An Emerging Threat? Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

On August 4, armed pirates launched a deadly assault against an oil barge off the coast of Africa, killing two guards and kidnapping four sailors in the process. However, this violence was not perpetrated by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, but by pirates operating on the other side of the African continent in the Gulf of Guinea. Home to a number of weak, oil-rich states, West Africa has seen a steady growth in pirate attacks in recent years, with reported incidents of piracy increasing 42 percent in 2011. Given the Gulf of Guinea’s relative economic importance, this piracy, if left unchecked, may have a surprising impact not only regionally, but globally.

Q1: What is driving piracy in the Gulf of Guinea?

A1: The Gulf of Guinea is, in many ways, a perfect incubator for piracy, providing both resources and safe haven. Surrounded by some of Africa’s most proficient oil producers, including Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Ghana, and Equatorial Guinea, the Gulf is a major transit route for oil tankers on their way to international markets. These tankers have proven valuable prey for pirates. Unlike Somali pirates, who focus on the ransom of captured crew members, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea derive much of their income from the theft of oil. These pirates will frequently hijack a tanker, siphon the oil to another vessel, and later resell it on the local black market. In addition to the hijacking of cargo ships containing goods such as cocoa and minerals, this steady supply of tankers provides pirates in the Gulf a lucrative source of income.

In addition to serving as a source of revenue, the under-governed states surrounding the Gulf provide pirates ready safe haven from which to operate, both on land and at sea. Faced with widespread poverty, rampant corruption, and an inability to fully control their territory, many of these nations rank among the most dysfunctional in the world. As a result, criminal elements—including but not limited to pirates—have little difficulty establishing and maintaining on-shore bases where they can plan and launch operations. Further, given that many of the states surrounding the Gulf lack significant maritime capabilities, there are few local forces available to combat piracy at sea. Even when states such as Nigeria are able to implement maritime counter-piracy initiatives, many pirates simply move their operations to the waters of weaker states such as Benin. This easy access to sanctuary, as well as the steady flow of oil through the region, has allowed piracy to flourish in the Gulf.

Q2: What is the impact of this piracy?

A2: The international community has increasingly taken note of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea due to the growing threat this activity represents, not only to the lives of sailors, but to both the regional and global economy. Due to the fact that they derive their profits from the sale of oil and other goods rather than the ransoming of hostages, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have proven to be significantly more violent than their Somali counterparts. Vessels are frequently sprayed with automatic weapons fire, and the murder of crew members is not uncommon. Recent events indicate that these pirates are even willing to attack vessels with security personnel aboard, evidenced by the recent killing of two Nigerian sailors guarding an oil barge. Given that pirates are now adopting heavier weapons and more sophisticated tactics, this violence is only likely to increase.

Beyond the bloodshed, the expansion of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea poses a dire threat to local economies, potentially undermining what little stability currently exists in the region. Oil revenue, which many countries in the region rely upon, is seriously threatened by pirate activity; 7 percent of Nigeria’s oil wealth is believed lost due to such criminality. Additionally, instability in the Gulf has sharply decreased revenue collected from trade; Benin, whose economy depends on taxing ships entering the port of Cotonou, has experienced a 70 percent decline in shipping activity due to piracy. Furthermore, as piracy drives up insurance premiums for international shipping companies, the price of imported goods in the region could spike, further imperiling local economies. If these local economies falter, development and stability in the region could quickly deteriorate.

However, the effects of piracy in the Gulf could well extend far beyond Africa, with potential ramifications for the larger global economy and the United States in particular. The estimated 3 million barrels of oil produced daily by the nations around the Gulf ultimately feed the North American and European markets. Nigeria alone is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States and by 2015 could account for a quarter of U.S. oil consumption. However, given the rate at which attacks on oil tankers are increasing, the ability of these nations to reliably provide oil to the international market could be in question. Early 2012 saw a doubling in the number of attacks on oil tankers, with as many as eight hijackings in a month. If this dramatic trend continues, the flow of oil from the Gulf of Guinea to the United States and the West could slow considerably.

Q3: What steps are being taken to address this threat?

A3: Recognizing the burgeoning threat, a variety of international and local actors have begun efforts to address piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The United States has supplied over $35 million to train and equip local forces to combat piracy, while the United Nations has called for a regional summit to coordinate a comprehensive counter-piracy strategy for the Gulf. Such a strategy will prove essential to addressing the challenges of piracy, given the ability of pirates to relocate quickly when counter-piracy pressure in one area becomes too great. Regional and international actors can look to the Strait of Malacca, where a number of nations coordinated joint counter-piracy operations and shared intelligence, for an example of successful cooperative efforts to curtail piracy. However, given the limited capacity of many regional actors, increased logistical, material, and intelligence support from international partners will be vital to these efforts. International and regional actors have an opportunity to address the growing threat of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, but only if they act together.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Aaron Ware is a research intern with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Aaron Ware