How strategically significant is the Gulf of Guinea to the major maritime powers?
By Captain Pakiribo S. Anabraba, Nigerian Navy
Geostrategic maritime significance forms the core of the maritime powers’ interests to astutely encourage security in the Malacca Strait and, in the case of the Gulf of Aden, to the extent of physically micromanaging their security. By analytically comparing the geostrategic maritime significance of these two maritime assets to that of the Gulf of Guinea, it is proven that, because the Gulf of Guinea does not have the same kind of geographical salience as the Malacca Strait and the Gulf of Aden, it is conceived as being not as strategically significant. Accordingly, there is no overwhelming interest or obligation for the formation and sustainment of a multinational counter–piracy initiative in the Gulf of Guinea that is directly and physically spearheaded and micromanaged by the major maritime powers as obtainable in the Malacca Strait and Gulf of Aden. Regional cooperative solutions must then be found.
Nations engage in international trade to realize their full economic potential through globalization and global economic integration. Maritime trade constitutes a preponderance of international trade and is conducted through established international sea lanes of communication or maritime corridors. Piracy has existed since the beginning of seaborne trade, but the scope, scale and sophistication of modern piracy require international collaboration to combat it.
Various factors such as interests, capacity, commitment and moral obligation have occasioned different degrees of collaboration among sovereign nations to combat piracy. As a maritime thoroughfare, the Gulf of Guinea holds no exception to piracy, and the states abutting it have not shown the requisite capacity to eradicate the piracy scourge. The lack of capacity suggests the possible need for material assistance from extra-regional maritime powers. But does the Gulf of Guinea possess the strategic significance to attract such intervention?
Oceans, seas and littorals collectively form incontrovertible existential importance to humanity. These components of the world’s ecosystem are critical for food security, sustainment of economic prosperity and well-being of people, both in the industrialized and developing worlds. About 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water and over 90 percent of world trade by weight and volume is transported over the oceans.
Equally important as the flow of goods is the flow of services, which in today’s computer-centric world travels electronically in digital bits and bytes through fiber optic cables laid across the world’s ocean floors. The fact that three-quarters of the world’s megacities (those of 20 million inhabitants or more) are by the sea and about 80 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coast further supports the view that the maritime environment is indispensable to human existence. The sea is also home to living and non-living resources such as fish and other marine organisms, important minerals and hydrocarbons.
The foregoing underscores the strategic importance of the sea to the potentialities of littoral states. But to fully realize these potentialities, the oceans and seas must be safe for free movement of commerce. Like the continental environment, the world’s maritime system is also threatened by irregular threats and illicit activities such as piracy; armed robbery of ships; maritime terrorism; human and narcotics trafficking; mass illegal migration; smuggling; small arms and light weapons proliferation; illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing; as well as activities that degrade the maritime environment such as pollution and unauthorized resources exploitation. The complexity and dynamics of these threats necessitates littoral states to cooperate in ensuring safety and stability in the world’s maritime system.
The Gulf of Guinea forms a significant strategic component of the world’s maritime system. It is conceptualized geographically as the Atlantic coast stretching from Senegal to Angola, including the island countries of Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe. The region is rich in marine resources such as fish, shrimp, and other aquatic fauna and flora, as well as large quantities of solid minerals and hydrocarbon deposits, amongst other important strategic valuables. But the region contends with a mixed fortune of realities. As political instability, insurgency, militancy and terrorism assume a disturbing trend ashore, an increase in incidences of illicit maritime activities—as enumerated earlier—have exposed limitations in maritime regulatory capacity as well as poor regional cooperation on maritime security.
Geostrategic Maritime Importance
Because the Malacca Strait and Gulf of Aden have profoundly significant geo-strategic importance of global dimension, there exist multinational counter-piracy initiatives in these maritime spaces—one undertaken by regional maritime powers but supported by the United States and other extra-regional maritime powers, and the other, a coalition of several willing nations spearheaded and micromanaged by the United States.
Gulf of Guinea
Apart from its huge economic potential, the Gulf of Guinea straddles a vital sea lane of communication for the world’s maritime trade and is devoid of any choke points. The region is one of the largest hydrocarbon provinces in the world, with over 42.9 million barrels of total proven oil reserves and is potentially the world’s largest reserve of offshore deep water oil. Furthermore, the Gulf of Guinea contributes about 70 percent of Africa’s net crude oil output, and with recent discoveries in Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote d’ivoire and Liberia, these numbers are only going to rise. Additionally, the low sulphur contents of its crude greatly reduces the cost of refining, and the existence of an appreciable amount of natural gas deposits further increases the strategic significance of the Gulf of Guinea.
