Safety in the waters around West Africa
Since 2008, there has been a wide range of international efforts to counter piracy within the Indian Ocean, particularly around the Horn of Africa, Somalia and Gulf of Aden. There is now a shift in attention to insecurity in the waters around West Africa, in particular, the Gulf of Guinea. The annual Human Cost of Maritime Piracy reported in 2013 that more seafarers were attacked in the waters around West Africa than those of Somalia in 2012.
Maritime organisations, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have been monitoring the situation in West Africa for years, but it was the United Nations (UN) Security Council adoption of Resolution 2039, in 2012, which emphasised the importance for states to combat piracy at national and regional levels. In response to the UN Security Council, institutions including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) have held joint discussions regarding the construction of a regional strategy, documents of which were endorsed at a summit meeting of heads of state and government in June 2013.
Despite calling on regional commitment to addressing maritime security, Resolution 2039 also recommends regional support through international partnerships and bilateral agreements, already signed by countries such as the United States (US), Britain, France and Spain. The European Union is also due to publish its own strategy. International attention on West Africa, as with the problem of piracy around the Horn of Africa, demonstrates acknowledgement that maritime security threats have damaging impacts beyond the immediate affected region. With Nigeria and Angola amongst the top ten exporters of crude oil in the world, ensuring the security of the Gulf of Guinea’s waters is of regional and international interest in terms of trade and flow of revenue.
Several factors have contributed to the decline of piracy in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden including naval patrols, best management practices and private armed security personnel aboard commercial shipping. The Gulf of Guinea has seen maritime insecurity manifest in activities other than piracy. These include trafficking of counterfeit items, people, narcotics and weapons, allowed to occur by the lack of adequate regulation and corruption. Criminal activity also occurs more frequently in territorial waters and in ports along the coastline. This is a significant difference to Somali piracy, which predominantly occurred on the high seas, beyond any state’s boundaries.
The disruption and deterrence to piracy in the waters of East Africa has been effective because of several methods including naval patrols, presence of armed private security personnel aboard commercial shipping and the following of best management practice (BMP) guidelines by operators to optimise levels of self protection.
So how effective would these measures be in the waters around West Africa? It is clear that the principles of such measures are relevant in responding to West African maritime insecurities, but it is how these are applied that will determine the level of success that is achieved.
Cooperation between regions
The predominance of piracy in international waters and the political situation in Somalia allowed a large degree of flexibility for conducting operations, by international navies, to disrupt and deter piracy in the Indian Ocean.
In comparison, many West African states have established naval infrastructure that can already contain maritime threats.
Furthermore, because much of the illegal activity occurs in territorial waters, confronting this will be the responsibility of national resources and law enforcement such as the police or coastguard. This does not eliminate the need for state cooperation and resource sharing due to the trans‑border nature of maritime crime and we have already seen evidence of this. Benin’s and Nigeria’s navies launched Operation Prosperity, a joint naval patrol in 2011, which was successful in reducing the number of pirate attacks along the coasts of both countries. However, the number of attacks increased in the less well patrolled waters of neighbouring Togo, emphasising the importance of extensive regional interaction between states if there is to be an effective solution to the problem.
International support, recommended by Resolution 2039, is also evident. The US Naval Forces Africa conducted an exercise in 2012, named Obangame Express, which was designed to enhance cooperation amongst naval training from Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Sao Tome and Principe and Spain. In March, Ghana’s Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral GW Biekro, is convening a conference of senior international admirals, including those from the EU and naval experts to derive solutions that will further enhance security in the Gulf of Guinea. The Ghanaian Navy is also establishing specialised units, funded and trained by foreign partners, to confront security challenges and to protect off-shore oil and gas resources. Thus, we can see that unlike in the Indian Ocean, it is the long term aim of West African states to lead the security operations.
More regional consensus is needed on establishing a system to process suspected criminals. A current lack of this has resulted in few convictions.
In similarity to East Africa, agreements need to be established on which states accept suspects and are supported to ensure that there is an adequate legal and justice sector.
Enhancing regional consensus will contribute to optimising other security initiatives.
Security measures on a regional and national basis are important in supporting protective measures for shipping operators.
For example, BMP guidelines to protect against Somali piracy relied significantly on the collection and sharing of information between all interested stakeholders.
In the Gulf of Guinea, interim guidelines based on BMP have been published by a consortium of shipping operators and naval forces, supported by the NATO Shipping Centre.
These also emphasise the importance of information distribution, which are also dependent on regional and national capabilities.
The nature of commercial shipping in this region limits the effectiveness of self‑protection measures. In the Indian Ocean, the majority of shipping was transiting en route to the Middle East and Asia. In comparison, shipping in the Gulf of Guinea, makes regular calls into ports along the coastline. As a result, there is a greater need for port infrastructure security, which can be undermined if such operations are not ensured by the responsible state or authority. Recent reports indicate that there are a range of port security oversights in West Africa.
US authorities have already issued a warning that shipping conducting business with the US could be banned from Nigerian ports after it was observed that the IMO’s International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) code was not being properly adhered to. Corruption is also a significant obstacle in security efforts. For example, in 2013, Nigeria’s Chief of Naval Staff blamed the continuing problem of attacks on ships in Nigerian waters on insiders. He reported that investigations into previous incidents revealed that individuals working for shipping companies were providing pirates with information regarding the location of vessels and cargo.
Corruption undermines confidence in established systems and procedures to combat maritime crime and leads to reluctance to report incidents. Currently, maritime crime in West Africa is widely unreported to authorities. Problems like corruption indicate that states need to address differences and problems at national level as part of the process of developing and introducing security measures and relates to the issue of establishing a more uniform approach. This can be seen as an added obstacle in that it complicates matters further. Conversely, tackling of social problems enhances confidence between stakeholders, facilitating greater consensus and uniform focus on security strategies. In relation to this, there is no dedicated centre for collecting and sharing information in the Gulf of Guinea. Plans to establish an information sharing centre in Ghana have also been delayed. Despite gaining support regionally, and from the IMO, it had not been recognised as a national priority, thus reiterating how differences at national level need to be addressed in parallel to regional strategies.
The lessons that have been learnt in responding to maritime security threats in the Indian Ocean are extremely relevant in containing similar threats in the Gulf of Guinea.
However, threats in the Gulf of Guinea are diverse, compared to those in East Africa. These threats and the implementation of measures to contain consist of interrelating factors which need to be addressed in order to guarantee the long term success of maritime security. Whilst extremely relevant, the lessons from the Indian Ocean cannot be implemented in an identical fashion in West Africa.
The nature and location of maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea means that West African states will require close collaboration in sharing resources and implementing the necessary strategies to combat threats. However, differences at national level in prioritising issues of maritime insecurity have proved detrimental to regional efforts.
It is critical therefore, to provide closer integration between regional and national agendas, when championing security strategies to ensure a more effective system. This includes addressing social factors such as corruption.
As with Somali piracy, regional and international policy makers need to devise strategies that disrupt and deter maritime threats, but importantly address the underlying root causes of these activities. This will be in the form of capacity building and ensuring the necessary international support is available to states which require this.
If these lessons are applied effectively, then West African security initiatives could have a significant impact. The activities of ECOWAS and ECCAS is indicative of the strong intergovernment support within the region and more importantly, there is a long-term objective for regional security resources to lead the security operations.
Coordination with international bodies will also serve to benefit stakeholders beyond West Africa and with the importance that the Gulf of Guinea has regionally and internationally, greater security here will enhance economic and social factors considerably.