The Oil Continues to Spill: Transmaritime Criminality in West Africa

This time last year, we dedicated a few posts to the rise of piracy and other criminal activities in the Gulf of Guinea.  In particular, we discussed how much of these activities was a by-product of internal insurgencies and economic discontent in Nigeria and how the country’s attempted crackdown had the unintended consequence of pushing these criminal activities to nearby countries where lack of enforcement powers allowed them to thrive.

The situation has since continued to worsen. While there is currently a lull in piracy activities in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, armed robberies and pirate attacks are sharply on the rise in West Africa. Reported incidents in the territorial waters of Nigeria, as well as Togo and Ghana, or in the international waters adjacent thereto, are now almost a daily occurrence. In the most recent of such attacks, the MT Energy Centurion, a Greek-owned oil tanker was hijacked and its 24 member crew kidnapped off the coast of Togo.

Historic Map of West Africa dated 1829 by Sidney Hall – Garwood & Voigt

The region is traditionally considered as a cornucopia of natural resources. West Africa is rich in oil and other hydrocarbons, but also fish, cocoa and timber, for instance. Nigeria is currently the biggest African oil producer, with an output of about 3 million barrels a day, most of which is exported to Europe and the US. Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone are the next countries to enter the oil production and export business, with new deposits discovered in their national waters in recent years. Such discoveries have the potential to bring economic development to some of the poorest countries in the world, in a region often forgotten even when plaugued by years of ruthless civil wars and rampant mismanagement. Development, however, needs to be matched by strong governance capabilities. Due to its social and geographical features, the Gulf of Guinea is not only suitable for commercial transportation but is also a potential hotspot for criminal activities, particularly exacerbated by unemployment, corruption and  lack of governance. Oil bunkering, piracy, illegal waste dumping, poaching, drugs and migrant smuggling are only the most visible tip of a larger array of criminal activities. Autonomous movements also have increasingly resorted to violence, with terrorism often inexorably spurring into ties with criminality. These activities are often, but not exclusively, perpetrated by organized criminal cartels. Smaller criminal gangs, however, also operate some activities. Their common medium, often or exclusively, is the sea, which provides direct opportunities for criminal acts as well as the means to perpetrate such acts. Oil platforms in international waters are increasingly the targets of pirates and robbers, while subsidized petrol is smuggled from Nigeria into neighboring countries in overnight trips just a few miles off their coasts. Transmaritime criminality consists of the composite interaction of various forms of organized criminal activities, including criminal cartels, oil, drugs, arms and human trafficking, the deeply rooted social causes at their basis as well as their economic and environmental impact. Transmaritime Criminality thrives on the high seas as well as in coastal developing countries due to limited law enforcement and rule of law capabilities.

Despite its apparent similarities with pirate activities in Somalia, the situation in West Africa is potentially more complex. Attacks are often reckless, and more violent. Rarely do these entail long lasting hijackings and kidnapping for ransom. Presumably due to the lack of capabilities to hold a ship  and its crew hostage for long periods, criminals often resort to stealing the ship’s cargo and releasing it after a few days. This was the case, for instance, in the hijacking of the MT Energy Centurion, which was quickly released in Nigerian waters with its crew after its valuable cargo was siphoned off. The oil will then likely be sold through the black market in face of the complacency, or powerlessness, of local authorities.

Subsidized Nigerian Oil is Smuggled Overnight to Togo and Picked up Directly Ashore to be Sold in the Local Black Market – Photo Daniel Hayduk – BBC

