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Gulf of Guinea: fighting criminal groups in the Niger Delta is key to defeating piracy

Different reports have recently highlighted security challenges in the Gulf of Guinea. One was published by the International Maritime Bureau, another by the French Navy’s Mica centre and another by the US Maritime Administration.

These reports come against a backdrop of pirate attacks against merchant ships in West Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea between Côte d'Ivoire and Gabon. They have also led to attention-grabbing headlines about a “piracy surge” or even “waves of terror”.

In 2019, kidnappings of seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea reached an unprecedented number. Attacks against merchant ships were recorded off Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. The area is often described as “the world’s most dangerous seas”.

Piracy is a significant threat for shipping companies operating in the region. Industry organisations have pointed out that urgent action is required and that seafarers should not be “exposed to such appalling dangers”.

The human cost is significant and hostages aren’t the only victims. Representatives from seafarers’ unions have pointed out that their members are at considerable risk for just doing their jobs, and even crews on ships that are merely transiting are on edge.

Based on a thorough analysis of attack patterns and overall maritime activities in the region, I am convinced that it will be impossible for navies and other security agencies to improve maritime security as long as root causes are not addressed. Many security incidents at sea, and notably kidnappings of seafarers, are merely an extension of land-based issues.

At the heart of the problem are activities by criminal groups based in the Niger Delta where kidnappings on land have long been a security challenge. Unless the massive security problems in the Delta are resolved, no significant headway will be made at sea.

The numbers

Beyond attention-grabbing headlines there’s no consensus on figures. Not even the reports mentioned above include the same numbers. That matters because shipping companies make commercial decisions based on official statistics, and budgets for security agencies are allocated depending on the scope and scale of the problem.

For example, the International Maritime Bureau reported that 121 seafarers were taken as hostages during attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2019. This represented more than 90% of global kidnappings at sea recorded by the centre.

At the same time, the organisation only reported 64 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea last year. This was a decrease of 19% compared with 2018.

The US Maritime Administration highlighted a similar trend in a recent advisory even though the overall numbers are much higher. It reported that there were 129 attacks in 2019 after 145 attacks in 2018, representing an 11% drop.

The French Navy’s Mica centre, on the other hand, reported a 20% increase in attacks against ships across the Gulf of Guinea between 2018 and 2019 (from 90 to 111 incidents).

Overall, numbers differ due to reporting standards and categorisations aren’t comparable. Similar events are often classified in different ways. For example, the IMB recorded four hijacked ships in 2019, the US Maritime Administration noted six, and the MICA centre classified 26 incidents as hijackings.

Annual statistics are further complicated by increased awareness. Incidents that would not have been reported a few years ago are now included in publicly available data, even though they may be linked to other criminal activities at sea.

During my own research, I have come across many cases where such activities were linked to incidents broadly described as “pirate attacks”, without a detailed analysis of individual circumstances.

Such differences underline that annual statistics are not necessarily a valuable tool for understanding issues in the Gulf of Guinea. Rather, security agencies have to gain a broad understanding of all maritime security challenges. Based on such knowledge, a transparent analysis of incidents is possible, providing the necessary background for commercial decisions or law enforcement operations.

Extension of a land problem

Attacks at sea are generally conducted by criminal groups based in the Niger Delta. Throughout the region, there is an ample supply of foot soldiers and camps in remote locations where hostages can be held during negotiations, the prerequisites for a lucrative business model.

Violent attacks affected various countries in 2019. These are almost exclusively linked to Nigerian perpetrators.

Highlighting the direct link with Nigeria is important. On the one hand, neighbouring countries are unable to solve the problem unless security on land in the Niger Delta improves. On the other hand, spikes in attacks are possible at any time. For operators of merchant ships, the threat level can change within weeks, depending on factors such as weather, changes in traffic patterns or naval operations as well as the general situation on land in certain areas in the Niger Delta.

Furthermore, insecurity at sea is an overarching problem for regional governments. Pirate attacks may be particularly visible. But other concerns, such as fuel smuggling, illegal fishing or unregulated shipments of pharmaceuticals like Tramadol, are usually more pressing for government agencies.

Solutions

The West and Central African region has made significant progress in fighting all types of illicit activities at sea. Various types of maritime security issues are mentioned in the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, adopted in 2013 and aimed at improving maritime security in West and Central Africa.

However, human and financial resources are scarce and maritime security is generally regarded as less important than land-based security challenges which directly affect domestic populations.

But insecurity at sea has a significant economic impact by hurting activities related to the maritime environment. Maritime business plans therefore must include security-related expenditures for navies, coastguards and other government agencies. These are needed to maximise the potential of the maritime environment. This, in turn, would show that better maritime security has direct benefits for economic growth and development.

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