Achieving Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea

Gulf of Guinea. Photo Credit: International Chamber of Commerce

When people think of modern-day piracy, Somalia and the Horn of Africa region quickly jump to mind. In the late 2000s, a series of dramatic hijackings and hostage situations received widespread media attention, and even a Tom Hanks movie. However, on Africa’s West Coast lies another, albeit less high-profile, hotbed of maritime crime. According to the International Maritime Bureau, 90% of global kidnappings reported at sea in 2019 occurred in the Gulf of Guinea, which borders more than 3,500 miles of West African coast between Senegal and Angola.[1] The region is also a hub for smuggling, illegal fishing, fuel theft, and drug trafficking.[2] Despite similarities in origin, this complex environment leads to a situation that is much different than the Horn of Africa region. Combating it will require a regional coalition to develop and execute a different strategy, targeting both crime at sea and its origins on land.

A Second Somalia?

It can be tempting to look at the Horn of Africa region as a roadmap for developing a response strategy to piracy elsewhere. However, piracy in the Horn of Africa region occurred in a major international waterway, which precipitated a large international response with a free hand. Any nation is free to respond to piracy in international waters, and large trading nations rely on freedom of navigation. Piracy in the Horn of Africa region peaked around 2009, and the international community responded with force via the multinational Combined Task Force 151, the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, and NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield. The focus was on securing the waterways and protecting commercial convoys, and their efforts paid off when, in 2013, no successful hijackings were reported, down from 52 in 2009.[3]

However, many of the incidents that occur in the Gulf of Guinea are not actually international piracy, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If incidents occur within 12 miles of the coast, they are instead crimes subject to the jurisdiction of individual countries. This prevents the international community from stepping in and securing the waterways as they did in the Horn of Africa region. Instead, there are 18 different coastal and island states in the region and working across these jurisdictions is a major challenge. It can be difficult to track and pursue targets across territorial waters, as criminals can simply flee across maritime boundaries. Illicit actors can also maintain their bases of operations and their areas of activity in different jurisdictions to impede law enforcement.

Nations in the region have taken steps to collaborate. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) are two regional organizations that foster cooperation and information-sharing between countries. ECCAS released a regional maritime strategy in 2009, with ECOWAS following suit in 2014.[4] In 2013, 25 West and Central African states signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct to establish a framework for coordinating efforts against transnational criminal activity at sea.[5] There have been signs of progress in recent years: in 2018 the success rate for armed attacks was just under 50%, having fallen from 80% in 2010.[6]

However, maritime crime in the region persists, in part because it is tied to instability and poor economic conditions on land. In the Horn of Africa region, illegal fishing led to the depletion of fish stocks, which forced Somali fishing crews to seek other work, including piracy. Combined with the inability of the Somali government to police its territory, piracy flourished. A similar situation is occurring in the Gulf of Guinea. Illegal fishing and pollution from natural resource extraction devastate coastal economies, and little of the wealth from oil extraction reaches the local populace.[7] This has led to an explosion in smuggling, drug trafficking, and piracy.[8] Nations now struggle to contain criminal organizations and militant groups which have spread along coastal areas, particularly in the Niger delta region of Nigeria.[9]

What Can Be Done?

So what will a solution look like? First, any solution should be enacted largely at the regional level, rather than at a state level or by major international naval powers. The transnational nature of the criminal activity necessitates a multilateral response, but for a different reason than in the Horn of Africa region. Instead of a coalition of global naval powers imposing order from the outside, a coalition of regional states, each responsible for their own domestic security, will need to coordinate law enforcement efforts among themselves. There is room for optimism in that regard. Despite significant domestic issues, West and Central African states have more capacity to combat piracy than Somalia, a so-called failed state. Regional organization such as ECOWAS and ECCAS can coordinate among nations, and a framework to tackle maritime crime does exist through the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. The international community can assist these efforts by providing funding, training, intelligence, and direct naval support when requested by regional authorities.

Second, regional efforts should not only confront piracy directly, but should also work to resolve underlying factors. Piracy can be combated and deterred at sea, but maritime crime is an extension of the situation on the ground. Economic instability on land creates a vacuum that criminal organizations exploit and seek to fill. The rise in violent militancy and crime is primarily driven by a lack of economic opportunities, and other maritime crimes such as smuggling, fuel bunkering, and illegal fishing further weaken legitimate economies. Pollution in the area from oil extraction has also devastated economies.

To achieve a stable, economically dynamic Gulf of Guinea, political leadership must do more to target organizations on land while also supporting the legitimate industries in coastal areas. Maritime enforcement efforts may reduce piracy to a manageable level, but as long as pirates continue to operate with impunity on land, these efforts will be a band-aid at best. Nations must deny militant groups the ability to operate freely on land, especially in the Niger delta region. In addition, a strategy that focuses on combating a wider range of crimes at sea can help to get local maritime economies back on track. Regional countries can also limit the pollution from natural resource extraction and enact environmental cleanup programs, ideally supported by international aid and development assistance.

The situation in the Gulf of Guinea is more complicated than that in the Horn of Africa region. Maritime crime is more diverse, closer to land, and is deeply intertwined with conditions on land. The solution should involve a regional coalition that protects commerce at sea, targets criminal organizations on land, and works to build legitimate economies as an alternative to crime. The groundwork for these efforts has been laid, but more needs to be done, especially in tackling the contributing factors. The international community can assist through aid, training, intelligence, and naval support as requested. However, unlike in Somalia, it is ultimately the nations of the Gulf of Guinea who will be engineering their own solutions.


[1]        “Unprecedented Number of Crew Kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea despite Drop in Overall Global Numbers.” ICC Commercial Crime Services, January 13, 2020.

[2]        Larsen, Jessica, and Christine Nissen. Rep. Denmark as a New Security Actor in the Gulf of Guinea. Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Institute of International Studies, n.d.

[3]        Yanofsky, David. “Somali Piracy Was Reduced to Zero This Year.” Quartz. Quartz, December 27, 2013.

[4]        Larsen, Jessica, and Christine Nissen. Rep. Denmark as a New Security Actor in the Gulf of Guinea. Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Institute of International Studies, n.d.

[5]        “West and Central Africa Regional Agreements and Information Sharing.” International Maritime Organization. Accessed October 13, 2020.

[6]        “Long-Term Perspective on West Africa and Gulf of Guinea Piracy.” Risk Intelligence, November 12, 2019.

[7]        Fofack, Hippolyte. “Overcoming the Colonial Development Model of Resource Extraction for Sustainable Development in Africa.” Brookings. Brookings, January 31, 2019.

[8]        Fröhlich, Silja. “Who Will Help Solve Africa’s Piracy Problem in the Gulf of Guinea?,” February 14, 2020.

[9]        Owolabi, Tife. “New Militant Group Threatens Niger Delta Oil War.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, June 14, 2017.

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