29 August 2012
Danger in the Gulf of Guinea
While piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden have decreased, West Africa’s growing exploitation of its natural resources is turning the Gulf of Guinea into a piracy hotspot. Indeed, attacks in the area are increasingly putting countries such as Nigeria at risk, argue Francisco Galamas and Anne-Yolande Bilala.
By Francisco Galamas and Anne-Yolande Bilala for Diplomatic Courier (DC)
Calls for action have led to a sharp decrease in piracy attacks in recent months. Rightfully so, the Gulf of Aden, notoriously known for its prevalence of piracy attacks, became the focal point for ongoing surveillance and protection operations. Yet while progress has been made in this area, other parts of Africa have been beleaguered by occurrence with little support to contain it, particularly the Gulf of Guinea. Violence is on the rise. Countries such as Gabon, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, to name a few, are now facing unruly groups in territorial waters. Worst, pirates’ sway have led Benin and Nigeria to enter risk category levels analogous to Somalia. Nigeria has already experienced the same number of attacks as it did during 2011.
Notwithstanding its location, the region’s natural resources—notably oil, cocoa, and minerals—have made it a major commercial hub, and piracy is growing both in scope and intensity. The collective efforts undertaken by affected countries are commendable but the rather mixed success is a clear indication of shortcomings.
With 23 diverse countries across the region, achieving consensus strategies on fighting maritime piracy has been elusive. One case in point involves different campaigns undertaken by several regional organizations. For example, the Central African States recently set up a Regional Centre for Maritime Security in Central Africa (CRESMAC) which aims to promote information sharing and joint naval operations; meanwhile in West Africa, member States of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) created their own maritime security efforts. Even more blatant are the Gulf of Guinea Commission (CGG) and the Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa (MOWCA), which set up their respective plans and memoranda of understanding. With so many concurrent efforts, it is certain that cohesion among these countries is absent and that the effectiveness of their individual initiatives will fall well below what a unified strategy could yield. Is this the result of a regional rivalry? More surprisingly, the United Nations swiftly commended the initiatives without truly assessing success.
Bilateral agreements are increasingly being instituted but are rather short lived with no planned continuance. Recently, authorities in Benin and Nigeria established a six-month joint maritime patrols pilot program, which in due course was scheduled to be reviewed. Yet the future of this effort seems to be uncertain with little information regarding its possible extension or on lessons learned. Other countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe have established similar bilateral agreements. Nevertheless, there is no apparent indication of member states’ willingness to initiate a dialogue for multilateral accords.
Partner countries such as France or the United Stated have pledged funding, manpower, and equipment to support countries. The U.S., for instance, has provided approximately $35 million since 2007 to regional states to build maritime security capacity such as coastal radars, equipment, boats, and associated training. The latter resulted in developing the first multi-national maritime exercise in the Gulf of Guinea, the Obangame Express 2012, over a two-day period.
Aside from the coordination aspect, the drought in capabilities also precludes countries to efficiently combat piracy. Namely, countries are still seriously lacking in infrastructure, equipment, and a legal framework—all of which are impediments to counter-piracy operations. According to reports, Nigerian officials admitted that Nigeria, which has been the biggest contributor in the fight against piracy through the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), is ill-equipped in comparison to pirates now using GPS, modern vessels, and the latest weapons. It is not surprising that other countries in the region face similar challenges even though substantial financial efforts have been made to acquire naval capabilities.
Likewise, the ECCAS initiative through the CRESMAC guidance has led to some success in covering the maritime area of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe over the past two years. Repeating the success may be problematic given the increased difficulties of financially supporting naval operations; if not resolved, this will eventually make them more prone to failure.
The absence of a conventional definition and the subsequent prosecution of maritime piracy make it even more challenging for countries to have a standard legal framework. Adding more complexity to the issue, the UNCLOS definition of piracy solely entails crimes perpetrated in high seawaters—not territorial waters. Additionally, some countries have different understandings of the offense and therefore different criminal prosecution processes. Are the attacks considered acts of piracy or acts of robbery?
Although countries face difficulties, some options could have a positive impact. The commitment of leaders of regional bodies such as ECOWAS, ECCAS, and CGG to expressing their willingness to work together and harmonize their maritime security policies is hitherto commendable. But Gulf of Guinea countries must have a much more holistic approach to combatting this escalating problem if they are to succeed. By streamlining their efforts through reduction of redundant administrative bureaucracies and the creation of a single regional organization they will be better equipped to take a proactive and comprehensive stance against piracy. The aforementioned organization’s purpose would be to establish a blueprint with definitive actions, measurable objectives, and sound monitoring and evaluation processes. Actions could include intelligence sharing, profiling gang members, and systematic operational coordination in counter-piracy operations between countries. Undeniably, a single organization would allow reduced and more efficient spending and subsequently could result in making more effective investments in naval capabilities and joint exercises.
Another important aspect may also be the establishment of a regional network of logistical support facilities for better coverage of the area by the regional forces without any operational and logistical limitations.
Bilateral agreements are not to be excluded and should rather become the cornerstone for new concepts by putting in place a robust common knowledge management tool summarizing the lessons learned available to other countries.
Regardless of all the collaborative recommendations, issues such as law enforcement, corruption, and social and economic disparities are points of paramount significance. Indubitably, these factors are often behind the emergence of criminal networks that profit from piracy. Durable domestic policies will not only decrease illicit activities but will also allow countries to shift focus by further engaging in cooperation and possibly convening on a convergent legal framework. Ultimately, failure to immediately tackle these issues will only falsely encourage criminals to shun law enforcement by transferring operations to more vulnerable countries. To be effective, counter-piracy operations ultimately depend upon not just prevention and protection, but the 3Ps: Prevent, Protect, and Prosecute.
The complexity of the issue and the scope of the effort are considerable and demonstrate that there is no solution at hand. Nevertheless, international and regional coordination are vital. Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is no longer simply a concept—it is a reality.
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Francisco Galamas is a Research Associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISES) of the Lusofona University, on topics of bio-risk.
Anne-Yolande Bilala currently manages Market Research and Strategic Planning for DRS Technologies, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica.