Countering Gulf of Guinea Piracy Towards 2025

file photo
file photo courtesy of EU NAVFOR

Published May 3, 2020 7:18 PM by Francois Morizur

In a recent article, I tried to foresee the form that piracy in the Gulf of Guinea could take over the next few years. Now, I propose what responses could counter these threats.

Developing maritime activities along West Africa, including oil and gas and maritime transport, offer numerous targets for criminal groups who have developed impressive maritime skills in recent years. 

The pirates did not come from the coupling of a mermaid and a swordfish, everything begins onshore. Generally, we can consider piracy in the context of poverty, loss of livelihoods such as fishing (pollution or illegal over-exploitation), lack of support from official structures, more or less easy gain, etc. Pirates from the Nigerian Delta should also be viewed in the context of militancy, illegal crude oil bunkering and illegal refinery production. Oil theft is estimated to benefit at least 500,000 people in the country.

The fight against West Africa piracy cannot be based on a single solution. Different parallel programs developed in Asia then East Africa were based on fighting poverty, countering the external factors leading to the loss of historical or traditional resources (mainly artisanal fisheries), plans to develop other livelihoods, cooperation between the coastal countries concerned, the establishment of specific laws adapted to maritime piracy, and the establishment of armed response to counter the effects of recalcitrant pirates.

The Nigerian Delta is the main region for oil and gas exploitation area in the country, onshore as well offshore. The oil and gas companies and their subcontractors are the main employers in the area, but they are not enough to offer real development.

Given this background, we can look at the anti-piracy “tools box” to determine what initiatives could counter piracy in the Gulf of Guinea:

1. Relocate the Full Spectrum of the Oil Industry to Within the Delta

This is a persistent demand called for by the local Delta population (estimated at 15 millions people) and also something requested by the militant groups. The global oil crisis encountered by oil producers since 2014 does not make this a favorable move from an industry perspective. However, even symbolically, movement on this objective would be viewed favorably by the nation.

2. Develop Local Activities

The relationship between Delta inhabitants and the waterways has strong historical roots. However, because of pollution, the local population is not longer self-sufficient in sea products. Nigeria has been importing fish for several years now as local fisheries decline. Last year production from Nigeria fisheries was 800,000 tons (25 percent from fish farms,) but Nigerian consumption is estimated around 3,000,000 tons/year. 

Providing the means to reestablish this link is essential. This could be achieved by the control of offshore fishing activities, local fisheries management including catch control, and further development of fish farms. This must be conducted in coordination with ambitious anti-pollution programs.

3. Amnesty

Militancy was partly solved from 2009 onward when an amnesty process was established by president Umaru Yar’Adua. The amnesty concept was: pardoning, collection of weapons, monthly amnesty allowance (65,000 nairas/man – around $350/month in 2009), formation and provision of employment. This program has been accepted by more than 30,000 individuals. It has cost an estimated $150 million/year expense, probably more than $2 billion since 2009.This system was interrupted for around 18 months in 2016-17 when the Niger Delta Avengers and some affiliates started a new period of militancy. Pirate groups each had an onshore territory which was sometimes contested by pirates or criminal groups, when the whereabouts of abducted seafarers were known. The current number of pirates and supporting bodies operational can be estimated around 500-700 individuals. 

Rather than proposing an individual amnesty process to sea pirates, it could be feasible to offer a collective amnesty plan integrating the pirate group's hosting community. This process could be based on a cessation of piracy activities, pardoning individual pirates and the development of the hosting community by support for creation of collective fish farms for example. This would have the advantage of associating the former pirates with the community interest. The community, having something to lose, could put direct pressure on any ex-pirates tempted to return to the activity.

4. The Yaoundé Structure

The Yaoundé Code of conduct is a regional initiative to counter and repress piracy, armed robbery  against ships and illicit maritime activity in West and Central Africa. The Code of conduct was adopted in June 2013 with a view to promoting maritime cooperation and information sharing and coordination.

The Yaoundé structure needs a second wind with a consolidation of the financial base necessary for the conduct of the development. The different structures ICC / CRESMAO / CRESMAC / MMCC zones A,D,E,F, G need to receive the complement of qualified staff and finances to accomplish all allocated missions. Numerous development directions can be investigated such as increasing maritime information sharing (piracy but also IUU fishing, illegal maritime traffic, pollution, etc …).

The sharing of information is key to the continuity of global maritime control. Without it, illegal actors can take advantage of national silos to continue illicit activities. A common maritime surveillance system could be an example of a global approach allowing nations to see “beyond the horizon” to identify and understand all the maritime activities affecting them.

Having more financial and human resources, the Yaoundé structure will be more visible and in the future able to establish itself as a key player in the regional maritime sector. Several notable advances are already visible, such as the pooling of maritime military resources in Zone D. The bilateral cooperation initiatives exist as demonstrated during the recent operation on the Tommi Ritscher at the Cotonou anchorage in Benin. 

