Maritime Security in West Africa: An Industry-Based Approach

by N.R. Jenzen-Jones


THE SHARP RISE in piracy in West Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, has featured prominently in recent news. Piracy as a whole is costing global trade an estimated US$12 billion a year, with the primary target being the oil industry[1] - a key sector of the West African economy - which threatens the strategic interests of the United States,[2] European Union (EU),[3] and China.[4] When considering how best to counter this nascent pirate threat, capacity building operations conducted by private security companies could provide a robust, enduring solution. Such operations would also complement, rather than compete with, existing strategies being put into place by local governments, foreign governments, and private industry.

There are other issues, along with piracy, that are prevalent in the Gulf of Guinea. Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the waters of West Africa has been referred to as the ‘worst in the world’, with London-based MRAG Limited estimating illegal catches to be 40% higher than reported legal catches.[5] Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to lose approximately US$1 billion dollars each year to IUU fishing. The smuggling of people, arms, and narcotics is also a significant issue in the West African maritime domain. West African states have emerged as transhipment points for cocaine exported from South America and heroin exported from Afghanistan, due to their proximity to southern Europe. In 2009, and estimated 20 to 40 tons of cocaine, and an estimated 40 to 45 tons of heroin were trafficked through Africa as a whole.[6] Illicit shipments of small arms are also a significant problem in the Gulf of Guinea. On top of these issues, a plethora of local and transnational criminal and terrorist organisations are connected either directly or tangentially to piracy in the region. Chief amongst them are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)[7][8].

The Atlantic Council’s November 2010 report Security and Stability in the West African Maritime Domain highlights the role maritime security issues play in determining the region’s overall level of stability. ‘Central to West Africa’s high levels of insecurity and instability,’ the report notes, ‘is the criminal exploitation of its expansive, largely ungoverned maritime domain.’ In particular, the security of the West African maritime domain is key in ensuring:

  • The unimpeded flow of oil from the Gulf of Guinea and the security of energy related infrastructure and assets;
  • The safe and efficient flow of vessels, cargo, and people bound to or from foreign ports;
  • The absence of a safe haven for transnational terrorist and criminal organisations;
  • Political development, sustainable economic growth, and enduring stability in the region as a deterrent to state failure, humanitarian crisis, human rights abuses, and violent extremism.[9]

The convergence of so many security threats within West Africa, and particularly in the maritime realm, requires a multi-faceted, long-term approach. To counter these threats, capacity building operations conducted by private security companies could provide a robust, enduring solution. Such operations would complement, rather than compete with, existing strategies implemented by local governments, foreign governments, and private industry.

Piracy in West Africa has
been on the rise since mid-2009,[10] and spiked sharply over the course of 2011.[11] The UN Security Council voiced its concern over the increase, noting an intention to deploy a United Nations assessment team to the region to ‘examine the situation and explore possible options for United Nations support.’[12] Some analysts have pointed to the widely publicised success of Somali pirates, and suggested this has directly influenced pirates in the Gulf of Guinea.[13] However, reports have indicated that attacks in West African waters have also tended to be more violent than those off the Horn of Africa,[14] and that many robberies likely go unreported due to the high frequency of illegal oil bunkering in the Niger Delta.[15]. The recent increase in frequency and severity of attacks prompted the Lloyd’s Market Association Joint War Committee to raise the threat level of Nigeria, Benin, and neighbouring waters to the same category as the waters off the Horn of Africa.[16]

On the other side of the continent, naval forces from around the globe have been deployed to the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa in order to deter pirates and protect international shipping from attacks. While these programs have generated admirable results, there are some notable shortcomings. The number of merchant ships requiring protection vastly outnumbers the available protection assets
deployed in theatre; there exists a simple problem – these warships cannot be everywhere they are required at once. Against an asymmetric threat such as piracy, deploying warships in large enough numbers to counter all pirate vessels is prohibitively expensive. For example, the cost of the US counter-piracy operation, represented predominantly by the presence of US Navy assets in Combined Task Force 151 and in NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, is approximately US$64 million per year.[17] The costs to other nations, NATO and EU member states, the EU, China, India must also be considered. Even in light of recent EU Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) strikes on land-based pirate positions,[18] such expenditure seems excessive in relation to the results achieved.