As crises in the Middle East and North Africa continue unabated, and as the politics of Russian oil and gas supplies to Europe remain uncertain, the Gulf of Guinea will continue to remain a veritable alternative source of hydrocarbon resources. Tanker transit to refineries on the east and gulf coasts of the United States and to Europe is relatively short and has the added advantage of not passing through vulnerable choke points. However, lack of a chokepoint, which appears an advantage, is, in reality, a strategic disadvantage as far as international interest in providing multinational counter-piracy response is concerned.
This is because the Gulf of Guinea could be accessed from all directions due to its expanse and does not canalize shipping as do the Malacca Strait and the Bab el Mandeb in the Gulf of Aden. Consequently, the Gulf of Guinea, when compared with the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait, portends far lesser risk as far as threat of interruption of global energy supply and other trades are concerned. Also, states and non-state actors cannot obstruct or threaten to obstruct the entire Gulf of Guinea (unless within harbors, and these are not part of the gulf) as a means to garner undue political concessions or to negotiate from a position of geographical advantage or strength.
Comparing Geostrategic Maritime Significance
One could assess the geostrategic significance of maritime spaces by comparing the economic well-being of countries or regions they service or give access to. This is in view of the axiom or fact that over 90 percent of international trade is conducted through the sea. Therefore, it follows that maritime corridors must undoubtedly contribute similar measure to the economic progress of the countries or regions they serve or service.
Since it is axiomatic that over 90 percent of international trade is conducted by sea, and since no nation can be great without meaningfully engaging in international trade, it follows that the maritime corridors that give access to these regions are reasonably instrumental to their economic well-being. Commonsensically, anything that contributes immensely to a nation’s well-being should be strategically very significant to that nation. Each region comprises four representative countries.
The West is represented by the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Asia is represented by China, India, Japan and South Korea. The Persian Gulf comprises Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar and the UAE, while Africa is illustrated with Nigeria, Angola, Senegal and Ghana. The average GDP of the four countries representing each region is computed for five years (2010–2014) to indicate the steady disparity in economic well-being among the regions. Only real GDPs were computed, not gross national income, or compensated for purchasing power parity.
The Gulf of Guinea bounds the coasts of littoral West and Central African countries and, hence, provides access to some of the world’s poorest countries. The Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait, on the other hand, provide cost-effective maritime access or links between three of the most important and technologically advanced regions of the world—the United States and Europe (West) and Asia. Additionally, these regions, especially Asia, accommodate a greater percentage of the world’s population.
Coupled with their huge populations, the energy demand of the rapidly industrializing Asian economy is very high. Similarly, the industrialized and highly technologically advanced economies of the West also make very high energy demands. These energy demands, if sourced from the Persian Gulf countries, are serviced by the Malacca Strait for vessels going to the Far East, and the Gulf of Aden for vessels going to the West. This makes these maritime corridors profoundly strategically important, as they guarantee the energy security of most of the world’s population.
Furthermore, the economic progress of the Far East Asian countries coupled with their rapidly rising population has correspondingly created a middle class with financial buoyancy and purchasing power. Combined with cheap cost of labor, the net result is a huge market for Western products and a cheap business environment that is mutually exploited by Western and Asian companies. Therefore, a strong nexus and mutualism exist between the Western economy and those of Far East countries. This makes the West very interested in the security of the Gulf of Aden and Malacca Strait because most of the trade is conducted through them and also because they form the most cost-effective maritime link between the United States, European Union, and Asia. It is therefore not surprising that the Malacca Strait and the Gulf of Aden command great security interests and, hence, are on the front burners of the security agenda of the United States, European Union, China, India, Japan and South Korea, as well as most East and Southeast Asian countries.
The Gulf of Guinea does not have similar credentials or geographical characteristics as the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden and, therefore, should understandably not attract similar security interests from the major maritime powers. The Gulf of Guinea does not only give access to some of the countries with the lowest per capita income, GDP, and GNP in the world, but also to economies that are not manufacturing and so mostly dependent on the United States, the European Union and China for manufactured and finished products, including raw materials. The United States, the European Union and China all have suitable alternative markets for their products. This is evident from the fact that the Gulf of Guinea states rank very low in their list of trading partners and in the volume of activities in the Gulf of Guinea ports.
Although some of the Gulf of Guinea states export crude oil, natural gas and raw materials, there are also ready and equally suitable (if not cheaper) alternative sources for these products. For example, routes are shorter and, hence, cheaper for China and the other fast growing economies of the Far East to buy their oil and gas from the Persian Gulf and Russia. The European Union imports its crude oil requirements from Norway, Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus countries (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), and OPEC countries (mostly Saudi Arabia, Libya and Nigeria). The United States has seriously scaled down its oil imports from the Gulf of Guinea since the shale oil boom but continues to patronize the Persian Gulf states even though it might be cheaper to buy from the Gulf of Guinea because of the shorter distance and low sulphur contents of the crude. The foregoing examples are cited to show the multiplicity of alternative sources of crude oil at the disposal of the major maritime powers and the wide array of choices available to them. his is expected to negate the Gulf of Guinea from occupying any special place or extraordinary position in the maritime security agenda of the major maritime powers to the extent of physically partaking in the region’s maritime security.
