The Steep Curve Ahead in Fighting Gulf of Guinea Piracy

Published Oct 4, 2013 10:23 AM by The Maritime Executive

By Ric Hedlund, Special to Piracy Daily

Navies from around the world participate daily in counter-piracy operations at sea to preempt and disrupt piracy attacks. Authorities have eleven hundred pirates in prison in more than 20 countries awaiting trial or serving significant prison sentences for piracy, armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and murder.

The Gulf of Guinea, West Africa’s HRA, is unable to reduce highly violent attacks of pirates through deployment of international navies because of resources and cooperation, or lack thereof, between states. West African’s piracy [and counter-piracy] is as different in both geography and politics as nowhere else in the world.

While West Africa accounted for 10 per cent of the world’s crude oil shipped in 2012, counter-piracy nonetheless will be difficult with limited resources as merchant shipping and ship crews expand. The Gulf accounted for 30 crew kidnapped during the first half 2013, compared to three seized worldwide in a six-month period last year, according to International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Counter-piracy operations are likely to decrease as defense budgets of some leading countries are cut, this according to the American Journal of Transportation.

Recently, pirates robbed a chemical tanker off the coast of Togo; perpetrators in speedboats boarded the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Ocean Centurion 45 miles southeast of Lome, before taking both the ship and the crew’s money and belongings.

The IMB confirmed that an attack had taken place on a chemical tanker in a similar location, but did not specify the name of the vessel. “On 16th July, the robbers took two crew members and disembarked from the tanker with the rescue boat, taking along ship’s cash, crew cash, and personal belongings,” a report on IMB’s website said.

“The crew were released later,” it added. “Three crew members were injured during the incident.”

Unlike the Gulf of Aden, where US and European navy ships patrol to defend commercial shipping against Somali piracy, the Gulf of Guinea has little in the way of naval assets.  Stretching from Senegal on Africa’s northwestern tip down to Congo in the south, the Gulf of Guinea spans more than a dozen countries and is a growing source of oil, cocoa and metals to the world’s markets.

While piracy has exceeded levels off Somalia’s coast, analysts say pirates have spotted a window of opportunity based on weak local maritime security structures and a rough coastline, the latter offering natural hideouts from which to mount attacks.

The Gulf of Guinea is already home to insurgency in the Niger Delta, where oil facilities are routinely attacked.  Recent statistics have proven that attacks by gunmen operating in the mangrove-lined creeks of Nigeria’s Niger Delta have slashed Nigeria’s oil output by at least 20 percent and, according to specialists, driven the annual cost of oil services-related security there to US$3.5 billion.

Sixty percent of vessels that are attacked in the Gulf of Guinea do not report them to the authorities. Moreover, the fact that a distress call will not elicit a rescue by a Western warship is seen to dissuade many ship owners from reporting an attack, fearing the unwanted side-effect of seeing their insurance premiums rise or of being arrested themselves, as in the case with the MI flagged vessel and Togo.

Piracy in this particular part of the world has a far-reaching effect, deep into countries’ national territory, throughout West Africa, as well as on states and ports on the Gulf.

The Port of Cotonou has witnessed a chronic and significant decline in berthings and overall traffic over the last decade, due in large part to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and this decline has intensified over the past two years. The consequences of this decline are both substantial and wide ranging; specifically the price of imported commodities in local markets throughout the country, and the alteration of regional transportation patterns.

Considering both the relative unavailability and questionable accuracy of government figures common to West African governments, this report necessarily relied on informal street interviews with local market vendors, distributors, and importers from Cotonou to Parakou.

Cotonou is ideally geographically positioned to provide the rest of Benin with imported goods via its access to the Bite of Benin and its national highway system, which also provides maritime access to the landlocked countries of Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and, due to internal political instability, the western provinces of Nigeria, via a porous and largely unmonitored border.

The prices of imported commodities, particularly those of comestibles, have steadily increased in Benin over the last ten years, and this inflation has spiked in the last two years. The price of imported rice from India and Thailand, on which many Beninese families rely as a stable of their diet, has tripled in the last decade, and prices have risen more than ten percent in the last two years alone.

While the longer-term increase in canned tomatoes and dry noodles from China have not been as dramatic, these imports have nonetheless witnessed a similar spike in prices over the same period. The price of liquor from the United Kingdom and the United States has doubled in the last decade, again with an increase in ten percent over the last twenty-four months. Powdered milk, mayonnaise, and instant coffee have all witnessed a similar inflation of 10 percent over the past two years.

Incumbent President Boni Yayi launched a well-publicized fight against corruption in 2012, and this campaign began to specifically target customs officials in March 2013. Despite this well-publicized campaign, importers and transporters unanimously report that in response to the chronic decline in activity in the port of Cotonou, customs officials have markedly increased the amount of informal payments required in order to both move merchandise out of the port, and across the country.

Compared to two years ago, the average increase in informal payments reported by importers is 20 percent. While importers and transporters seemed to have been inured to informal payments in the past, they have apparently found these recent increases to be intolerable, given their profit margins.

Thus, importers and transporters operating in Benin have responded to this significant increase in informal customs payments in two ways.

First, they avoid the Port of Cotonou entirely, which further contributes to the chronic decline in port traffic. Importers and transporters have found the port of Lomé, Togo, less than 100 kilometers to the west, to be a far-less expensive alternative. Lagos, by contrast, is far more expensive than Cotonou regarding informal payments, and, coupled with internal political instability, Lagos is avoided at all cost. Lomé has proven to be beneficial alternative, and although official government figures are again either unavailable or of doubtful accuracy, port traffic seems to have increased markedly in the recent past.

The decline in overall activity in the Port of Cotonou has had profound and unanticipated consequences for the local economy of the Republic of Benin. A combination of significant price increases and the response of Beninese customs officials, together with the reactions of importers and transporters, have worsened overall living standards, further compromised local government institutions, and intensified informal economic activity in the country.

The actions of the President of Benin are noble and just, as shoring up the Port of Cotonou and his strengthening of Benin will benefit the region. However, this is one port among many and makes up only 71 amongst thousands of miles of coastline.


© Ric Hedlund 2013, all rights retained. “The steep curve ahead in fighting piracy in the Gulf of Guinea” may be quoted all or in part if attributed to Ric Hedlund and PiracyDaily.com.