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Port Autonome du Cotonou under siege - A work in progress in the Gulf of Guinea

altCotonou, Benin, is a strange place, a land where children do not dream of becoming doctors or lawyers; rather, they want to be douanes [customs officers] at the port - the real cash cow in a country that generates so little revenue.

Offshore, out over the horizon, approximately 156 pirate attacks have been reported during 2011 and through May 2012. The majority of abducted ships were at anchor, drifting, or engaged in ship-to-ship (STS) operations within 135 miles off the coast of Benin.

Using as a rule one or two skiffs with 10-15 armed pirates, they hijacked vessels for an average of 1-11 days, during which the organized gangs transfer the captured cargo to “unmarked” vessels. Hence, some vessels conducted their STS operations beyond 135 miles offshore, as this was seen to be a safer - if more expensive – way to bunker.

In the last three months there have been two reported incidents way out of the high risk area (HRA), a clear indication that the pirates - like those in the Gulf of Aden - are now following the vessels further offshore.

Even though Benin and Nigeria began joint patrols closer to their shores the number of attacks has not subsided. In response to the joint patrols the pirates expanded their area of operation further west to Lóme, Togo. The arrest of a former Nigerian naval officer in November 2011 underscores the persistent corruption that penetrates that country’s national government and its armed forces, in particular, the navy. Furthermore this and many other incidents further confirm that in most cases shipowners have no one but themselves to rely on for the protection of their crews, their vessels, and customer cargo.

Piracy has not stopped access to local ports, however it continues to be a big concern. Dockside piracy is actually more rampant than that on high seas. In 2005 there were 1600 dockings in Contonou, today it is down to around 750 and plummeting. The only action left that can save the ports is a complete takeover by security organizations. However, this could be far from becoming a reality if opposing interests from neighboring Nigeria and others continue to persist unchallenged.

The effects of pirate attacks on the local economy are of ever-increasing concern. Defence Minister Issifou Kogui N’Douro told the U.N. Security Council last year that increases in vessel insurance premiums caused by pirate attacks off the coast of Benin in 2011 resulted in a 70 percent drop in vessel traffic to the port of Cotonou! According to the World Bank, port fees and custom duties provide half of the Benin government’s revenues; 80 percent of which come from Cotonou’s port alone.

In the face of a growing number of pirate attacks, Benin lacks the capacity to effectively deter or pursue attackers. Pirates generally utilize much faster boats and more advanced intervention equipment during these attacks than those operated by the Benin Navy. It is unlikely that the pilfered fuel - which subsequently resurfaces on the black market in the main ports along the Gulf of Guinea - is being stolen and distributed without the cooperation of key officials at the country’s ports. In this regard, several Benin officials acknowledged that corruption at the Port of Cotonou is likely, and that the attacks could not occur without the complicity of Benin nationals operating on shore.

The port governance needs comprehensive reform in order for the Cotonou port to become a viable shipping destination once again. With the upcoming embargo on Nigerian ports, it is essential that Port Autonome du Cotonou undertakes major security improvements and pursues compliance with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) as soon as possible.

© 2013 Piracy Daily. First published in Piracy Daily.

Ric Hedlund is the AdvanFort Company’s (www.advanfort.com) director of port security.

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