This criminal surge in West Africa did not go unnoticed at both the international and regional level. The UN Security Council has already dedicated various meetings and resolutions to the situation in the Gulf of Guinea. The US, but also France and China, among others, have stepped forward to provide assistance, in the form of training or equipment, to countries in the region. These, in turn, have engaged in coordination and dialogue, launching joint policing operations. The past spiraling of piracy in Somalia has obviously provided an indicator of the potential gravity of piracy thriving in lawless environments. It also developed a set of best practices in combatting piracy and its root causes. No internationally-sponsored naval patrolling mission akin to those launched by the EU or NATO in the Indian Ocean is foreseen in West Africa. The envisaged solution is that of a funneling these best practices through regional coordination, encompassing strategies of short and long term period, rather than direct international intervention. These strategies include the strengthening of enforcement powers and ad-hoc legislation. Typically, several affected countries have found their penal codes to be lacking the full criminalization of piracy and terrorism. A UN-sponsored regional conference aiming to put this phenomenon high on the agenda has been long envisaged, but yet failed to materialize. Against this background, it is worth reiterating the need to avoid the immediate risk of resource fragmentation, with already a plethora of UN and regional agencies and organizations involved as stakeholders. The fight against transmaritime criminality in West Africa has also the potential risk of becoming another lucrative self-feeding business, with military contracts already allegedly awarded to contractors of dubious background.

Changing Landscape of Gulf of Guinea Piracy as UN Takes a Secondary Role

Despite recent efforts to increase naval patrols, pirate attacks and incidents of armed robbery at sea have continued throughout the Gulf of Guinea and in particular in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and off the coast of Benin. The region is extremely resource-rich, with oil, cocoa, and various minerals filling tankers and bulk carriers. Since the beginning of 2012, there have been numerous attacks on such vessels in the Gulf of Guinea.  Such attacks tend to be more violent than those in the Indian Ocean. For example, in one recent attack, pirates killed the captain and chief engineer of a cargo ship off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. A number of recent developments in the dynamics of this criminality and the international community’s efforts at addressing it are worth surveying here.

Piracy and Terrorism in the Gulf of Guinea

It has been suggested that increased militancy in the Niger Delta region is the root cause of the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. For example, in another recent attack, the captain and chief engineer of a Dutch ship were kidnapped and a crew-member injured.  MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, whose mission is to fight for a fairer distribution of Nigerian oil revenue, has been accused of involvement in the recent pirate attack. But MEND has specifically disclaimed responsibility and refused to mediate between the pirates and hostage negotiators. Nonetheless, MEND continues to operate in the Niger Delta despite a widespread amnesty last year aimed at disarming the movement and claims to be responsible for the recent killing of Nigerian police at a marine checkpoint. Nigerian security forces deny this claim. What can be said is that just as with Somali piracy, there has been a tendency to conflate terrorism and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea without a thorough factual analysis. That said, other types of transmaritime criminality clearly interact with and will have an effect upon piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

Fuel Subsidies and Smuggling

Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan’s recent move to decrease the fuel-subsidy in his country, hugely unpopular at home, may have an impact on pirate operations. It has been reported that land-based smugglers of cheap Nigerian-subsidized fuel to neighbouring countries are having trouble turning a profit. One smuggler explained:

The removal of subsidy has choked our business. It is no longer lucrative as the price of fuel in Cameroon is between N160 and N180 per litre; by the time you bribe some officials of the two countries at the border, what you get after selling the fuel is not encouraging at all.

Although the reduced fuel subsidies will have the effect of reducing cross-border fuel smuggling, these criminals will be looking for other sources of revenue and could look to piracy as a new source of income. The situation is further complicated by the presence of a more expansive variety of transmaritime criminality in the region, including drug trafficking, illicit fishing, illicit dumping of toxic waste, and illegal or clandestine immigration or migration. For example, The United Nations estimates that $1 billion worth of cocaine, destined for Europe from Latin America, passed through West Africa in 2008. Much of this criminality is perpetrated in and through maritime jurisdictions and will often be associated with pirates. A comprehensive solution must take all transmaritime criminality into account.

General Features of Piracy off the Gulf Guinea

In the face of this volatile situation, the UN undertook an assessment mission and issued two important documents regarding the Gulf of Guinea situation. A recent report of the Secretary General sheds some light of the general features of West African piracy and how the international community plans to address it.

The UN Secretary General reported on 19 January 2012 (only recently released) that piracy in the Gulf of Guinea since the late 1990s has focused on high-value assets, particularly oil shipments.  Shell executive vice president Ian Craig has noted that as much as 150,000 barrels of crude a day is being stolen by oil thieves in the Niger Delta. But since Nigeria has responded robustly to the growth of piracy, attacks have migrated to the Benin port of Cotounou (19 nautical miles to the west). Recent attacks are generally targeted at oil and chemical ships at a distance of over 40 nautical miles from shore (i.e. on the high seas). Pirates generally steal cargo and sell it on the black market – as opposed to holding the goods or crewmen for ransom (as in Somalia).

