Time to address the security threat of piracy in Gulf of Guinea

When three staff of the Italian oil firm Agip went to work in the Niger Delta on 27 July, they probably assumed their day would end just like any other workday. Unfortunately, by the end of the day one of them was dead and the other two were missing, all because of an attack by sea pirates.

Agency reports said that during an attack on a boat owned by Agip in Tarabora creek in Nigeria’s Bayelsa state, pirates killed an oil worker while two others were declared missing.

The incident is symptomatic of what is becoming a source of increasing concern to the countries that border the Gulf of Guinea and a major worry to the international community because of the implications for global trade.

While piracy has seen a decline worldwide, the trend in the Gulf of Guinea has, unfortunately, been toward increased piracy.

On 16 July, the International Maritime Bureau reported in its latest global piracy report that the number of pirate attacks worldwide fell sharply in the first half of 2012, led by a decline in Somali piracy. It, however, added that the reduction was offset by a worrying increase in attacks in the Gulf of Guinea.

While, 177 worldwide incidents were reported to the Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center in the first six months of 2012, compared to 266 incidents for the corresponding period in 2011, in the Gulf of Guinea, 32 incidents were reported for the six-month period in 2012 as against 25 during the same period in 2011. The reported incidents included five hijackings and the Bureau noted that high levels of violence had been used against crewmembers and guns were reported in at least 20 of the 32 incidents. At least one crewmember was killed while another later died as a result of an attack.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea poses a major security challenge to the countries of the region. Although it has been noted that, unlike piracy off the coast of Somalia, the pirates in the Gulf of Guinea do not generally seize vessels and demand ransoms. Instead, they attack the vessels to steal the cargo and to rob the crew. They also attack oil-carrying vessels to steal the oil on board. The risk is that, in their desperation to get their hands at their loot, the pirates are becoming increasingly violent.  As noted earlier, armed violence has been used against crewmembers and some have been shot.

The overall impact is that ships are more reluctant to ply the route and those that agree to sail into the Gulf have to prepare for any eventually, in effect increasing the cost of trade passing through the Gulf. By the same token, insurance rates for trade passing through the region has also increased significantly.

What is clear is that piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a problem that transcends national boundaries and, as such, one which must be jointly tackled by the countries of the region with the support of the international community.

The Security Council showed its concern in February when it held a briefing on where, Lynn Pascoe, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the time, said that a comprehensive regional strategy was critical if the countries of the region were to successfully combat piracy.

“Gulf of Guinea countries need a united front in order to respond effectively to the growing threat of piracy along their coasts. Isolated national initiatives are only temporarily, at best, pushing the pirates to shift their criminal operations from one country to the next,” he said.

According to him, piracy and armed robbery against ships increasingly undermine efforts by States in the Gulf of Guinea region to maintain peace, security and stability and to promote socio-economic development.

Furthermore, in November, United Nations SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon deployed a team – in response to a request from President Boni Yayi of Benin – to assess the scope of the piracy threat in the Gulf of Guinea and make recommendations for possible UN support in tackling this scourge.

That action followed the adoption of a resolution in which the Council condemned all acts of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea and encouraged regional bodies to develop a comprehensive strategy to tackle it.

What is clear is that the Gulf of Guinea countries and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recognize that the threat posed by piracy to the region is real and that now is the time to act to address that threat. The international community has thrown its support for a multilateral effort to tackle the challenge. It is now up to the countries of the region to join hands to implement an effective strategy to address the challenge. Unless action is taken soon, piracy in the Gulf will only continue to increase.

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About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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