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What will keep ships — and people — safer in the Gulf of Guinea?

Here’s an update on piracy incidents

A U.N. resolution last week condemned piracy in the Gulf of Guinea — the most dangerous piracy hot spot in the world. In 2020, over 40 percent of piracy incidents occurred in West African waters. And 95 percent of all kidnapped crew members were taken from ships transiting the Gulf of Guinea.

Can maritime security efforts help reverse these trends? While global maritime piracy generally decreased from 2015 to 2020, piracy incidents increased substantially in the Gulf of Guinea. Our research finds that piracy incidents in West African waters also tended to be more violent than elsewhere, as fighting on land, especially in and around the Niger Delta, appeared to spill out onto the water, as shown in the figure below.

Piracy and armed robbery on ships in the Gulf of Guinea, 2001-2020.
Piracy and armed robbery on ships in the Gulf of Guinea, 2001-2020.

A January 2021 incident involving the Liberian-flagged ship MV Mozart near São Tomé and Príncipe left one seaman dead. Pirates kidnapped 15 other sailors in that attack and ransomed them for an undisclosed amount. The incident occurred approximately 180 kilometers off São Tomé Island and 375 kilometers from Nigeria, making it one of the farthest offshore attacks to date in the Gulf of Guinea (see map).

Piracy and armed robbery incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, 2021.
Piracy and armed robbery incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, 2021.

Yet the MV Mozart attack was followed by a dramatic decline in piracy off Nigeria, with incidents in 2021 dropping nearly 50 percent from 2020 levels. In fact, piracy incidents now appear to be at a six-year low. The 57 sailors kidnapped from vessels in the Gulf of Guinea in 2021 was significantly lower than the 130 crew members seized in 2020.

This drop is welcome news for governments in West Africa that feared unrelenting high costs from persistent maritime insecurity. In 2021, there were six piracy incidents per month, a 33 percent decrease from 2019 and 2020 monthly averages. There have been five incidents per month in the first quarter of 2022. What, if anything, has changed?

Improving maritime security

The Gulf of Guinea contains valuable oil and gas reserves, as well as rich fishing grounds, that are exploited by organized criminal groups and violent armed groups. London insurers continue to find the waters between Togo and Gabon at a heightened risk for war, piracy, terrorism and related perils — especially crew abductions. But international aid, regional cooperation and local investments in building maritime security capacity may be finally paying off.

The United States and Europe contribute to maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. Funding for port security enhancements, information sharing, law enforcement training and capacity building are all intended to help ensure peace and promote economic prosperity.

E.U. countries and the United States have increasingly deployed naval vessels to the region to combat organized criminal groups targeting commercial transport ships. The Danish navy sent a frigate to the area in November 2021. France, Spain and Portugal regularly patrol West African waters. The United States hosts multinational naval exercises in the Gulf of Guinea that are meant to improve counter-piracy operations and impede illegal fishing.

Regionally, West African governments have collaborated on efforts to secure the gulf against transnational organized crime. In 2013, 25 governments in the region met in Cameroon to sign the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. This agreement produced a new maritime security architecture, built around information and intelligence sharing as well as coordinated naval operations. The compact’s goal is to identify and apprehend criminal groups, protect seafarers and deter would-be pirates.

Fights over marine boundaries are creating safe zones for pirates

Five West African countries have established multinational maritime coordination centers, with additional operational bureaus set up in each of the 19 countries bordering the gulf. If maritime boundaries once protected illegal fishers and pirates from capture, improved information sharing and subsequent coordinated actions by West African navies now render cross-border escapes more dubious.

Will Deep Blue help?

The Nigerian government has separately pursued a strategy designed to secure Nigeria’s own waterways — but the effort may also help to safeguard the wider maritime environment. The Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure project, popularly known as Deep Blue, commits substantial resources to combat piracy, oil theft, smuggling and illegal fishing.

Deep Blue funding has supplied coastal patrol vehicles, interceptor boats and reconnaissance aircraft that all contribute to a vessel-protection mission. In July 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari also commissioned a surveillance system to provide a comprehensive picture of Nigeria’s maritime environment to inhibit criminal activity. Additional troops deployed on land in Nigeria may help pursue criminal groups and their assets.

Will Deep Blue work? Bashir Jamoh, director general of Nigeria’s Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, credited the deployment of Deep Blue assets for the decline in Gulf of Guinea piracy in 2021. He also acknowledged assistance from regional governments, the shipping industry and foreign navies. Nigeria’s 2019 piracy-suppression law, despite its limitations, further ensures that captured pirates and other criminals will be prosecuted. In August 2020, a Nigerian court sentenced the first three pirates under this law for the hijacking of an Equatorial Guinean cargo ship.

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Still, recent counter-piracy operations by European warships don’t appear to have involved the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency — which is somewhat troubling if Nigeria’s new assets and closer communication are key to maritime security in the region. Ship attacks and crew abductions may be down in West African waters, but the decline can only partly be attributed to Deep Blue. European and U.S. naval deployments, as well as improved regional collaboration, probably matter more when it comes to curbing maritime crime.

Of course, better policing at sea doesn’t address socio-economic challenges on land that help drive piracy. Tackling corruption, poverty and environmental degradation throughout West Africa, but particularly in the Niger Delta, remains essential for reducing the demand for maritime piracy and other types of sea crimes. But addressing these broader challenges, experts point out, will also require assistance from the international community.

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Brandon Prins (@bcprins) is a professor of political science and a global security fellow with the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is the co-author of “Pirate Lands” (Oxford University Press, 2021). Funding for this project was provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research, through the Minerva Initiative, award #N00014-21-1-2030.

Aaron Gold is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Anup Phayal is an assistant professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Simon Rotzer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Curie Maharani is a faculty member in the Department of International Relations at Bina Nusantara University in Indonesia and a research fellow at CSIS-DMRU.

Sayed Riyadi is executive director at the Center for Southeast Asia and Border Management Studies at Raja Ali Haji Maritime University in Indonesia.

Kayla Marie Reno is an undergraduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.