Thinking Globally: Countering Piracy in West Africa

by Jessica Lincoln


MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the rise of piracy in West Africa. The nexus of criminality, drug trafficking, weapons proliferation and state weakness frames our understanding and perceptions of the region. Maritime companies release updates of pirate attacks and suggested modus operandi of criminal operators. Their picture of West African piracy is bleak, incorporating illegal bunkering, corruption, armed violence and hijacking. At least 33 attacks were reported in April and March 2012, and the hijacking of the BW Rhine in April 2012 underscored the very real threat to the shipping industry. Given the importance of the region – it is expected to provide the US with about one quarter of its crude imports by 2015[1]  -- few solutions have been advanced to address this growing problem. There is a general consensus, mirroring Somalia, that the solution lies on land and that regional cooperation is pivotal. This essay explores the challenges of countering piracy in West Africa. It examines piracy within a wider economic and security dynamic, focusing on the regional oil industry in particular. The article will also look to the international response to piracy in East Africa, which has been narrowly focused on regional concerns while negating maritime safety and security in West Africa.

During a press briefing at the February 2012 London Conference on Somalia in a UK Government spokesperson respectfully dismissed a question about the need to consider piracy in West Africa while attention was likewise focused on ‘doing something’ about piracy in Somalia.[2] This would appear to be a logical extension to countering piracy globally. The question remained hanging: why, when piracy represents both a significant economic and security threat to global shipping, would such a narrow regional approach be adopted?[3] The official at the London conference was correct (if somewhat obvious) in his reply that the conference focus was on Somalia, not West Africa. But there is little doubt that Somali pirate tactics are being replicated, with reports of skiffs and motherships being used to attack vessels and attacks happening further out to sea in West Africa.[4] It is worth considering whether East African counter piracy tactics can be employed to the same affect in West Africa, or whether  a completely new approach might be required.


International Efforts

There are various multi-national counter-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden/Western Indian Ocean. EUNAVFOR has Operation Atalanta, NATO has Operation Ocean Shield and Combined Maritime Task Force 151, and there are many independently deployed naval vessels helping to patrol the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor. These multinational efforts exist alongside a burgeoning private sector trade in armed maritime security. Private security fulfils an obvious need, as the area of operation is almost 2,000,000 square nautical miles and therefore beyond the capacity of national and multinational maritime assets patrolling the region. The expansion of EUNAVFOR’s mandate to attack and disrupt pirate bases on shore demonstrates a recognition that the problem is as much terrestrial as it is maritime. Yet this move has been met with criticism and speculation that such efforts will add fuel to the fire of terrorist/militants sympathisers and indirect targeting of civilians. It is too early to prejudge either but there is little argument that appearing to ‘do something’ about Somalia is firmly on the foreign policy agenda for many states, and piracy has helped focus attention on this.

The huge impact on shipping and potential haven for terrorist activities have driven this agenda but similarly, the recent oil and gas discoveries and potential this offers, require security to be established before such economic gains can be fully realised. Many companies continue exploration despite the vulnerabilities posed; highlighting that commerce is possible in Somalia but happens within an adroit and idiosyncratic local political framework. For Somalia, piracy has a firm hold on the economics of many individuals, communities and locales. It is unlikely that we will see an eradication of pirate activity until viable and credible economic alternatives present themselves. The geostrategic location of Somalia also ensures that it will remain one of the busiest shipping transit routes in the world; thus offering potentially enormous returns to those with the capacity and willing. The nascent private armed security element adds a violent factor to piracy but it is unlikely to be a complete deterrent.  

For West Africa, international counter-piracy assistance has been provided in the form of training, equipment and advisors. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has had a lengthy presence in the region to disrupt drug smuggling through Africa to Europe from South America. But no similar international anti-piracy missions yet exist in West Africa as they do in the waters off East Africa. Piracy has a different focus here with a direct emphasis on cargo theft and low value placed on crew/cargo/vessel ransoming. This may change but violence will undoubtedly inform pirate tactics making it a very volatile and dangerous place to transit. We see the Nigerians bolstering their defences against piracy with increased patrols and arrests but this has seemingly pushed the problem towards Benin which is now facing increasing piracy threats in its coastal zone. This is of concern because around 60 per cent of Benin's GDP comes from its port, which also serves West African countries further inland.[5] Of concern, is that if nothing is done to prevent attacks happening here international companies will not continue to operate thus having a devastating economic impact on the country.