As crises in the Middle East and the associated political dynamics assumed a disturbing dimension that threatened global security, the need to search for alternative sources of energy became unavoidable for the United States and its strategic partners.
Consequently, as part of efforts to prevent al Qaeda and its affiliates from using Africa as a safe haven within the overall global counterterrorism effort, the United States increased its engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa, including trade in oil and gas.
However, the current reality indicates that the Middle East countries have continued to enjoy enough patronage in oil and gas trade from the United States and partner countries as one of the strategic options to diplomatically douse the situation and keep the region within its fold in order to protect and promote its interests in the Middle East. This has meant more maritime traffic through the Gulf of Aden and Malacca Strait.
Also, in order to protect and promote their strategic economic interests, the European Union and United States are obligated to ensure that the Gulf of Aden, its surrounding maritime spaces, and the Malacca Strait are kept secure and open for free flow of commercial maritime activities. This includes ensuring that piracy and armed robbery against ships do not grind commercial maritime activities to a halt. The formation, strong encouragement (as in the Malacca Strait), and sustainment of multinational counter-piracy initiatives are some of the ways that are being used to ensure that maritime trade routes are open and secure to satisfy the strategic interests of the West and the rapidly developing economies of the Far East. Since the Gulf of Guinea does not share similar credentials, it is most unlikely that the United States, the European Union and the developing Asian economies would be willing to form a counter-piracy coalition that will physically combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Other indicators of strategic maritime significance of a maritime area are the trade volume and port activities it supports. Again, the volume of import and export trade of Europe, America and Asia regions over and above Africa is evidently clear. These high trade volumes are made possible by a sea lane of communication that connects these regions. Since Gulf of Guinea states rank very low in the list of trading partners with these regions, and since they all rank very high among themselves as trading partners, one can justifiably conclude that the sea lanes of communication linking them are more strategically significant than the Gulf of Guinea. However, this hypothesis is in view of the truism that maritime trade contributes over 90 percent of international trade, and so the maritime corridor that gives access to a region contributes correspondingly to its economic viability.
Statistics show that the world’s top 20 ports from 2004–2013 are in the United States, Europe and Asia. Out of the twenty, 15 are in Asia, and China has 10. Of the five ports outside Asia, two are U.S. ports; and one each is from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Also, within the same time frame, eight of the top twenty ports experienced over 200 percent growth, of which seven are Chinese ports.
The exception is the Port of Dubai in the UAE. It is doubtful if any port in the Gulf of Guinea has ever made the Lloyd’s list of world top container ports. The forgoing shows the low level of maritime activities in the Gulf of Guinea. Again, this indicates the poor strategic maritime significance of the Gulf of Guinea. If the Gulf of Guinea were as significant as the Malacca Strait or the Gulf of Aden, this would reflect just as bustling container activities in the numerous ports that straddle the length of the Gulf of Guinea coastline.
The Cost of Piracy
Studies have shown that the severity of the costs of piratical activities to the international maritime community is different for each pirate hotspot. Case studies on the Strait of Malacca, Gulf of Aden, and Gulf of Guinea show that the costs of piracy are causal to the formation and sustainment of multinational counter-piracy initiatives.
Rather than see the costs of piracy only through an economic prism, these case studies take a wide-spectrum perspective and recognize that there exists a multiplicity of human, psychological, social, and political costs of piracy. However, many organizations, authors and researchers have concentrated their studies on the economic cost of piracy, perhaps because of the impact of piracy on commercial profits.
Studies on the costs of piracy have concentrated mainly on Gulf of Aden/Somali pirates. Perhaps this is due to the sophistication and temerity of these pirates and the strategic significance of the theater in which they operate to international maritime commerce and global welfare. This lopsided attention by researchers and organizations to the economic costs of Somali pirates has created a paucity of literature and data on the subject matter with regards to other pirate hotpots.
Nevertheless, efforts shall as much as possible be made to balance the studies on the three regions under review.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development categorizes the costs and trade-related implications of maritime piracy into first and second order costs. First order costs feature ransom, insurance costs, shipping networks and re-routing of fleets, security deterrence equipment and armed guards, fuel consumption, additional labor, naval forces, and piracy prosecutions, among others.
