Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, raging global concern
The Gulf of Guinea (GoG) basin countries, including Ghana, have been grappling with piracy attacks for decades in their territorial waters.
With the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis continuously reducing global transportation (less vessels at sea), there was a decline in the number of these attacks in 2022 compared with previous years.
The Gulf of Aden (GoA) region in the Red Sea, off the Somalian coast, an important maritime route, had grappled with similar phenomena of piracy from 2005 and until 2016-2017.
Strong counterattacks by Russia, China and the European Union, especially the 2008 French-led Atalanta operation, succeeded in reducing these attacks considerably and even stopping them altogether in many instances.
By comparison, large-scale piracy in the GoG is a more recent phenomenon, which emerged in the past 10 years, gaining momentum just as the piracy in the GoA was halted. And while piracy has declined recently, the phenomenon is not over yet.
A recent report from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) showed 115 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in 2022 – compared to 132 in 2021 – with half of them occurring in Southeast Asian waters, particularly in the Singapore Straits, where incidents continue to rise.
Perpetrators were successful in gaining access to vessels in 95 per cent of the reported incidents broken down as 107 vessels boarded, two vessels hijacked, five attempted attacks and one vessel fired upon.
In many cases, vessels were either anchored or steaming when boarded, with nearly all the incidents occurring during the hours of darkness.
Likewise, the continued and much needed reduction is attributed to an overall decrease of piratical activity in the highly risky waters of the Gulf of Guinea – down from 35 incidents in 2021 to 19 in 2022.
Sustained efforts are, however, needed to ensure the continued safety of seafarers in the GoG region, which remains dangerous as evidenced by two incidents in the last quarter of 2022.
In mid-November last year, a Ro-Ro vessel was commandeered by pirates around 28nm SW of Turtle Islands, Sierra Leone.
All crew were taken hostage and the pirates tried to navigate the vessel through shallow, waters resulting in the vessel running aground.
The crew managed to free themselves and took refuge in the citadel until the Sierra Leonean authorities boarded the vessel. In mid-December, a Suezmax tanker was also fired upon, 87 newton meters off Bata, Equatorial Guinea.
The Director of IMB, Michael Howlett, said the IMB applauds the prompt and decisive actions of the international navies and regional authorities in the Gulf of Guinea, which have positively contributed to the drop in reported incidents and ensuring continued safety to crews and trade.
“Both these latter incidents do, however, cause concern and illustrate that efforts to enhance maritime security in the region must be sustained.
“Masters are also strongly encouraged to follow industry best management practice recommendations in these waters,” he said.
Conditions for piracy
However, GoG presents ‘natural conditions’ for the development of piracy. This region, part of the eastern tropical Atlantic Ocean off the western African coast, spans almost 6,500 kilometres.
It stretches from Guinea-Conakry in the north, and includes the coastal areas off Nigeria, Ghana, Sao Tome and Principe, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Benin, Togo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola to the south.
Its major tributaries include the Volta and Niger rivers. The Gulf constitutes an important maritime route for international commerce, linking three continents. However, it is also strategically important for its high concentration of hydrocarbons.
Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil producer, but other countries in the Gulf of Guinea, such as Equatorial Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Angola, have also developed offshore oil-extraction fields in the past two decades.
While many of the countries in the GoG are blessed with crude oil and mineral resources, their wealth has not trickled down to the villages on the coast or the populations as a whole.
With the recent report in mind, the Minister of Transport, Kwaku Ofori Asiamah, at the 2023 International Women’s Day (IWD) in Accra, noted that security in the Gulf of Guinea could not be downplayed.
He said piracy, armed robbery at sea, kidnapping of seafarers, illegal fishing, smuggling and trafficking, and trans-national organised crime posed a major threat to maritime security in the GoG and ultimately to the economic development of the entire region.
He added that the solution to these issues required stricter security measures to be applied in a concerted manner to address the spectrum of maritime threats, legal complexities and institutional capacity.
Piracy reflects the weakness of the local authorities’ control over coast and offshore areas, discouraging foreign investments in the region and particularly in oil-platforms and port activities.
As a consequence of insecurity and lack of investments, blue economy policies are sidelined in favour of mass fishery and illegal fisheries, which are often controlled by foreign groups and even by international consortiums. It is a vicious cycle.
Going forward, there is the need for stronger collaboration with stakeholders in the maritime industry to help address the incidents of piracy and armed robbery of ships within the GoG.
Organisations such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) should work with member states in the GoG to replicate measures that had yielded results in other jurisdictions in order to curb the menace which has become a global concern.