These attacks have had a significant impact on the economies of West Africa. There are 70 percent fewer ships entering the Cotounou port. This port is the entry point for goods to in-land countries such as Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso who will also suffer from increased costs due to scarcity of goods and increased insurance rates on all maritime shipments. In contrast, attacks off the Central African coast mainly target oil drilling platforms and ships in order to steal money and goods from crew. The combined effect of these types of piracy is an estimated annual loss of $2 billion to the West African subregional economy.

However, West African countries have had somewhat more success than their East African counterparts in mobilizing regional resources and coordinating efforts to prevent and punish pirates. Of particular note is the cooperation between Nigeria and Benin in conducting joint patrols (albeit with some international contributions). Their relative success may be partly attributable to a more limited geographic area of recent attacks (as compared with Somali pirates who have perpetrated attacks over 1000 nautical miles from the coast of Somalia). More importantly this is attributable to the fact that there are robust state institutions in the areas targeted by pirates. That said, more must be done to increase state capacity, and, in particular naval capacity. Furthermore, pirates are bound to find where governance structures are the weakest and to take advantage of those failures (e.g. by launching attacks from states lacking effective naval or coast guard patrols).

The UN’s Secondary Role and Upcoming Regional Conference

As a result of this organic cooperation, the UN and the international community have taken a secondary role in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The UN, both in the UNSG’s report and in its Security Council Resolution, lauds the current littoral state cooperation and encourages the Gulf of Guinea states to strengthen this cooperation, while promising to provide international financial assistance where required. It is clear from the statements of a number of representatives after the 27 February 2012 briefing on the UNSG report that a number of states would prefer to leave West and Central African states to take the lead in enhancing regional security against piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea. The U.S., for one, has responded to this call by committing about $35 million for the training of naval personnel in Nigeria and other countries within the Gulf of Guinea on how to combat piracy and other maritime crimes. It is not suggested that the international community should create a joint naval force, such as EUNAVFOR, to combat pirates. This may encourage a reliance on PMSCs in the Gulf of Guinea where shippers lack confidence in littoral state navies.

Following on the recent report, the UNSC adopted a resolution 2039 on 29 February 2012 encouraging littoral states of the Gulf of Guinea to adopt the recommendations in the report. In particular, it encourages Benin and Nigeria to continue joint naval patrols and to work independently to secure their territorial waters. In addition, it suggests that the international community provide all possible assistance. Finally, it advocates a regional conference including Gulf of Guinea states, in collaboration with the African Union, in order to elaborate a regional strategy to fight piracy. As stated in UNSC 2018, the purpose of the conference would be the following:

to consider a comprehensive response in the region and [for] the States of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) to develop a comprehensive strategy, including through: (a) the development of domestic laws and regulations, where these are not in place, criminalizing piracy and armed robbery at sea; (b) the development of a regional framework to counter piracy and armed robbery at sea, including information-sharing and operational coordination mechanisms in the region; and (c) the development and strengthening of domestic laws and regulations, as appropriate, to implement relevant international agreements addressing the safety and security of navigation, in accordance with international law.

The planned conference (a “joint regional summit of Heads of State of the three regional organizations”) is to take place as soon as possible in 2012, but has not yet been assigned a specific date or location. As this conference approaches, regional organisations would do well to consider that further developing regional coordination will be key to formulating a comprehensive counter-piracy strategy in face of the resource fragmentation that currently exists in this sector.

Piracy in Somalia is Decreasing, says IMO

At the end of a year focused on a wide-ranging anti-piracy campaign, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) cautiously announced a decrease in piracy and other related attacks in Somalia:

“Recently compiled statistics show that the number of ships and seafarers held captive by Somali pirates have reduced from a peak of 33 and 733 in February to 13 and 265 respectively, at the beginning of December. The number of reported attacks has also declined from a high of 45 per month in January 2011 to 14 for the month of November 2011; and the proportion of successful attacks has been cut from 20 per cent in January 2011 to just 7 per cent in November 2011.”