Second order costs include fisheries, food security and food price inflation, tourism, and environmental pollution, among others. Peter Chalk, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, divided the economic costs of piracy into direct and indirect costs. He categorized the costs of piracy into real and virtual costs. The real costs are those that can be assigned numerical values, while the virtual costs are those that cannot be attributed numerical values or otherwise quantified. Calculating the global cost of piracy has been a difficult and elusive venture among researchers for certain reasons. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development,
The global cost of piracy … remains uncertain, with existing assessments providing divergent estimates and conclusions. Existing studies tend to primarily focus on calculating first order costs such as the cost of ransoms, security deterrence equipment and naval forces deployment. The secondary costs of piracy, such as the effects on foreign investment in the affected and neighboring regions, or on commodity prices appear so far to have benefited from much less attention. Existing studies differ in terms of their methodology and approach and, therefore, are neither directly comparable, nor provide a definite authoritative assessment of piracy related costs.
For each of the maritime regions under review, this case study discusses the different costs of piracy as it affects that region. Since different pirates employ different modes of operation and business models, each region’s costs of piracy cannot be compared directly. Even when some of the costs of piracy are similar, the process or manner in which they are incurred is different.
For example, ransom is common among Somali and Gulf of Guinea pirates, but not with Malacca Strait pirates. Even between Somali and Gulf of Guinea pirates, the former ransom everything—ships, cargoes, and crews—while the latter only kidnap crews for ransom, sell off part or all of the cargo, and are not really interested in ships—although there are a few cases of phantom ships or ghost ships. (Phantom or ghost ships is an operational model adopted by pirates where an entire ship is stolen, renamed, reregistered, and sold on the spot market—sometimes with its cargo, other times separately. This model is mostly adopted by Southeast Asian pirates and occasionally by Gulf of Guinea pirates. These ships are called “phantom” or “ghost” ships because when law enforcement agents set out in search of a missing ship, the ship could be seen but not found because it is under a different name, registration documents, and appearance (all or part of its external paintwork may have been altered to disguise it). For Somali pirates, everything—crews, cargoes, and ships—are all ransomed.)
Similarly, while the cost of insurance is common to all three pirate hotspots under review, the parameters for arriving at their insurance premiums are not entirely the same, and these details are not usually completely divulged by insurance companies. Consequently, different insurance premiums are paid for different pirate hotspots and therefore cannot be used as a basis for comparison.
In view of the foregoing considerations, certain indicators of the severity of the costs of piracy in the three regions under investigation are used as a basis for comparison and are measured by the number of attacks within the same time frame. This is because without pirate attacks, no costs—whether human, psychological, economic or social— would be incurred. Furthermore, the growth of pirate attacks in a region is another indicator of the costs of piracy. The larger a region’s share of pirate attacks, the higher the costs of piracy for that region. The outcome of the comparisons show if the Gulf of Guinea pirates create as much cost as the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait pirates.
Human and Psychological Costs of Piracy
Pirate attacks most times result in severe human costs such as death, torture, harassment, permanent injury, disfigurement, psychological and emotional trauma and hostage-taking. Generally, some of the costs such as fear, trauma, stress and the like are unquantifiable, but their impact is global. This is true because the global maritime commons are transited by ships of different nations and ownership, and bear crewmembers from a multiplicity of countries, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, races and colors.
Hostage-taking and ransoming of crewmembers is common among the modes of operation of pirates of the three regions under review, albeit with different degrees and scope. While incarcerated, crewmembers could be subjected to different forms of psychological and physical maltreatment, as well as violence. Some seafarers who survive the initial violence and risk associated with the take-over of ships by pirates eventually die as hostages due to unhealthy conditions and torture inflicted by the pirates or their networks.
Somali pirates have taken a total of 3,230 seafarers as hostages, while Malacca Strait and Gulf of Guinea pirates have recorded 238 and 718 hostage takings, respectively. Also, in their course of operation, Somali pirates have killed 26 seafarers between 2000 and 2014, dwarfing the records of Malacca and Gulf of Guinea pirates, who have killed 7 and 13 seafarers, respectively, within the same period. Apart from these human costs, there are other losses and sufferings, such as threats, intimidation, assault and missing seafarers, which are not included the data.
Economic Costs Of Piracy
Piracy poses economic costs among stakeholders in the maritime industry as well as among governments within and around affected maritime spaces. Based on a study conducted by Oceans Beyond Piracy, piracy collectively costs national economies between $7 billion and $12 billion. This cost is grossly infinitesimal compared to $18.8 trillion, the dollar value of the world’s merchandise trade in 2013 (between 0.04 to 0.05 percent). With an average increase of 5.3 percent of the world’s merchandise trade between 1993 and 2013, it means that the economic cost of piracy had been a miniature fraction of the value of international merchandise trade. This perhaps is why the commercial world is slow in taking decisive and lasting action against piracy.
However, while the global economic cost of piracy may appear very small when compared to the value of the world’s international trade, it does not negate the severity or significance of the piracy burden in the different piracy hotspots. Besides, piracy is increasingly becoming a potential threat to global energy security. Considering the fact that crude oil and gas are still the fundamental prime movers of most economies of the world, any sustained disruption in energy flow by pirates has the potential to cripple most economies of the world with multifarious ripples.
