Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea
Expected Council Action
In October the Council is expected to hold a debate on piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, a vast coastal stretch from Ghana in West Africa down to Gabon in Central Africa. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime is likely to brief.
At press time it appeared that the Council would issue a presidential statement.
Key Recent Developments
On 23 August, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, briefed Council members on the growing phenomenon of piracy in West Africa. As part of the monthly DPA “horizon scanning” briefing, Pascoe highlighted the issue as an overlooked but significant emerging threat to security. On 30 August, a Council press statement addressed the problem.
This growing trend had also been included—though tangentially—among the key threats to the fragile stability of West Africa highlighted in a Council briefing by Said Djinnit, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Office in West Africa (UNOWA), on 7 July 2009.
The Gulf of Guinea is home to Africa’s leading oil producers—Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Ghana—and has long been associated with various forms of illicit trafficking. Piracy is relatively new and, until recently, infrequent and under-reported. That changed suddenly in 2009 after the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) listed the coastal area as one of its seven top hotspots in the world. Since January 2011, there appears to have been about two dozen piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea. As a result of these attacks, in August Lloyd’s Market Association, a leading group of insurers, placed the coastal waters off Benin and part of Nigeria in the same high-risk category as Somalia.
Nigeria, from where most of the pirates are believed to have originated, previously bore the brunt of the attacks, mainly on its oil exports. Pirate attacks on Nigeria’s oil facilities since 2006 have reportedly cut its oil exports from 2.2 million barrels a day to 1.6 million barrels and have spiked annual oil-sector security costs to a reported $3.5 billion. Nigeria is by far Africa’s biggest oil producer. The US, which consumes 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil, has been providing training and other support to the Nigerian navy to ward off the pirates.
It appears that, as a result of more effective measures in Nigerian waters, the pirates have switched to other targets, mainly shipping in the far less protected waters of Benin. Attacks by pirates have also involved assaults on banks in coastal cities, and in one extraordinary case, the presidential palace in Malabo, the coastal capital of Equatorial Guinea.
The pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea are believed to be more violent than their counterparts in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. There is little scope for holding hostages and engaging in prolonged negotiations. Hostages are generally released within 72 hours, but are usually maltreated and sometimes physically abused. Some observers believe that the frequency of the attacks against shipping from a fragile economy like Benin risks causing serious destabilisation and even collapse if unchecked.
In September, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) President Victor Gbeho called for concerted regional action against piracy, including permanent joint naval patrols. The phenomenon of piracy, he said, could have serious economic and political consequences for West Africa without immediate and firm action to curb it.
As part of its military cooperation programme, called Africa Partnership Station, the US has sent a warship to help train personnel in Ghana, Togo and Benin in combating pirates. France has also sent a frigate to help with surveillance and interception of pirates.
In the General Assembly meetings in September, West African leaders called for “urgent action” to curb the growing menace of piracy in the Gulf. The Prime Minister of Togo, Gilbert Fossoun-Houngbo, said that the coasts “cannot be allowed to be taken hostage by pirates.” Isatou Njie-Saidy, Vice President of Gambia, said that the international community “must…agree on a framework for cooperation” involving “greater United Nations engagement with regional and subregional leaders and organizations in stamping out (the) menace.”
The key issue for the Council is how it can assist in coordinating national, regional and international actors for effective monitoring of the Gulf’s coastal waters and what support it can offer to the two regional bodies, the Economic Community of West African States and the Economic Community of Central African States.
A related issue is ensuring improved information exchange and coordination of efforts among regional countries, regional bodies and other key international players in the anti-piracy efforts in the region.
Also, since most of the pirate attacks are concentrated on the coast of West Africa, another related issue is the role of UNOWA in monitoring the attacks or in providing support to regional governments and ECOWAS.
Another option for the Council could be to adopt a presidential statement highlighting its concern about the issue. The Council also could:
- ask the Secretary-General to send an assessment mission to examine the phenomenon and submit a report suggesting possible ways to address it;
- call on governments in the region to set up focal points to coordinate their respective efforts in countering the problem; and
- commit to taking further steps following the assessment mission and its recommendations.
The Council appears to be unanimous on the issue. Nigeria, an elected member of the Council, is the spearhead for the Council debate and is likely to push for urgent action on the issue. The US, a key consumer of oil from the Gulf of Guinea coast, appears to have shown robust interest, as have France, Britain and China and elected member Gabon.
Security Council Press Statement