Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea: another security front

Several programs are currently underway to deal with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, considered for several years as the most dangerous area in the world for navigation. But the latest report for 2021 indicates a marked drop in attacks. An improvement that is part of a vast African organization of maritime safety, consolidated by multiple initiatives, mainly European, which are currently being set up.

A total of 132 acts of piracy and armed attacks were recorded on the seas of the globe in 2021 according to the annual report of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) published in mid-January, the lowest figure recorded since 1994.

But even if these acts have decreased quantitatively – apart from a marked increase of 50% in attacks on the Singapore Strait – it is in the Gulf of Guinea area that they have been concentrated, dethroning the Gulf of Guinea area for some years. ‘Aden off the coast of Somalia, which has long been considered the most dangerous maritime sector in the world.

In the Gulf of Guinea, acts of robbery on the high seas are on the rise. Photo: UN

Gulf of Guinea, kidnapping area

The BMI, in its report, explains this low global level of acts of piracy by the drop in attacks in West Africa, amounting to 34 incidents in 2021 against 81 the previous year. This vast maritime area known as the “Gulf of Guinea” extends for thousands of kilometers off the west coast of the continent, from southern Senegal to the coast of Angola. Despite everything, it remains the most dangerous area for navigation and the most feared by crews.

It is on the Gulf of Guinea and sometimes very far offshore that all the kidnappings carried out at sea in 2021 took place, resulting in a total of 57 crew members retained. As summarized by Jean-Philippe Picquart, specialist in maritime security at Expertise France, the French agency for international technical cooperation, which is very active in maritime security in Africa, ” in the past piracy was ”I go on the boat, I take goods and I resell them”. Today it’s ”I go on the boat, I take people, I make them hostages and I demand a ransom”. »

This piracy (act of violence committed for private purposes, on the high seas outside territorial waters), which also bears the name of “robbery” when it takes place from a legal point of view in the territorial waters of a country, is a persistent and predominant phenomenon in the Gulf of Guinea, in the face of other forms of criminality that are also encountered in the regional maritime area. Examples of which include: environmental threats to resources, pollution, illegal fishing, trafficking in goods, people or drugs.

On the other hand, all these security problems also have economic consequences. This maritime area, home to the continent’s two largest oil-producing countries, Nigeria and Angola, is suffering billions of dollars in disruptions to international shipping routes as a result of these attacks. In addition, the multiplication of attacks has led boats to strengthen their protection and insurance companies have increased their prices. All this had an impact on the cost of maritime services and resulted in a rise in the price of certain goods in certain countries of the region.

Map of events from January to June 2021.
Map of events from January to June 2021. © MICA Center

The African initiative to try to control a gigantic expanse

Faced with this deteriorated security situation and its consequences, the countries bordering the so-called “Gulf of Guinea” zone, which includes the 19 coastal countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (Ceacs) have decided to act. The heads of state of these 19 countries, which stretch from southern Senegal to Angola, met in Yaoundé (Cameroon) in 2013 and made arrangements to be able to fight piracy together.

An initiative to collectively respond to a threat that each country separately was unable to deal with, often having neither the necessary security forces nor sufficient resources to be able to deal with it. Because as Jean-Philippe Picquart comments, “ if we want to be able to act on a threat at sea in such a large maritime area, this requires very close coordination between the countries and the various actors, if only for example to be able to anticipate where it will spend something, to be able to put the right means in the right places. »

This Yaoundé initiative produced a joint declaration in 2013 in which the States undertook to set up, throughout the region, a mechanism dedicated to the coordination of maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. A general framework, commonly called “Architecture of Yaoundé” which sets the procedures for harmonizing and pooling resources and information, implemented by ECOWAS and CEEAC.

The architecture of Yaoundé, the African initiative to protect the maritime zone

This rather complex architecture, on which all the current initiatives are grafted, divides the whole of the Gulf of Guinea into several sectors, made up of several neighboring countries. These sectors, organized around “Zone Operational Centres”, coordinate, inform and act in conjunction with either the West African Regional Maritime Security Center (Cresmao), based in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), or with the Regional Center for Maritime Security in Central Africa (Cresmac), based in Pointe-Noire (Republic of Congo). These two regional centers themselves work in coordination with the last level of the system, the Interregional Coordination Center (CIC) of Yaoundé. However, this framework, which was created in 2013, is still far from being autonomous and is struggling to be fully operational.

