The waters off the coast of West Africa are becoming a hotbed of piracy
On April 22 this year, the “HANSA MARBURG” was sailing 130 nautical miles off the coast of Africa on its regular route from Spain to Equatorial Guinea. The container ship, with its two tall loading cranes, was a perfect target for the men approaching in fast boats. The hijack itself lasted just minutes: Pirates boarded the ship and abducted the captain as well as three other crew members. They did not free the hostages until weeks later. The German shipping firm that owns the Hansa Marburg has declined to comment on whether it made a ransom payment.
Africa’s west coast is the latest hotbed of global piracy. The waters in the Gulf of Guinea are particularly well-suited to maritime attacks, with heavily-laden freighters and tankers on regular routes to ports like Lagos and Malabo, major shipment points for oil drilled on the numerous rigs in the Gulf. So far the pirate gangs of West Africa have mainly concentrated on hijacking fuel tankers. The lucrative liquid freight is pumped off the targeted tanker and sold on the black market. Globally, piracy is actually on the decline. The number of incidents off the Somalian coast this year has dropped by 70 percent compared to 2012. But the Gulf of Guinea, with coastal states like Benin, Togo, Nigeria and Cameroon, is the exception. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recorded more than 30 hijackings in the first half of the year.
“We’re also seeing a worrying trend in kidnapping crew members from the ship,” said IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan. Around 60 sailors were taken hostage off the coast of West Africa in the first six months of 2013. One death and several injuries have also been attributed to pirates.
Hijackings similar to the “Hansa Marburg” incident are growing more frequent. At almost the same time as the Hansa was attacked, five crew members of another German ship were kidnapped off the coast of Nigeria. “The pirates display an extreme readiness to use violence and brutality,” says Philip Willcocks, a former British Royal Navy admiral and now a security advisor. “Even more so than their counterparts on the Horn of Africa.”
The affected seaboard nations aren’t failed states like Somalia, yet experts agree that they are not able to properly protect their own coastlines. At a maritime security summit in Cameroon at the end of June, 25 West and Central African heads of state agreed to take concerted action against pirate attacks in their territorial waters.
The International Maritime Bureau is also urging action. “These attacks will become more frequent, bolder and more violent if something isn’t done,” warned IMB Director Mukundan. But will joint patrols and the establishment of a cross-border anti-piracy authority (as agreed at the Cameroon conference) be enough to deal with the problem?
Experts have their doubts. “It’s well known that corrupt port officials and police are often directly involved in piracy incidents in West Africa,” says Glen Forbes of OceanUS Live, an online platform delivering the latest information on piracy all over the world. As a result, some captains only disclose their precise location to maritime authorities just before they enter port, to ensure the information is not passed on to criminals.
Outside of that, there is little crews can do to protect themselves from hijackings. The firearms routinely used for self- defense on shipping routes off Somalia are banned in the sovereign waters off West Africa. If weapons are discovered on board, West African officials can impound the vessel.
Within the industry, calls are growing louder for help from Western governments. “We are convinced that fighting piracy is a sovereign matter,” said Ralf Nagel, chief executive of the German Shipowners’ Association (VDR). After years of crisis, shipping companies feel they are at the mercy of the pirates. Even the affected nations along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea are calling for the support of the industrialized nations. “The international community has to act as decisively as in the Gulf of Aden,” said Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, referring to the EU’s Operation Atalanta.
The German-led anti-piracy mission began in 2008, backed by a United Nations mandate. It has come to be regarded as a successful model by politicians and military chiefs alike. The presence of international naval forces together with the shipping companies’ various self-defense measures has drastically reduced pirate hijackings off the coast of Somalia. In the first six months of 2013, there were only eight attacks on merchant ships.
But is a military mission like Atalanta even viable off the west coast of the African continent? In nearby Mali, Western nations are already involved in a Franco-African alliance against Islamist rebels. Security analysts, however, are dismissive of a possible naval mission in the region because the EU and NATO lack the capacity for another mission involving large sea forces. Unlike the open waters off Somalia, the complex coastal deltas and numerous oil rigs in the Gulf of Guinea would require small and easily maneuverable boats that would have to operate from land, rather than self-sufficient frigates. As a result, Western politicians have so far been reluctant to commit to another military operation. “I do not consider plans for a maritime protection mission off the west coast of Africa sensible,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. She indicated that an international anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Guinea could involve training and arming local security forces instead of intervening directly.
“There’s a lack of modern means of communication,” said Michael Staack, a piracy expert at the Bundeswehr University in Hamburg. “But more importantly, there needs to be a pay rise for local security forces, so that they are not tempted to consider piracy as a better alternative.” Western defense ministries are already reviewing various ways in which they can provide assistance and advice. Private security firms are also advertising their services in the affected West African nations as instructors for naval and police units on piracy missions. They’re calling it “a legally sound and economic model.” For private security firms, the piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea could yet become a lucrative business.