Economic Cost of Gulf of Guinea Piracy
Crimes and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea negatively impact the business activities of millions of people in the region and the safe transportation of millions of barrels of oil per day as well as other commercial maritime activities involving the oil industry. The business model in the Gulf of Guinea is focused on stealing petroleum products. Accordingly, oil tankers laden with finished or crude petroleum products are the main targets of Gulf of Guinea pirates and other criminal networks in that maritime environment. The overriding aim of their attacks is to hijack oil tankers, steal some or all of their cargoes and sell them to pre-arranged buyers or at spot markets. These attacks usually take place in territorial waters and anchorages, although there are occasions when Gulf of Guinea pirates have ventured far afield to capture victim vessels. Gulf of Guinea pirates also engage in armed robbery, kidnapping, and hostage-taking of ships’ crew, oil workers and expatriates, who are released after the payment of ransom.
Furthermore, proliferation of piracy and armed robbery against ships as well as other illicit maritime crimes due to ungoverned maritime spaces in the Gulf of Guinea has caused states significant losses in revenue. Also adversely affected are berthing fees, custom duties, and other charges for port services and facilities, which sometimes collectively generate a very large proportion of annual budgetary needs. Despite efforts by the Gulf of Guinea states at improving port services and facilities, hikes in piratical activities within territorial waters, anchorages, roadsteads (calm areas of water near harbors where ships await their turn to enter into harbor), and other maritime spaces under states’ jurisdiction have correspondingly hiked insurance premiums, which has in turn reduced vessel traffic to ports in the Gulf of Guinea.
For example, the activities of pirates have negatively impacted the number of vessel calls to Cotonou Port in the Gulf of Guinea. Despite upgrades, expansion of port facilities, and improvements in port services, Cotonou Port, which generates about half of the total annual Beninese government revenue, experienced a 70 percent drop in vessel port calls after piratical attacks surged in Beninese waters in 2011. Although actual economic losses in numerical terms are difficult to ascertain because of poor data collection and record keeping, Admiral Oshinowo, a maritime security expert estimated that the “annual cost of piracy to the Gulf of Guinea ranges from $565 million to $2 billion.”
Political Cost of Piracy
Corruption among political leaders helps breed poverty in a society, which in turn encourages piracy and armed robbery against ships as sources of livelihood, especially among coastal dwellers. As pirates’ confidence increases and their skills get sharpened over time, their success rate also increases. With an increasing success rate, pirates are better empowered to give more financial inducements to power brokers for more space to perpetrate their nefarious acts. Financial inducements by pirates make politicians corrupt and lose the will to govern effectively. Chronic corruption helps breed pervasive poverty within a society and the attraction of more coastal dwellers and the rural poor to piracy.
The foregoing suggests that the pirates-politicians relationship is a vicious or virtuous cycle, depending on which side one looks at it—either from the side of the well-meaning public or from the perspective of the criminals.
Political Cost of Gulf of Guinea Piracy
There is yet no concrete evidence that politicians in the Gulf of Guinea benefit from the proceeds of piracy, or are instrumental in perpetrating incidents of piracy as obtainable in Somalia. Perhaps the only traceable relationship between politicians and pirates in the Gulf of Guinea is that bad governance and corruption can contribute to the emergence and proliferation of piracy. It is also speculated that law enforcement agents in the Gulf of Guinea are complicit in the activities of pirates by accepting bribes and other financial inducements.
While there is no documented evidence to prove these speculative allegations beyond reasonable doubt, the possibility of some law enforcement agents compromising their profession could exist, given the pervasiveness of poverty in the countries abutting the Gulf of Guinea.
It is also speculated that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND), an insurgent/militant group in southern Nigeria, which agitated for control of that nation’s oil and gas resources between the late 1990s and early 2000s, had carried out piracy as one of its means of generating revenue. MEND employed terrorist tactics in pursuit of its course throughout those years, and in some cases, their activities spread to neighboring countries. The close tie that existed between piracy and terrorism (tactics employed by the militants) suggests that there was a cost of political instability to the Gulf of Guinea region.
Comparing the Costs of Piracy
The International Maritime Bureau data suggests that Somali piracy represented 4.7 percent of attacks reported in 2000. By 2005, its share of worldwide attacks had risen to 16.3 percent, which more than tripled its share of attacks in 2000. By 2011, it had climbed to 53.8 percent, which again more than tripled its share of attacks in 2005. But a thorough observation of the data reveals that until 2007, the Gulf of Guinea consistently recorded more piratical incidents—sometimes doubling or tripling that of the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space except in 2005. This implies that the Gulf of Guinea suffered more costs of piracy than the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space. In 2008, the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space surpassed that of the Gulf of Guinea. Interestingly, that same year, CTF 150 was established to check terrorism in the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space, with implicit concurrent accreditation to conduct counter-piracy.
