Despite the rise in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the west coast of Africa, international attention is still focused on Somalia and the Horn of Africa on the east African coast, with experts saying West Africa is not attracting the type of attention that it deserves.
This was the thread of the opening keynote speakers at the two-day Maritime and Coastal Security Africa 2013 conference which commenced at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Monday. The conference is being attended by 500 local and international naval, academic and industry members to discuss the price of piracy in Africa and approaches towards maritime governance, risk and defence in the African maritime environment.
R Adm Ben Bekkering (Netherlands Navy) was Commander of Task Force 508, NATO’s contribution to the international counter piracy effort in the waters around Somalia, during 2012. He noted that the last successful pirate attack on a commercial ship off Somalia was on 10 May 2012. However, small fishing dhows are still being hijacked, principally for use by pirates as mother ships.
“If you talk about complex maritime security issues,” Bekkering told the conference, “then I would say that the waters of the Gulf of Guinea are far more complex than the piracy problem we face off Somalia.”
R Adm Emmanuel Ogbor, Chief of Policy and Plans of the Nigerian Navy, provided a detailed overview of the piracy threat in the Gulf of Guinea. He noted that seafarers are becoming increasingly weary of using the seas in the Gulf of Guinea, with piracy levels comparable to that off the Somali coast.
While all the major powers of the world are mobilised in a concerted effort to clear the coast of Somalia of piracy, Ogbor observed that there exists the need for the member States of the Gulf of Guinea not to allow their territorial waters to repeat that of Somalia and to forge a concerted effort to stem piracy.
As R Adm Hanno Teuteberg, Chief Director Maritime Strategy for the SA Navy said in his opening address on behalf of V Adm Johannes Mudimu (Chief of the SA Navy), security remains a State activity.
This, Ogbor explained, will call for member states to strengthen their capacities.
Both the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea are crucial transit areas for international shipping and both are vulnerable to pirate attacks. However, Ogbor explained that the root causes of piracy in the two areas were different. Whilst the cause of piracy around the Gulf of Aden can be traced to the collapse of the Somali central government following years of civil war, that off the West African coast is due to weak and bad governance, precarious legal frameworks and poor law enforcement.
The Somali pirates are able to anchor their hijacked vessels along the Somali coastline and keep their crew in plain sight for long periods. The pirates are only interested in returning the hijacked vessel, its cargo and crew back to the shipping company in return for ransom.
The situation in the Gulf of Guinea is very different. As West African governments still have control of their territorial coastlines, pirate attacks cannot take place in plain sight. The main driver of piracy in this area is the regional oil black market, where the vessels are not taken, just the cargo. Illegal oil buyers and arms traders make the region more dangerous for oil tankers and general cargo vessels.
James Fisher, CEO of Paramount Naval Systems, told defenceWeb that piracy threatens more than just oil and gas assets, with criminal gangs at sea responsible for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, dumping of toxic waste, illegal bunkering and illegal fishing.
Indeed, it is estimated that one piracy attack a day has occurred in Gulf of Guinea in 2013. This figure is set to rise to two a day in 2014.
To combat this increasing threat, the Nigerian Navy is obtaining additional off-shore patrol vessels as well as instituting a local ship building programme.
As a result of the Nigerian Navy’s enhanced presence at sea, Ogbor was delighted to announce that over 14 vessels had been arrested in the last ten months whilst engaged directly or indirectly in acts of piracy.
Whilst numerous local and regional agreements to combat the piracy threat have been signed by West African states, there still remain a number of challenges. Chief amongst these is a lack of capacity to detect or gather timely intelligence about pirate or other illegal activities in the maritime environment and the lack of inter-operability and synergy amongst regional countries to share information.
Other challenges include inadequate capability and vessels, infrequent patrols and lack of training or equipment for boarding operations.
The varying legal frameworks and procedures amongst counties was also hampering law enforcement.
All was not bad news. Nigeria and Benin have signed a bi-lateral agreement for combined patrols, whilst the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has established a Maritime Zone to combat piracy. Agreement has been reached for the establishment of a Joint Operations Coordination Centre in the pilot Zone E (Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo) to coordinate all maritime security activities. This, together with a new multi-national headquarters and a Code of Conduct on the prevention of piracy shows a growing commitment in West Africa to counter piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
ECOWAS is also working with the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in terms of maritime domain awareness.
Whilst the East African response to piracy has relied on international assistance, West Africa has seen more regional cooperation.
“We are seeing a good African led response to dealing with the matters at sea in the Gulf of Guinea,” said Prof Francois Vrey of the Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch.
Whilst the international community is focused in the Horn of Africa, attention is slowly shifting to the west, with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) set to discuss piracy and the maritime security threat in West Africa this week.