With the fragility of many new states along the Gulf of Guinea, propensity for coups and fragile economies susceptible to external vulnerabilities, the need to bolster maritime security becomes ever pressing. Joint Beninese and Nigerian patrols now take place but the area to cover is similarly as vast and resources limited. The Maritime Organisation for West and Central Africa (MOWCA) is a sub-regional intergovernmental organisation that represents common maritime/transit transport interests of twenty-five countries of West and Central Africa. It is cooperating with the International Maritime Organisation to strengthen coastal defences in relation to the rise and threat of piracy; however, its mandate is maritime safety more generally rather than counter-piracy per se. Bolstering coastal defences at a national and sub-regional level appear to be the main thrust to counter piracy operations in the West African region but significantly more resources are required to ensure robust counter piracy defences.


Focusing on Land-based Insecurities

As with Somalia, everyone agrees the key to combating piracy at sea in West Africa requires a focus on land-based insecurities. However, the West African region is territorially far larger and more disparate than the Horn of Africa, where Somalia is situated. The sheer number of countries involved in West Africa means success will lie with regional responses rather than narrow, single state solutions. Indeed UN Resolution 2039 states just this and calls on the countries in this region to convene a summit in 2012 to establish a swift regional response.[6] What hinders this process are the resources, which are presently inadequate, as well as the absence of a harmonized legal framework for maritime security, as stated by B. Lynn Pascoe, Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs.[7] Effective responses in both regions require better management and control of maritime domains, as well as legal reforms to address maritime criminality, sub-regional cooperation, and onshore political and development adjustments to mitigate the incentives that motivate many pirates.[8] These factors have so far been missing, although we see greater impetus in east Africa to address the juridical elements of piracy, ‘catch and release’ remains a reality, and a large population of unemployed youth presents many more recruits. The same demographic exists in West Africa, along with an abundance of unregistered arms: a remnant of the Cold War, numerous civil wars and the recent Libyan uprising.

Piracy is also just one aspect of a larger political, economic, social and political network, as it is in Somalia. Although the genesis of West African piracy is not as vehemently attributed to illegal and over fishing or toxic dumping, these issues bear heavily on regional dynamics and if left unchecked, will continue to function as drivers of piracy.[9] A nexus of clan and business interests underpins piracy in Somalia . In West Africa piracy reflects the interests and activities of wider (and often international) criminal networks, emanating mainly but not solely from the Niger Delta, driven by purely illicit, financial incentives, and underscored by perceived injustices over oil wealth distribution. This last point has been widely recognised as fuelling oil-driven criminality in the Niger Delta. Communal violence in oil producing countries such as Nigeria has also sparked the growth of organised criminal activity such as oil bunkering, piracy and kidnappings. Oil bunkering is a lucrative activity with an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil lost each day to illicit activity in the Niger Delta; Nigeria’s Finance Minister claimed in May 2012 that Nigeria was losing approximately one-fifth of its oil exports every day.[10]  Fuel is subsidised and therefore cheaper in Nigeria, which allows criminal syndicates and smaller traders to trade fuel on the black market, mainly to their neighbours at world oil prices set in US dollars (making it a profitable trade).[11] International criminal networks also transport oil to the world market, and between 2001 and 2004, the Nigerian Navy detained 17 ships and 56 barges involved in illegal bunkering.[12]

Yet despite this image of illicit disorder, and in spite of the threat of piracy in West Africa, the oil industry continues to flourish in the region. Chevron employs approximately 12,500 Nigerians and has revived and upgraded the Warri port to be one of the busiest in Nigeria. Shell, notwithstanding persistent damage to pipelines, infrastructure and loss of oil through nefarious activities, continues to operate, allegedly producing 39 per cent of the nation’s oil.[13] The recent commissioning of the West Africa Gas Pipeline consolidates the company’s reach along the Gulf of Guinea. Anadarko’s recent oil finds off Liberia and Sierra Leone, along with LUKOIL’s discoveries in Cote d’Ivoire and their recent announcement of US$100 million investment in exploration activities at its offshore block in Sierra Leone,[14] likewise underscore the ‘untapped’ potential for energy reserves in West Africa generally. Many countries are emerging from periods of civil war and presenting themselves as ready for foreign investment, and oil and gas are significant factors in the region’s economic development. However, the shipping industry’s experience of ineffective regional security mechanisms underlines more general and sustained operational concerns.