Despite the evidence that acts of piracy were disproportionately greater in the Gulf of Guinea until 2007, counter-piracy task forces were instead set up in the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space by the United States and later joined by a partnership of other maritime powers. While an attempt to take up the security of the Malacca Strait by the United States and other regional powers is understandable in view of the incessant piratical attacks prior to 2005, this does not explain their engagement in the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space. The answer would seem to be that in view of its strategic significance, the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space was assessed as imposing more costs due to piracy, despite having fewer piracy attacks.
Although the frequency of Gulf of Guinea piracy was consistently higher than that of the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space until 2007, the relatively lower volume of trade transiting the Gulf of Guinea meant a much lower overall cost of piracy.
Accordingly, interests of the major maritime powers were less affected by the piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, as compared to the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space and the Malacca Strait. Those maritime hotspots incur much higher costs of piracy due to the much higher volume of trade transiting them. Accordingly, there is an absence of impetus for the major maritime powers to initiate and physically participate in counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea. This means that for the major maritime powers, increase in the costs of piracy is a motivation for the establishment of counter-piracy initiatives.
Where are the Solutions?
The Gulf of Guinea is indisputably one of the most important maritime arteries facilitating international trade and global welfare. As long as international shipping remains interdependent and the world increasingly depends on crude oil and gas, this fact will remain so. Like other maritime spaces where commercial activities flourish, the Gulf of Guinea is bedeviled by piracy and armed robbery, as well as other maritime crimes.
The scale and scope of modern piratical activities have necessitated an international coalition of maritime powers to physically undertake and micromanage the security of some maritime corridors in the world. But such physical participation has never been attempted or muted for the Gulf of Guinea despite a higher share of global acts of piracy between 2001 and 2007, the same period some other counter-piracy operations were initiated by the major maritime powers. The reason for this was found in comparing the Gulf of Guinea with the Malacca Strait and the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space using two parameters—strategic maritime significance and the costs of piracy.
From the case studies, it was found that the Gulf of Guinea does not possess the kind of geostrategic maritime credentials possessed by the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden/Somali maritime space that motivated the United States to attempt taking over the physical security of the Malacca Strait or spearhead a multinational counter-piracy initiative in the Gulf of Guinea/Somali maritime space. It was also found that the Gulf of Guinea does not have the capacity to create the costly losses to pirates that could attract the material presence of the major maritime powers to participate in counter-piracy operations in the region. Consequently, there is no overwhelming incentive, interest, or obligation for the major maritime powers to attempt a counter-piracy coalition, or to physically micromanage counter-piracy initiatives in the Gulf of Guinea.
However, the comparatively low maritime significance of the Gulf of Guinea does not negate the fact that piracy is serious within the region and its impact on regional stakeholders is enormous. Also, as long as energy and its supply networks still form part of the major determinants of the global economy, the threat posed by piracy in the Gulf of Guinea will continue to remain a challenge to stakeholders outside the region. But since the possibility of attracting physical participation of the major maritime powers in counter-piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is unlikely, at best remote, it means the Gulf of Guinea states are on their own to manage their maritime affairs and the future of their maritime environment to a conclusive success.
Therefore, regional actors and stakeholders must start to eschew the unrealistic hype that the Gulf of Guinea is overwhelmingly strategically significant. They must come to terms with the reality that it is not a major maritime trading route and, hence, does not portend as much strategic significance or create as much costs of piracy as the major maritime trading routes. This unrealistic hype has pervaded the region and has ingrained in the minds of regional actors a sense of complacency that if things really get worse, the major maritime powers would always come to the region’s rescue. Things might not necessarily always work out that way, and in the face of dwindling resources and other competing strategic obligations, the maritime security assistance currently received from the major maritime powers might dry up or reduce significantly. Accordingly, political masters in the Gulf of Guinea and regional maritime stakeholders must brace up to search for unique regional solutions to regional maritime security problems.
It is strongly believed that the Gulf of Guinea states have the resources, or could provide the resources, to adequately sponsor the security of their maritime environment if the political masters could be more committed, honest and receptive to constructive ideas. Any proposed solution to the Gulf of Guinea piracy problem must include a strategy that can bring about significant improvements in maritime regime governance, security, safety and development. Such a result-oriented strategy would require mutually reinforcing actions at three levels: strategic, operational and tactical.
The strategic level would involve governments and intergovernmental actions at the national and international levels. Actors at this level would be required to do
everything possible to make piracy unattractive to perpetrators and potential perpetrators.
Since socio-economic cum political factors have been identified as the root underlying causes of piracy, strategic level actors are to come up with proactive measures, plans and strategies that would create disincentives among pirates and would-be pirates. For the national governments of the Gulf of Guinea states, this entails good governance and grassroots-oriented socio-economic policies that would improve the lot of the masses and bridge the economic inequality between the rich and the poor. Job creation and infrastructural development that would accompany sound socio-economic policies would make coastal community dwellers detest piracy as an interesting occupational venture.
