Ask the Expert: The Growing Threat of Oil Pirates in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea

By Assis Malaquias
Updated: 03/29/2012

DrMalaquias-WebWhen it comes to modern-day piracy, much of the world’s attention has focused on Somalia’s murderous maritime plunderers. But pirates are also a serious and growing problem off Africa’s West Coast, where a dangerous upsurge in vessel-based marauders is being fueled by a wealth of crude oil and cargo in transit. Dr. Assis Malaquias, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) Academic Chair for Defense Economics, is an expert on piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, an arm of the tropical Atlantic Ocean below Africa’s western hump where most of the crimes occur.

Q: Where is the Gulf of Guinea? What types of maritime activities happen there?

DR. MALAQUIAS: There is some dispute to that question. Most define the Gulf of Guinea as the waters from Guinea to Angola.

That whole coastline sees a great deal of commercial maritime activities. The region’s shipping includes, significantly, exports of hydrocarbons and minerals and imports of manufactured goods. There is also a considerable amount of commercial fishing in the gulf.

Q: What are pirates targeting?

DR. MALAQUIAS: Their main targets are oil tankers. They’re after the oil. They rob the tankers then transfer the oil to smaller ships, which transfer it again to other ships, until you lose track of it. They’re not really after cargo, ships, or anything other than oil.

Q: Why is piracy happening in the Gulf of Guinea?

DR. MALAQUIAS: The Gulf of Guinea is one of the hottest areas right now for oil exploration in the world. Department of Energy data show that nine of the coastal states on the Gulf of Guinea produced more than 5 million barrels of oil per day in 2010. That’s more than half of all Africa’s total production of crude. The U.S. is getting something like 21 percent of its oil from there and the trend is upward. This is an easy target of opportunity for criminals.

There are many factors contributing to the problem—widespread poverty, the easy availability of guns and speedboats, and large amounts of rich cargo moving slowly offshore. Poverty’s not the main driving factor, though. If it were, there would be piracy all around Africa.

Piracy is a vocation, just like any other pursuit where you make money illicitly, and pirates go out to sea because they feel they have a comparative advantage over their prey. They have incentives, opportunities, and means. They make a clear calculation of rewards versus costs. There are real costs they weigh—financing the operation, the chance of being intercepted by military forces, or of police waiting for them when they land on shore. The way they see it, the costs are high but the rewards are much higher. Of course, if you are hired on as part of a crew of pirates, then you don’t incur that many costs—except the possibility of losing your life.

Q: From where are the pirates coming?

DR. MALAQUIAS: No one knows where the pirates are coming from. There is a lot of speculation that they are Nigerian or at least based in Nigeria. Most of the problems originate from Nigeria, and it’s not just piracy of large ships. The media has reported on a recent bank robbery in Cameroon that was perpetrated by Nigeria-based robbers who were using speedboats. There’s also the case of the Nigerian group that took a boat and attacked the presidential palace of Equatorial Guinea. They were convicted in 2010.

Q: What is the nature of the pirating enterprise in the region?

DR. MALAQUIAS: The oil is moved from ship to ship on the black market until it eventually finds its way again into the legal global crude market. Gulf of Guinea piracy is the organized, sometimes highly sophisticated, illicit taking of oil. They steal the oil, make a couple of black market circles of the stuff, and then deposit it back into the global supply.

It’s important to note that this phenomenon—the theft and illegal possession of crude oil—is bad enough that it has a name; it’s called illegal oil bunkering. Illegal bunkering isn’t just happening at sea, either. A Human Rights Watch report found that up to 10 percent of Nigeria’s daily crude production per day may be lost to illegal oil bunkering.

This illegal oil bunkering has to be organized. My own sense is that it involves different groups going after targets of opportunity.

Q: How many attacks are there per year? What is the rate of increase?

DR. MALAQUIAS: It’s hard to get good numbers because many attacks go unreported. With that said, the International Maritime Organization reported that 47 incidents of piracy were reported in West Africa during 2010. Most of the attacks happened while the ships were at anchor and either in a country’s territorial waters or in port. The criminals took more than 40 crewmembers hostage and wounded six of them. Another monitoring group, the International Maritime Bureau, reported that pirates in Benin attacked 20 tankers in 2011. There were also 10 reported attacks on vessels in Nigeria last year, but the bureau said it was aware of more than 30 other attacks that went unreported.

Fortunately, the area has seen fewer attacks than those perpetrated by Somali pirates in East Africa and the Indian Ocean, but the trend since about 1992 has been an increasing number of incidents. The Piracy Reporting Center’s 2011 map of incidents shows most in the Gulf of Guinea occurring in the waters off Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. The trend is definitely upward and I don’t think we have seen the worst of it yet.

Q: Are countries in the region capable of dealing with the piracy problem?

DR. MALAQUIAS: No single country can handle this very complex problem. Countries must coordinate their antipiracy activities. There is also a role for the private sector. The shipping companies and private actors are instituting some counterpiracy measures to neutralize threats as they draw near. But more needs to be done at both the strategic and operational levels within states, within regions, and between states and regions.

The alarm over piracy in the Gulf of Guinea was sounded a while back. Countries in the region have been slow to respond because of a lack of capacity to mount a robust antipiracy campaign. They are working on intraregional and interregional strategies to answer the problem.

Q: What needs to be done to stop Gulf of Guinea piracy?

DR. MALAQUIAS: First, all countries need maritime strategies and operational plans to tackle these threats—not just piracy, but illicit trafficking, too. Second, each region also needs to put in place a strategy that sets a framework for interstate cooperation on maritime issues. Third, the regions should have mutually reinforcing strategies and frameworks to conduct broader regional operations.

The affected countries can pool resources and come up with regional arrangements. That might look like an ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] regional naval force, where each country contributes what it can. They already have a nearby example of countries cooperating to face regional challenges together—South Africa is working with Mozambique and Namibia on maritime issues. International cooperation to fight Somalia’s piracy problem is another example.

Q: Which local governments have the capacity to respond to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea?

DR. MALAQUIAS: Out of all of them, I would say that Nigeria is the closest. Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea are developing some capacity—they are acquiring vessels and conducting training.

Q: What is ACSS doing to contribute?

DR. MALAQUIAS: The region has to put together its own regional strategies and so do the affected countries. ACSS is helping governments in the area and regional organizations. We are working with ECCAS [the Economic Community of Central African States] and ECOWAS to put together an intraregional framework for nations to cooperate on maritime issues. The AU [African Union] is also working on an overarching maritime strategy and we have helped them do some work on that.

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