We do see organisations such as Nigeria’s BRACED commission (the acronym stands for the group of six states located in the Niger Delta: Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa, Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta States) forming economic unions to drive development in regions reliant on the oil industry. The Niger Delta has been acutely affected by the ‘oil curse’ and is motivation to address the main security and economic challenges surrounding this.[15] There is recognition that ‘development cannot happen without security and without development insecurity continues.’ This dichotomy can be said to be representative of the region more generally. As with Somalia, piracy has highlighted a major security issue that draws attention to the fact that any ‘solution’ lies beyond a limited focus on what’s happening at sea.

Somalia, as a foreign policy agenda, has been overshadowed by Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade. It has, however, remained a high priority – to varying degrees, as the threat from almost twenty years of instability and violence has seen the rise of militant groups.[16] The billion dollar impact of piracy and militant activity on the global shipping industry, and the as yet uncorroborated link between the two, appears to have renewed attention to the region. We see similar characteristics emerging in West Africa, which have forced a wider, more global consideration of the issue.. Piracy is having a major impact on the region’s economy, and on the shipping industry in West Africa in particular. Inadequately resourced regional and judicial responses can not contend with the region’s criminality, which is sufficiently well resourced to continue functioning as a driver of other security issues such as piracy.. As with Somalia, if this situation remains unchecked then the capacity to address at source becomes increasingly difficult. It is in this vein that the issue of piracy should be considered and viewed globally, with the responses driven both regionally and locally, solutions incorporating both a land and littoral nexus.



[1] ‘Piracy Peril for West Africa’s oil boom’, UPI Energy, 7 March 2012 (

[2] Un-named official, Press Briefing, London Conference on Somalia, London, UK (February 2012)

[3] Oceans Beyond Piracy has a wealth of recent information on the economic impacts of piracy:

[4] International Maritime Bureau:

[5] ‘Piracy: Benin in the Firing Line,’ October 2011, Port Management Association of West & Central Africa (

[6] ‘Security Council Expresses Deep Concern at Piracy in Gulf of Guinea; Urges States of Region to Convene Summit to Develop Common Maritime Strategy Against Threat,’ Security Council 6727th Meeting (AM), UN Resolution 2039, Security Council SC/10562, 29 February 2012 (

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dubai School of Government, ‘Global Challenge, Regional Responses: Forging a Common Approach to Maritime Piracy,’ Briefing Paper, April 2011 (

[9] ‘Pirate fishing in Sierra Leone: A multi-million dollar business’, Royal African Society Event, London 13 February 2012.

[10] ‘Nigeria losing fifth of revenue to oil theft – report,’ Reuters (May 15 2012) (

[11] Gail Wannenburg, ‘Organised Crime in West Africa,’  African Security Review 14:4 (2005): 5-16. (

[12] Dubai School of Government, ‘Global Challenge, Regional Responses: Forging a Common Approach to Maritime Piracy.’

[13] Company Website: Shell Petroleum Company of Nigeria (SPDC): (

[14] Sierra Leone: LUKOIL to spend $100 million on Sierra Leone block,’ Energy-pedia News (09 April 2012) (

[15] For more information on this see Michael Peel, A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontiers (I.B.Tauris, 2009).

[16] See for example, Bronwyn Bruton, ‘In the Quicksands of Somalia: where doing less helps more,’ Foreign Affairs (Nov-Dec 2009): 79-94.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Jessica Lincoln is Director of Intelligence with Rubicon Resolution. She is a lecturer in the Dept. of War Studies at King’s College, London, and formerly taught at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. Her book on war crimes prosecution in Sierra Leone, entitled Transitional Justice, Peace and Accountability: Outreach and the Role of International Courts after Conflict, was published with Routledge in 2011.


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