Piracy and armed robbery against ships have exposed poor regulatory capacity as well as inadequate cooperation among the Gulf of Guinea states on maritime security.
The ripple effect of these deficiencies has been the existence of weak, and in some cases, near-absent maritime law enforcement enablers such as maritime law enforcement institutions, tools, facilities, and resources. The absence of these enablers has created incentives for people to not only engage in piracy, but to also carry it out with naked impunity. Therefore, it behooves the political masters to project the right political will and resolve to curb maritime crimes in the Gulf of Guinea.
Since most of the Gulf of Guinea states are economies that depend mainly on offshore crude oil mining as their major source of foreign exchange earnings, the economic implication of such piratical activities are enormous. In view of the economic strength the maritime environment provides, it is imperative for political masters of the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea to balance their attention between continental issues and maritime security matters.
The operational level of strategy will be geared towards interdicting pirates— from planning to execution stages. This level of the strategy requires effective networking and intelligence gathering and sharing among the Gulf of Guinea states to interrupt and terminate piracy even before execution. Also, the strategy should be aimed at finding out pirates’ safe havens in coastal communities in order to root them out and subsequently establish government presence in the ungoverned spaces where pirates hide.
In this regard, the strategy requires the establishment and operationalization of an overarching regional maritime security organization that will conduct counter-piracy operations as one of its main mandates. Such an organization will focus on collaboration among the maritime security agencies of the Gulf of Guinea states to work together across their geographical and sub-regional boundaries. In order to succeed, the organization must have the capacity to properly coordinate effective use of intelligence, personnel, and materiel to deter, disrupt, and suppress piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
It is perhaps in pursuit of this kind of counter-piracy strategy that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) developed the ongoing collaborative maritime security strategy to address the diverse maritime threats across the Gulf of Guinea region. In the ongoing arrangement, the Gulf of Guinea states are grouped into zones headed by a commander from one of the countries in each zone. Each zone is to formulate and operationalize strategies for the security of its maritime space, with provision for liaison with adjacent zones.
Although this initiative appears to be a welcome development, it might not be the panacea to the Gulf of Guinea piracy predicament. This is because rather than encourage joint and combined patrols, it encourages only coordinated patrol arrangements among the zones where, for example, Zone A’s patrol units cannot cross into Zone B and have to coordinate their patrols through communication with liaison arrangements ashore. What the Gulf of Guinea needs is a more robust but fluid structure under a single overall command with a combined patrols arrangement within and among participating units.
Regional actors of the Malacca Strait Security Patrol (MSSP), which the current Gulf of Guinea maritime security architecture is modeled after, accepts that inability to transition fully from a coordinated to a combined patrols arrangement is one of its major albatrosses.
It is important to state that successful implementation of the proposed arrangement would greatly depend on deliverables such as effective organizational structure, integrated logistics, the right number and mix of platforms, repair/maintenance facilities and bases, training and doctrinal integration, sufficient maritime domain awareness infrastructures, equipment interoperability and compatibility, an effective motivation and reward system for law enforcement personnel, adequate funding and, above all, commitment and mutual trust among the political leaders in the region.
Additionally, the success of such an arrangement requires effective prosecution of pirates with penalties capable of deterring would-be pirates. Since some of the Gulf of Guinea states might not have provisions for piracy in their penal codes, and since there might be marked differences in the penal codes of those that do have them, it would be necessary to develop, streamline and operationalize a common judicial code within the international legal framework for resolving piracy cases.
Ancillary to a common Gulf of Guinea counter-piracy judicial system is the need for the development of regional antipiracy agreements that would create and foster a common understanding among the Gulf of Guinea states. While paying particular attention to regional peculiarities, such antipiracy agreements would be focused on promoting existing international antipiracy agreements within the region. Also, since the possibility of adequately and effectively dispensing justice without a prison system does not exist, there is the need to build in the proposed arrangement prisons with common conditions, rules, and regulations in at least four evenly dispersed countries within the Gulf of Guinea where pirates could serve jail terms and be rehabilitated.
The proposed arrangement would require the Gulf of Guinea states to integrate and coordinate the security of their maritime space against illicit activities through a centralized headquarters. This collective maritime security arrangement will place the entire expanse of the Gulf of Guinea maritime environment under a common security umbrella, which could be termed the Gulf of Guinea Maritime Guard Command (GGMGC) as part of a restructured, expanded, and strengthened Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) that is truly committed and empowered to achieve its set objectives.
