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Maritime piracy: between risk and reality in the Gulf of Guinea


An Ivory Coast boarding team approaches a German navy vessel during a simulated scenario as part of OBANGAME Express, March 21, 2015 (US AFRICOM)
An Ivory Coast boarding team approaches a German navy vessel during a simulated scenario as part of Obangame Express, March 2015 (US Navy / US AFRICOM)

Piracy has always been a risky enterprise but can thrive where it remains lucrative for the network of actors involved. Maritime crime relies on a ready supply of people and equipment drawn from places on land where communities are marginalised and have opportunity to exploit grey market economies. Many locations on the coastline of the Gulf of Guinea provide this environment: gangs utilise favourable geography (the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta are a convenient hiding spot for kidnapped crew), patchy law enforcement and an ecosystem of onshore support networks. Opportunists understand that the risk calculus is in their favour and have adapted their modus operandi accordingly: cargo trans-shipments became less profitable after 2014 so gangs shifted to crew kidnap for ransom. In 2021 Nigeria and Togo successfully tried and convicted a pirate gang, but prosecutions remain rare, so from the perspective of criminal networks, risk perception is low. Private armed guards are not permitted in most of the coastal waters. Naval escorts are possible in international waters (Italy and Denmark have deployed anti-piracy operations 250nm from the Niger Delta), but not in sovereign territories.


For the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria’s Deep Blue Project may signal a broader sea change in counter-piracy operations. Launched in February 2021, it comprises two patrol boats, three special mission helicopters, 16 interceptor boats, 17 armoured vessels, two light maritime patrol aircraft and four UAVs. These assets are complemented with 300 trained maritime security personnel and a C4i centre (command, control, communication, computer, and intelligence), under a joint surveillance effort between the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the Nigerian Navy’s Falcon Eye and the Nigerian Police. While still in its infancy, initial results are promising, yet BIMCO says it is too early for complacency. Analysing data for a sixteen-year period to 2016, researchers at the US Coast Guard Academy found that in West Africa, a state’s military capacity has no impact on the prevalence of piracy events: assets and equipment need to be backed up by strong institutions and effective rule of law. As with any issue that concerns the international interest, to mitigate the displacing of criminal acts to jurisdictions that shirk responsibility some cohesion among affected parties is necessary. UN Security Council resolution 2634 (May 2022) called on Member States in the Gulf of Guinea region to criminalize and investigate piracy and armed robbery at sea under their domestic laws and harmonize their legal frameworks to build an effective regional response, but an active, coordinated, comprehensive response based in law may yet take years.


Risk perception drives decision calculus and can be skewed by data. False alarms create doubt about the validity of incident reporting, while over-reliance on annual statistics and multi-lateral security agreements can create an illusion of control. High Risk Areas and War Risk Listed Areas are defined by the shipping industry and insurance sector, who may not always have an accurate picture of the true, real-time threat environment. The re-categorisation of a high risk area may imply that threats have been suppressed, even while activities on the ground and at sea may suggest otherwise. The pending removal of the Indian Ocean High Risk Area (HRA) may change Somalia's perceived status as a piracy hotspot but is unlikely to totally eliminate the threat. Citing the success of the Deep Blue Project, Nigeria is seeking the removal of the requirement for war risk insurance for cargo vessels transiting the area. Given that around a third of US oil imports transit the Gulf of Guinea, this change would affect a supply-chain of companies large and small, not all of whom have reliable insight. At sea and in port, data is most useful when it is actively shared (with context) and carries a confidence assessment. Initiatives such as MDAT-GOG enable Masters and CSOs to report in real time, to help in building a comprehensive Maritime Situational Awareness (MSA) picture of traffic, threat, and response – but this is on a voluntary basis. In the Gulf of Guinea, as in other regions, stability will rely on vigilance, verified data, active collaboration among ship owners, operators and coastal states and multilateral assistance from navies and law enforcement. With the 2022-23 ‘high season’ for piracy (usually October to March) about to open, the real test for multi-lateral collaboration has yet to come.