The centers are confronted with several types of difficulties. They would suffer from a lack of leeway vis-à-vis ECOWAS and Ceeac. According to Africa Intelligence, they do not have any decision-making power to impose themselves if necessary on the diplomatic field, nor any long-term visibility, citing the example of the head of Cresmac, Captain Togolese vessel, Pierre Midianzou, forced to negotiate his budget every three months at the Ceeac headquarters in Libreville.

According to Jean-Philippe Picquart, Expertise France specialist, if the Centers have problems obtaining the planned operating budgets, and if they have trouble obtaining the necessary staff, it is mainly an organizational problem. ” Currently, he said, in the Regional Center for Maritime Security in Central Africa, staff have not been paid for more than a year, to cite just one example. The problem is often a question of organization, not a lack of resources. The strategies are not accompanied by a budget plan intended to implement them. The pipes are not in place and the resources are not traced. Obviously, there is money for investment in other areas on much larger scales, so on the subject of maritime security it is not the money that is lacking, it is rather the budgetary organization that we put in place behind it. »

European initiatives to secure navigation

The impact of insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea for the merchant navy, such as the increase in crew protection costs, has led shipowners to ask Europe and European countries to get involved in maritime security alongside West African countries.

To meet this expectation, the European Union has just launched, three years late because of Covid-19, the Support to West Africa Integrated Maritime Security (SWAIMS) program. A program endowed with 30 million euros, of which 12 million should be devoted to the acquisition of speedboats to equip the coastal countries. Program whose counterpart, initiated by Europe in Central Africa, is the PASSSMAR program – Regional workshop of the maritime safety and security strategy support program in Central Africa – endowed with 10 million euros. These anti-piracy programs come on top of other European initiatives: the Seaports Cooperation (Seacop) projects to control illicit flows (cocaine trafficking, etc.); WeCAPS, to reinforce port security or Pescao, to control illegal fishing.

These European programs, headed by the GoGIN project piloted by Expertise France with ECOWAS, CEEAC and the Gulf of Guinea Commission, gave birth to an information exchange platform, called YARIS, Yaoundé Architecture Regional Information System, which makes it possible to compile all the information available on an area or an event in progress.

As summarized by Jérémie Pellet, Managing Director of Expertise France, ” the main issue on maritime security is an issue of coordination between administrations and between countries… The exchange of information must be reinforced to fight against threats at sea… At the level of the Gulf of Guinea, we have helped to create an electronic information sharing device : YARIS, which the States use… Today, one of the dimensions that we are going to strengthen is that of coordination in the penal chain. Judges are very interested in the data that is in YARIS, it can help ensure that prosecutions can be initiated. The other aspect of our action is port security, because it is also very important to secure the entry and exit of human flows and goods. »

Impacts of gunfire on the door of a boat attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea
Impacts of gunfire on the door of a boat attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea © MICA Center

Other international initiatives in the Gulf of Guinea

Faced with these initiatives and a permanent presence of European warships, the British – whose commercial interests in the Gulf of Guinea would amount to 7.1 billion euros – have for some months developed a new interest in this maritime area. which they had neglected militarily for the past three years. According to Africa Intelligence, the United Kingdom sent a patrol vessel this autumn, the HMS Trent in the region and would propose a communication system named SOLARTA to connect the boats to the architecture of Yaoundé by bypassing YARIS.

According to the same source, the Americans, who are worried about the installation of a Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea, are also developing assistance programs for African navies. They plan to provide some countries in the region with around fifteen coastal patrol boats and would offer another information tool on maritime traffic, the SeaVision, a paid system under the control of the US Navy and the intelligence services, which opposes in its concept to the YARIS system which, for its part, guarantees confidentiality to its users.

Despite the competition between these different countries on the maritime security systems they are putting in place, for Michael Howlett, director of the International Maritime Bureau, all these initiatives are beginning to bear fruit. ” The robust actions of national and regional navies in the Gulf of Guinea appear to have contributed positively to the decline in reported incidents and ensured the continued safety of crews and commerce. “, he assures. But he calls on the countries of the region to redouble their efforts to ” guarantee a long-term and sustainable solution “.