The operations of the GGMGC shall be directed by a commander, who shall be a naval or coast guard officer from any of the member states with requisite seniority, experience, knowledge, and capacity. He shall be administratively assisted by a staff comprising all ranks of maritime law enforcement representatives from member states, and operationally by a deputy and two strategic regional commanders (one each for ECCAS and ECOWAS states). The appointment of commander GGMGC shall be tenured and rotated regularly among member states after an agreed duration.
The commander GGMGC shall retain operational control, while the strategic regional commanders shall retain tactical command of their respective regions. Operational command shall be retained by a Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security Committee (GGMSC), which shall be established and shall comprise chiefs of defense staff of member countries. They are to meet frequently to consult, make decisions on various maritime security issues, and give collective policy and strategic directives/guidance to the commander GGMGC. Overall command shall lie with the heads of state forum through the chairman of the Gulf of Guinea Commission.
The Gulf of Guinea Maritime Guard Command is not to be a military alliance. It is to be run strictly as an intergovernmental maritime security alliance against illicit maritime activities, particularly piracy and armed robbery against ships. Apart from the strategic regional commands, the arrangement shall also include a Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security Training Command and a Research and Development (R&D) Command. The Training Command would provide education and training of staff in order to facilitate interoperability and common understanding among the international staff at all levels. The R&D structure will provide innovative and cost-effective ways the Guard Command could go about achieving its set objectives in line with global best practices.
Funding the Guard Command can be achieved in two ways: a compulsory common funding and a voluntary asset contribution. The Guard Command could start initial operations with assets volunteered by states. Within the compulsory common funding, the share of each member state’s contribution is to be based on a predetermined burden-sharing formula, which represents a small percentage of each member’s gross national income. All maritime stakeholders—private or public—in each member state are to contribute to the compulsory common funding. Excesses, if any, from the monies accrued from the common funding after taking care of recurrent expenditure could be saved until they have reached a reasonable amount for the purchase of maritime security assets, including vessels.
The idea is to make the Guard Command completely independent of member states’ maritime security assets as time goes on.
Since funding could pose a serious problem for the survival and sustainment of the Guard Command to run its operations and programs and the necessary capabilities to meet its operational mandates, it would be part of the R&D’s mandate to work out modalities for cooperating with and receiving assistance from extra-regional powers. But primarily, these resources and capabilities will have to be provided by the Gulf of Guinea states even though some are poor and most, if not all, hardly have enough assets to monitor their respective maritime environments.
Regional commanders are to ensure that they take full control of their operational domain through the arrangements of their forces. Efforts should be directed at establishing outposts at all river towns located near the mouths of inlets to the Atlantic Ocean. Although the logistics for achieving this is beyond the regional commanders, this order of battle should fundamentally be their focus if the logistics are provided. With such outposts put in place, lower tactical commanders would be able to monitor traffic in and out of the mouths of inlets.
Tactical deployment of forces is the prerogative of the tactical commander. For effective deployment, a tactical commander takes several factors into consideration, such as terrain, the adversary’s known and likely movements, and the adversary’s strength and disposition, among several others. In line with mission command philosophy, this section of the thesis is not intended to tell tactical commanders how and where to deploy their forces, but to highlight certain factors a tactical commander of maritime forces in the Gulf of Guinea must take into cognizance.
More than 2,500 nautical miles in length, about 500,000 square nautical miles, the sea area of the Gulf of Guinea is enormous and therefore requires that tactical deployments be made consistent with the principle of economy of force. This means that forces are to be deployed effectively in a manner that achieves maximum results at decisive points and times despite the enormous expanse of the Gulf of Guinea. The coast of the Gulf of Guinea is characterized by inlets to several interconnected rivers, tributaries, and creeks that give access to several coastal towns and villages. These inlets are either close to one another or are far apart. Since pirates must come out to sea through these inlets and return to their bases through the same inlets after carrying out their nefarious acts, deployments could be made in a style that takes maximum advantage of the knowledge of pirates’ movements, the nature of the coastline bordering the Gulf of Guinea, and the morphology of the topographic features along the coast and inlets.
Instead of burning fuel and other logistical wastage incurred while conducting random patrols at sea in search of pirates or armed robbers, patrol units could be deployed to conduct fixed station patrols in or around river/creek inlets. All speedboats going out to sea or entering the creeks should be subjected to a thorough search before they are allowed to proceed. Any speedboat that flouts this rule should be decisively dealt with in line with the extant rules of engagement to deter others who might want to do the same. This patrol arrangement should form the foundation from which other complex arrangements could emerge.
Although the foregoing recommendations are not by any means exhaustive, they are respectfully offered with a view to achieving a safe, secure, and economically viable Gulf of Guinea maritime space. It is believed that organizing the security structure of the Gulf of Guinea maritime space along these recommendations should serve as a good starting point towards achieving a panacea to the region’s maritime security predicament.
This is an edited version of a longer article by Captain Pakiribo S. Anabraba. If you would like to receive a PDF copy of the original, please send an email to email@example.com