The role and success of private security companies in protecting ships at sea has been
well-documented.[19] The value of well-trained, appropriately employed armed contractors cannot be understated; such guard forces are now provided by a number of companies, and can provide a significant deterrent and defence capability to ships’ Masters. Moreover, such an embarked guard force can provide a high level of protection, available at all times, for a reasonable economic outlay. Armed guards do occasionally run into trouble, however[20]. At least 120 companies worldwide are now providing armed guards for merchant shipping vessels[21].

One model that has shown a promising cost-benefit ratio is capacity building operations. The case of Triton International Ltd is illustrative.[22] Since 2009, the company has been involved with developing and implementing both training and operations plans for the Somaliland Coastguard, providing the region of 3.5 million people with a broad spectrum maritime capability, unique within Somalia. To this end, Triton
developed a 12-week basic training course for the Coastguard, as well as specialised modules on tactical maritime operations, maritime law, and vessel maintenance. Based out of the ISPS Code-compliant port of Berbera,[23] the Somaliland Coastguard, which operates small, fast patrol boats equipped with deck-mounted heavy machine guns, has delivered significant security progress with limited funding and materiel.[24]

There have been several measures of success. First, in 2010 alone, the Triton-trained Somaliland Coastguard captured, prosecuted, and jailed more than 120 pirates. Officials in Somaliland have said that pirates rarely cross into their waters from renowned pirate havens in the region due to the Coastguard’s
reputation for intercepting them.[25] Second, as a result of these measures, the World Food Program considers Berbera a safe port for the delivery and distribution of food aid destined for the region. Finally, the Coastguard has also intercepted vessels intending to conduct IUU fishing.[26]

The Triton model is cost-effective and efficient, serving as a good example of an ‘
expandable platform’.[27] The Somaliland Coastguard model could provide some of the smaller, under-patrolled nations in the Gulf of Guinea with the capability to begin countering maritime threats in the region. Many of these smaller nations in need of maritime security assistance have short coastlines, and would require only minimal investment to establish a relatively effective patrol force. For example, Togo’s coastline is a mere 56km long, Benin’s 121km, and Liberia’s 579km. By comparison, Somaliland has a 740km coastline.  Capacity building programs can also gain access to areas – namely the littoral and coastal zones – where foreign defence assets may not otherwise be welcome. By partnering with the host nations or communities in areas of concern, the international community is able to increase its awareness of the threats at hand, and to determine how best to respond to these. Funding sources for such a program could be diverse, ranging from local governments or foreign governments, to shipping companies, international bodies, NGOs, or cultural diasporas.

Private industry is in a unique position to deliver such programs at reasonable cost, and without placing further demand on the already-strained naval assets of many nations with strategic interests in West Africa (particularly the US). Such capacity building models have distinct national security benefits for foreign powers; the deployment of naval assets required to secure maritime traffic and key infrastructure is often expensive and inefficient. Capacity building models allow for the development of increased maritime security capabilities that are essential for the protection of local and foreign interests. This is especially true when considering the threat to
energy security from criminal and terrorist groups – some of them local and some of them transnational – operating in the Gulf of Guinea.[28]

Capacity building programs represent a very real, scalable approach to countering the numerous maritime threats in the Gulf of Guinea. Challenges certainly exist, but similar challenges in other regions have been mitigated cost-effectively through an industry-based approach. Such programs are eminently compatible with existing strategies of foreign government-led capacity building, such as the United States’ Africa Partnership Station (APS) program[29], with local initiatives to bolster maritime security forces, and with the existing private sector practice of deploying armed guards on merchant vessels. Such complementary, broad-spectrum strategies provide the region with interconnected, comprehensive and cost-effective layers of security.


Acknowledgement: An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Journal of International Peace Operations, Vol. 7 Issue 4 (January-February 2012).



