Swim Together Or Sink Alone: African States Unite To Confront Pirate Threat (2)

For several years, governments in the region have cooperated on joint missions to make the gulf safer – but with mixed results.


One crucial agreement, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, was signed in 2013, establishing faster information-sharing and response between member countries. Foreign navies protecting their countries’ interests also patrol the international waters outside each country’s territorial zone. And in 2019 Nigeria, the region’s biggest power, was the first to introduce legislation specifically criminalizing piracy. (Previously, pirates were tried under armed robbery laws.)

But deeper social and economic dynamics hinder progress, experts say. The Niger Delta, for instance, is chronically lawless, and militants-turned-pirates are striking farther out at sea. Nigeria’s security forces are stretched thin, battling an insurgency in the country’s north, and ethnic conflicts in the Middle Belt.

Nigeria “will continue to struggle with maritime policing because it’s fighting ‘wars’ on all fronts,” says Dr. Ali. Meanwhile, he adds, smaller countries can hardly tackle pirates alone.

“Fighting piracy and armed robbery at sea is a particular problem in the Bight of Benin,” around Togo, Benin, and Ghana, says Alex Vines, director of the Africa program at the think tank Chatham House, in London. “Over the last year, the Nigerian effort is having an impact in territorial waters [but] pirate activity has been pushed out deeper into non-Nigerian jurisdictions.”

Merchant ship owners’ associations are pressing for more international patrols and better law enforcement. Stepped-up international patrols helped in the world’s previous piracy hot spot, the Gulf of Aden, where piracy rose after Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s crumbled government control. Thirty-three countries in 2009 formed the Combined Task Force 151, which saw attacks decline to zero in 2020.

In Somalia, a U.N. Security Council resolution gave the international task force special powers because of the war. “It didn’t matter whether pirates were in international waters or territorial sea; the resolutions provided the opportunity to fully deploy and counter,” says Dr. Ali.

But that approach may not work in the Gulf of Guinea, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, because most of the attacks in the Gulf of Aden took place in international waters while those in the Gulf of Guinea have usually occurred in territorial waters not open to foreign navies – although now, she adds, “there appears to be evolution.”

Attacks in the gulf’s international waters are ramping up. Data obtained from the IMB shows that more attacks took place in international waters (48) than in territorial waters (33) last year.

Still, IMB Director Michael Howlett says that new solutions will be needed for West Africa. “It has to be acknowledged that in the long term, Gulf of Guinea piracy is a regional issue requiring a regional response,” he says.

Already, Dr. Ali points out, the region is smarting from a European Union move that some say undermines local agency. In January, the EU launched the Coordinated Maritime Presences, seeking permanence in the gulf, and in March, Denmark agreed to deploy a patrol vessel in international waters there. It’s unclear if African countries were consulted; Nigeria’s maritime agency did not respond to a request for comment.

But Nigeria’s Deep Blue Project (DBP), launched this year, is cautiously inspiring hope. The ambitious $195 million project aims to purchase assets like fast-intervention vessels, build interagency command centers for the country’s naval and port authorities, and train security forces.

Together with the Yaoundé agreement, the project signals progress in the gulf, experts say. “We will see what comes out of the DBP,” says Dr. Ali, adding that the Yaoundé program represents the ideal: regional cooperation.

*Culled from: The Christian Science Monitor