The Yaoundé structure must be the boost that allows the numerous bilateral agreements to progress toward the advances observed in Zone D to become effective in others zones. This cooperation will be more necessary in the coming years, as the economical current crisis is likely to drastically reduce the military and Navy budgets.

5. Transnational Threat – Transnational Response

My previous article analyzed the evolution of piracy and in particular the search for soft targets. More and more the pirates will operate in identified gap areas generated by national laws. The fishing vessels engaged in IUU fishing act in the same way. The partitioning generated by the different national laws and the limits of the national waters offer pirates numerous paths to escape.

These issues have been partially solved in Malacca straight ( Indonesia/ Singapore / Malaysia) with agreement to share the surveillance and intervention means and the capacity to extend maritime pursuits into neighbor countries' waters. To counter the maritime drug traffic, similar agreements have been found in the Caribbean. This step should be facilitated in West Africa as soon as possible.

6. Anti-Piracy Laws

In the past years, it has been observed that several national authorities have been thwarted in pirate prosecutions as national laws were not precise enough to allow criminal proceedings. This is made even more complex when the piracy act is conducted by foreign pirates, within national waters, onboard vessel under a specific flag, owned by foreign country and operated by international crew.

Each coastal country should urgently establish specific laws for piracy. This process is being undertaken by several countries, including Nigeria, which enacted laws to suppress piracy and other maritime offenses in 2019.

As maritime crime is transnational, it could be an option to create a specific legal regional structure with two main capacities:

One central group able to investigate cases and collect evidence on scene or a the first port of call of vessel concerned. This group, consisting of international Gulf of Guinea qualified personnel, possibly re-enforced by specialists from international bodies such as INTERPOL or ONU/DC, should be able to investigate cases fully including conducting interviews of crew, pirates and witnesses and collection of evidence.

One legal group that is able to start the judiciary process against the suspected pirates who have been arrested. As soon as suspects can be classified as "highly suspected" of piracy, they could be sent to their home country for prosecution under national law with proceedings initiated by the legal group. This group would be responsible for recording and preparing all data such as photos, biometrics and statements needed by the judiciary.

7. Military Embarked Team

Pirates have demonstrated increasing operational capabilities in recent years. They are well equipped, well armed, well trained. To counter them, it’s essential that military personnel are embarked to protect vessels in transit or at anchorage. The superior training of these personnel must be based on weapons, knowledge of the ballistic protection, the maritime environment, watchkeeping, reporting, sending alerts, rules of engagement, coordination with the Captain, and stress resilience. Military personnel must be equipped with quality weapons and the adapted ammunition allocations that they need to perform their missions. They also need to be informed about the behavior and modus operandi of pirates.

8. Extra National Waters - Continuity of Security Coverage

Currently a vessel transiting from country A to country C, passing within the national waters of country B, cannot use the same armed military personnel all along the transit. Embarking and disembarking at each maritime boarder is practically impossible. Another option for the transiting vessel is to hire a security vessel as escort. But this security vessel can only operate within the national waters of the military personnel embarked onboard. Apart from making different sections, escorted by different security vessels, an practical solution, the vessel will sail not secured. 

If the concept is changed to the embarking of armed military team, two options could be assessed to allow a continue security coverage all along transit. These options have been applied in the Indian Ocean:

Option 1: The armed military personnel of country A embark, with weapons and ammunition, at a port of country A. These military personnel disembark in the port of country C. When the mission is terminated, these military personnel transport the demilitarized weapons and ammunition in safe cases and return to their country A or embark onboard another vessel sailing back from country C to country A. Country C needs to allow the transit of military personnel onshore between port and airport or borders with weapons demilitarized.

Option 2: Floating armories. These vessels are located at the entries and exit of piracy High Risk Areas (HRA). Onboard these vessels, several armed military teams of different nationalities are dedicated to embark on commercial vessels to cross the HRA. After crossing the HRA, the armed military teams are disembarked onboard another floating armory ready for another mission.

Countries must allow the military personnel from country A to use theirs weapons against pirates within national waters of country B under agreed common rules of engagement. 

9. International Maritime Coalition Deep Offshore

As said in the previous article, Gulf of Guinea pirates are able to sail far offshore to find commercial vessels in transit. Most West African countries don't have enough maritime platforms to cover their huge maritime domains. Maintaining a military presence deep offshore is costly, and the operational coverage of one military vessel is particularly reduced when the vessel is not equipped with a helicopter.

One option to counter piracy acts far offshore is the creation of an international maritime military force, similar to ATALANTA or TF 151 in the Indian Ocean in the past. However, the number of military vessels to cover the Gulf of Guinea's increasingly dangerous waters will probably not be sufficient. The diversity of maritime commercial routes does not seem to allow the establishment of a security corridor as in south Yemen in the Indian Ocean.

There are probably more options to counter piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Of course, maritime operators must also be proactive in managing internal anti-piracy measures by completing the BMP5 (Best Managment Practices version 5) and Ship Security Plan (SSP).

This essay aims to open up thought areas based on solutions that have worked in other parts of the world.

François Morizur is a maritime security expert and former French Navy officer. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.