[1] Business Insider, ‘Global Cost of Piracy is now $12 Billion Per Year: Oil Industry No.1 Target’, OILPRICE.COM (23 March 2011). URL:$12-Billion-Per-Year-Oil-Industry-No.1-Target.html

[2] Lauren Ploch, ‘Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa’, Congressional Research Service report (22 July 2011). URL:

[3] Council of the European Union, ‘Council Conclusions on the strengthening of the fight against drug trafficking in West Africa’, excerpt from: 2979th JUSTICE and HOME AFFAIRS Council meeting, Brussels (30 November 2009). URL:

[4]Neptune Maritime Security staff, ‘China gives Benin $34m in loans, grants’, Neptune Maritime Security (22 September 2011). URL:

[5] Julio Godoy, ‘West Africa: Illegal Fishing in Waters 'Worst in the World'’, allAfrica (24 March 2010). URL:

[6] Various authors, ‘World Drug Report 2011’, UNODC (2011). URL:

[7] John Raidt & Kirsten E. Smith, ‘Advancing U.S., African, and Global Interests: Security and Stability in the West African Maritime Domain’, The Atlantic Council (November 30 2010). URL:

[8] Jane’s Group, ‘Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) (Nigeria)’, Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism (May 10, 2012). URL:

[9] Raidt & Smith, ‘Security and Stability in the West African Maritime Domain’.

[10] David Smith, ‘Piracy off west Africa increases sharply’, The Guardian (12 August 2011). URL:

[11] David Rider, ‘Piracy’s Emerging Market: The Gulf of Guinea’, gCaptain (August 8 2011). URL:

[12] Hardeep Singh Puri, ‘PRESS STATEMENT ON PIRACY, MARITIME ARMED ROBBERY IN GULF OF GUINEA’, United Nations Security Council (30 August 2011). URL:

[13] Chris Rawley, ‘West African Piracy’, Information Dissemination (24 July 2011). URL:

[14]ICC Commercial Crime Services, ‘Piracy Alert 7’, International Chamber of Commerce (29 December 2011). URL:

[15] Christopher Alessi, ‘Combating Maritime Piracy’, Council on Foreign Relations (23 March 2012). URL: ; Stephen Davis, Dimieari Von Kemedi & Mark Drennan, ‘ILLEGAL OIL BUNKERING IN THE NIGER DELTA’, Niger Delta Peace and Security Strategy Working Papers, Legal Oil (undated). URL:

[16] Joint War Committee, ‘Hull War, Piracy, Terrorism and Related Perils Listed Areas’, Lloyd’s Market Association (28 March 2012). URL:

[17] Stephen L. Caldwell  & John H. Pendleton, ‘Updating U.S. Counterpiracy Action Plan Gains Urgency as Piracy Escalates off the Horn of Africa’, testimony before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard  and Maritime Transportation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, House of Representatives, United States Government Accountability Office (15 March 2011). URL:

[18] Frank Gardner, ‘Somali piracy: EU forces in first mainland raid’, BBC News (15 May 2012). URL:

[19] Graham Kerr, ‘Maritime Security and the Private Security Perspective’, Journal of International Peace Operations, vol.5 no. 2 (September-October 2010). URL:

[20] David Axe, ‘Pirate-Fighting Mercs Arrested in Africa for Carrying Guns’, Wired Danger Room (September 30, 2011). URL:

[21] UPI, ‘Ship guards trigger clashes with pirates’, Safety4Sea (14 May 2012). URL:

[22] The author has no personal or professional connection to Triton.

[23] The ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security) Code is the International Maritime Organization’s risk management framework for the safety and security of ships and ports. Full details here:      

[24] Simon Jones, ‘Skulls and Crossroads’, Maritime Security Review (November 18 2010). URL:

[25] Jane Ferguson, ‘Life inside Somaliland's pirate prison, CNN World (April 20 2011). URL:

[26] Somaliland Press/AFP, ‘Press Release: Somaliland Courts of Justice Prosecute Pirates’, Somaliland Partnership for Peace and Security (15 February 2010). URL:

[27] Jones, ‘Skulls and Crossroads’.

[28] Sam Raphael & Doug Stokes, ‘Globalizing West African oil: US ‘energy security’ and the global economy’, International Affairs, vol. 87 no.4 (July 2011). URL:

[29]Africa Partnership Station, ‘About Africa Partnership Station’, Commander US Naval Forces Africa web page (accessed: June 2012). URL:


About the author:  Nic Jenzen-Jones is a security and defence industry consultant, writer, and analyst based in Perth, Australia. He has had several years experience working with and producing analyses for private defence and security contractors. He currently consults on a freelance basis. He blogs at Security Scholar and can be found on Twitter at @rogueadventurer.


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