piracy will require improved governance, better coast guards, more cooperation, and substantial technological and training assistance from Western navies. Improved ports could reduce congestion, preventing oil-laden ships from idling in dangerous waters. Better policing in the Niger Delta would deny pirates their onshore bases and prevent thieves f rom easily selling stolen crude while an increase in economic opportunities might encourage the Delta's young men into less violent livelihoods. None of these reforms will be easy, but the Yaounde summit at least shows that the issue of West African piracy is firmly on the regional agenda.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk, Shipping
Geography: Africa

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