Africa Defense Forum
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Piracy, Kidnappings Rising in Gulf of Guinea

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The Methane Princess, a liquified natural gas tanker ship, was docked off Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on October 17 when pirates attacked. They ignored the cargo and took something more valuable: two crew members.

Although piracy has declined globally, it is rising in the Gulf of Guinea. Attacks have grown 40% since the beginning of this year.

Unlike the Gulf of Aden, where decades of piracy have forced crews to defend against attacks, ships in the Gulf of Guinea are more lightly armed and less prepared for pirate assaults, Onyekachi Adekoya, managing director of PR24 Security in Nigeria, told TVC News Nigeria.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed pirates’ patterns. A glut of oil has driven down its value as a prize, so pirates have turned to kidnapping crews for ransom, collecting as much as $50,000 per person. The Gulf of Guinea accounted for 90% of kidnappings in 2020, according to Allianz Global Corporate & Security’s “Safety and Shipping Review 2020.”

In July, pirates left the Curacao Trader adrift after they kidnapped 13 of its 19 Russian and Ukrainian crew members. The crew was released in August with the help of Nigerian officials.

Ninety percent of African imports and exports move by sea.

“What is happening in the Gulf of Guinea is important for everyone here,” Simeon Oyono Esono Angue, foreign minister of Equatorial Guinea, told the United Nations Security Council in 2019.

Maritime security experts say several factors are at play as Gulf of Guinea piracy grows:

Legal Framework

In August, Nigeria convicted its first pirates under an anti-piracy law passed in 2019. The three men belonged to a gang that hijacked the tanker MV Elobey VI off Equatorial Guinea and ransomed the crew for $200,000.

For the fight against piracy to succeed, Nigeria’s neighbors must follow its lead, according to security expert Thierry Vircoulon, who has held positions at the International Crisis Group and the French Institute for International Relations.

“Police work at sea requires a body of law as complete and complex as that of police on land,” Vircoulon wrote in Politique Étrangère. “Considerable work must be carried out to bring national law up to date in all the states of the Gulf of Guinea.”

Regional Cooperation

The Gulf of Guinea Commission was formed in 2001 to address issues of mutual concern, including piracy.

Twenty-five countries in West and Central Africa signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in 2013. It provides the structure for joint operations, intelligence sharing and harmonized legal frameworks. The code includes five zones, two regional centers and one Interregional Coordination Centre that cover 6,000 kilometers of coastline and 12 major ports.

The African Union’s 2016 Lomé Charter urged nations to work together for maritime security by filling the gaps in each other’s security capacities.

What Happens on Land

The Lomé Charter promotes artisanal fishing and economic development to stop piracy before it starts.

“When you talk about issues of maritime security, you talk about the land side,” Adekoya told TVC News Nigeria. “There are a number of issues that are affecting people’s normal way of life. So, people are having to find ways to fend for themselves.”

Illegal fishing by huge industrial fishing fleets from China and elsewhere hurts fishermen working the Gulf of Guinea, as does environmental degradation from pollution near oil facilities. As the catch declines, fishermen may become desperate and turn to piracy, Adekoya said.

In the 2019 Global Maritime Security Conference in Abuja, Nigeria, nations called for Gulf of Guinea countries to take care of coastal residents whose livelihoods have been damaged.

“You must deal with the threats coming from the land side,” Adekoya said.

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