From the Gulf of Aden Back to the Gulf of Guinea: Piracy Reports in West Africa on the Rise

Dear Readers, Let me introduce you to today’s guest blogger, Matteo Crippa. Mr. Crippa has substantial experience in West Africa and in international criminal law, having served as a legal officer at the Special Court for Sierra Leone from its inception. He brings a fresh perspective and insight to today’s topic. I would like to express my appreciation for his contribution and hope that it is the first of many to come.

The UN Security Council recently expressed concerns over reports of increased piracy, armed robbery and hostage taking in the Gulf of Guinea and their adverse impact on security and economic activities in West Africa. It is calling for the UN Offices for West and Central Africa to work with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Maritime Organization, all concerned countries and regional organizations. The UN Secretary General further indicated its intention to deploy an assessment mission to explore possible options for UN support.

While today’s counter-piracy attention shifted to the Gulf of Aden, with more than half the global piracy attacks being ascribed to Somali pirates, the Gulf of Guinea has long been a high risk area. With the increase of maritime commercial traffic, discovery of oil off the coasts of countries other than Nigeria, installation of additional offshore extracting infrastructure and on-going instability in various coastal areas, acts of piracy are on the rise. In 2009, the number of attacks fell short of those in the South-East Asia region. But, there are an increasing number of attacks in Togo, Nigeria and Benin.

Albeit sharing similar criminal goals and root causes, the nature of the attacks appears to differ with those off the Somali coast, encompassing an equal amount of armed robberies or hijackings and hostage takings. In addition to the immediate financial effect on oil and natural resource exploration and exploitation, the increased piracy activity appears to have a substantial impact on a set of traditional economic activities, such as commercial trade, regional travel and fishing.

Notwithstanding this difference, one unique feature of West Africa piracy is its limited territorial and regional purview (at least for now). Particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, piracy is mainly a by-product of the Niger Delta crisis. Acts of piracy and related criminal activities are still largely, if not exclusively, confined to territorial waters, and pirates do not yet possess the logistics and organizational capabilities of those operating in Somalia. Piracy per se can only be committed beyond the territorial sea, with all the equivalent acts occurring within territorial and internal waters being a matter for a coastal state’s criminal jurisdiction under the label of armed robbery at sea. All other conditions being met, doubts arise whether the present situation conforms to the customary legal definition of piracy and warrants the import of international-level mechanisms of deterrence and repression.

In the light of these considerations, the UN intervention in the matter at this stage appears to derive principally from the absence of any locally coordinated resources and the need to engage regional cooperation. West African countries, much like East African countries, lack adequate legislative frameworks and enforcement capabilities, as well as logistics and know-how, to address piracy. In addition, they face the increasing threat of becoming a major route for narcotics and drug smuggling. It should be noted that local efforts are underway to counter piracy, including the creation of a piracy task force in Nigeria, coastline patrols in Nigeria and Benin and plans to convene an ad hoc summit to discuss a regional response

The UN counter-piracy strategy in West Africa is thus still at an embryonic stage. An initial point of concern is the immediate risk of resource fragmentation, with already a plethora of UN and regional agencies and organizations involved as possible stakeholders. Building upon the most recent Somali experience and the joint international efforts to tackle piracy, the UN seeks to preemptively mobilize leadership and coordinate resources to avoid the situation in the Gulf of Guinea spiraling further. This perhaps signals a shift from a traditional counter-piracy strategy to a more piracy-prevention oriented approach. Its success will very much depend upon its capacity to include and assess the broader social, political and economic causes feeding piracy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: