Piracy tends to conjure up an image of Jack Sparrow with a bottle of rum, a parrot on his shoulder and an eye patch.
Not so in West Africa, where pirates carry AK47 guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, terrorising sailors traversing the Gulf of Guinea, stealing cargo and kidnapping crew.
In one of the most terrifying incidents of the year, nine pirates armed with war-grade weaponry boarded a tanker off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria earlier this month. They took the duty officer hostage, damaged all the communication equipment and stole the crew and the ship’s property before locking all the crew in one cabin.
It took the arrival of a Spanish navy warship four days later to free the hostages.
In 2018, pirates in West Africa kidnapped 193 people, while 2019 has seen the Gulf of Guinea account for 95% of crews taken hostage around the world.
Piracy off the Gulf of Guinea, now the world’s most pirate-infested sea, is not just scary, it’s extremely costly. Piracy in the region is estimated to cost the shipping industry as much as $3.3 billion a year.
As piracy has escalated, shipping and insurance costs have risen, which contributes to fluctuations in the price of commodities shipped from West Africa like cocoa and oil.
As a result, the price of a chocolate bar is partially dependent on the security of waters in West Africa, which is home to the world’s two largest producers of cocoa — Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Efforts to tackle the scourge have so far been woefully inadequate, and the threat has continued to soar. In 2018, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported 72 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, up from 28 in 2014.
Gulf of Guinea (Wikimedia Commons)
But Nigeria and its neighbours do not have to look far to find examples of how to tackle the piracy threat.
Between 2007-2012, East Africa’s Somalia faced the 21st century’s worst piracy crisis. A fifth of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia. In 2011, the IMB reported that that country had witnessed 236 attempted attacks, costing businesses and insurers $8.3 billion.
The figure has since dwindled significantly, with Somalia facing just two attempted attacks in 2018 and none so far in 2019.
The slowdown in attacks has been linked to a significant increase in security measures used on vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden. These include the use of razor security wires and tear gas, as well as the advent of advanced deterrents such as smells and lights that can be emitted from vessels to induce vomiting or temporary blindness.
Perhaps the most effective measure, however, has been the proliferation of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP). These ex-soldiers and marines provide valuable security to nearly half of the ships off the coast of Somalia and have deterred many would-be pirates who cannot match the military skill of the security personnel.
The decline in piracy can also be attributed to a surge in international assistance to prevent the attacks. Given the economic importance of the Gulf of Aden, the world was interested in curbing the rate of piracy off Somalia, and in 2008 it launched a huge naval anti-piracy effort. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council deployed forces together to counter the threat.
Whether the Gulf of Guinea and in particular Nigeria — where the pirates are typically based — can learn from this remains to be seen. Although Nigeria is one of the world’s largest producers of oil, the Gulf of Guinea is nowhere near as significant from a global economic standpoint as the Gulf of Aden. And international assistance has been much less forthcoming.
Whereas in Somalia much of the piracy occurred in international waters, allowing pirates to be prosecuted by international law, Nigeria faces a different challenge. Many of the attacks off of Nigeria occur within 12 nautical miles of the coast, placing them within the sovereign borders of states, meaning that prosecution must be undertaken by Nigerian authorities.
Up until earlier this year, piracy was not even a specific criminal offence in Nigeria. Consequently, efforts to follow up on piracy incidents through the legal system were heavily restricted.
Around 300 people have been prosecuted for piracy in Somalia, while the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports no such prosecutions in Nigeria to date.
Additionally, Nigeria does not allow the highly-effective PCASP on vessels operating in its waters. This means that ships are dependent on Nigerian navy patrols that are often poorly equipped and not as well trained as PCASPs typically are.
There are rumours that many of those in the Nigerian navy and military are working with pirates, further undermining efforts to crack down on the issue.
What is more, Nigeria’s security services are struggling with many other, more pressing issues. Abuja faces a jihadist insurgency in the northeast, resurgent militant groups in the Niger Delta and a significant herder-farmer conflict in the “middle belt.” Piracy is not its number one priority.
The same could have been said 10 years ago for Somalia, which, with its barely functioning state apparatus and long-standing extremist Islamist insurgency al-Shabaab, is not exactly a beacon of security in East Africa.
But Somalia was fortunate enough to find itself perched on a vital global shipping lane, prompting the arrival of coordinated global assistance from the UN Security Council not seen since World War Two.
In the absence of such help and with high unemployment and banditry onshore in Nigeria, the problem is likely to persist for that country. Crew aboard vessels in the Gulf of Guinea will continue to be wary of pirates who resemble soldiers at war more than peg-legged drunkards looking for gold.