Further up to date figures are also available from the International Maritime Bureau piracy reporting centre.

During 2011, the IMO engaged at various levels to bring about a solution to piracy and related crimes, particularly concerning the protection of both ships and seafarers as well as the enhancement and enforcement of maritime law. Most notably, the IMO dedicated this year world maritime day to the theme of “Piracy: Orchestrating the Response” and launched a campaign directed at improving coordination among States, the private sector, international and non-governmental organizations to tackle piracy.

 The changing nature of modern day piracy and other forms of armed robbery at sea, its increasing links with other forms of organized crimes, the deeply rooted social causes at their basis as well as their impressive economic impact have given a new dimension to the phenomenon. We have referred to this as transmaritime criminality.

While the falling of piracy related numbers in the Somalian hotspot is certainly a welcome news, the IMO understandably warned of the risk of becoming complacent with these positive results. Success in combating piracy remains contingent on the local situation on the ground which, in the case of Somalia, remains unstable. Current signs of criminal activities, particularly the risk of these spreading into West Africa, call for a continuing engagement with the process stakeholders. This should also be aimed at developing a comprehensive and holistic approach towards all facets and root-causes of transmaritime criminality.

Following Security Council Debate, UN Deploys Assessment Mission to West Africa

As anticipated in previous posts, the UN recently deployed an assessment mission in West Africa. The mission, composed of representatives of several UN Offices and Agencies, has been tasked with examining the scope of the threat of piracy in the region as well as local capacities in ensuring maritime safety and security in the Gulf of Guinea. In addition, the Mission will make recommendations on anti-piracy measures, also looking at the broader context of organized crimes and drug trafficking. Upon its completion, the Mission will submit a report to the UN Secretary General.

The Mission’s deployment was preceded by a much anticipated debate at the UN Security Council. Spearheaded by Nigeria’s presidency, the Council discussed the need for action against piracy and emerging transmaritime criminality in West Africa. Several representatives made statements during the debate, highlighting the increasing nature of the problem and its impact on international navigation as well as the economy and the overall security in the region. The Council unanimously stressed the need to develop lessons learned from the fight against piracy in East Africa and the Gulf of Aden and concurred on the need for a coordinated holistic approach to tackle the issue and its socio-economic roots before it escalates further.

Notably, West African states currently sitting in the Council called for strong international support and asked for a UN resolution to provide a region-wide legal framework for action. Remarking on the specific and novel features of piracy in the area, Gabon went as far as proposing the drafting and adoption of an international instrument against piracy.

Other states, however, ranked the situation in the Gulf of Guinea as of lesser severity to the situation in the Gulf of Aden and other coastal areas of East Africa. The United States, France and England, among others, stressed how the leadership in the fight against piracy should remain in the hands of the states directly concerned by this phenomenon, while the international community should focus on continuing or increasing technical assistance and capacity building already provided, particularly in the fields of information sharing and personnel training. France recently confirmed its support towards anti-piracy measures in the region with a donation of 1 million dollars to Ghana, Togo and Benin as part of a three years founding project.

The debate was followed by the Security Council unanimous approval of Resolution 2018 (2011) on the issue of piracy and organized crime in West Africa, developing on the main points of the discussion before the Council. Due to its significance with regard to piracy in West Africa, the resolution, interestingly falling under the rubric of “Peace and Security in Africa” will be further discussed in a forthcoming post. As a preliminary remark, it is worth noting that Resolution 2018 confirms Articles 100, 101 and 105 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as setting out the applicable legal framework to counter piracy and armed robbery at sea and, further, notes that applicable international legal instruments already provide for the creation of criminal offences and prosecution of persons responsible for seizing or exercising control over a ship or fixed platform by force. The Security Council thus appears to resist to any call for updated or novel legislation to combat modern piracy although the current legal framework is arguable not suited to encompassing all forms of transmaritime criminality, including piracy, armed robbery at sea, and drug and arms smuggling at sea.

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.