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New piracy hotspot

Rayna Breuer, Dirk Kaufmann /arFebruary 8, 2013

While piracy has decreased on the Horn of Africa, experts warn of more attacks in the Gulf of Guinea. The west African coast is becoming a dangerous hotspot for international navigation.

A Somali coast guard vessel (Eva Krafczyk/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Thanks to the massive presence of international naval patrols, piracy has decreased over the last few years in the Gulf of Aden. While there were 163 attacks in 2009, in 2012 only 35 ships were attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

But piracy is on the increase off the west coast of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea, which reaches from Cote d'Ivoire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in London, the 51 pirate attacks there in 2012 were an increase of 42 percent over the previous year. In 2013, there have been at least five attacks so far, according to the IMB's live piracy map.

The reasons for the development include political instability and social conflicts in the states on the Gulf of Guinea. But experts say employing a massive naval presence similar to the one off the Horn of Africa is unlikely to solve the problems on Africa's western coasts. That's because many of the countries along Africa's western coast are plagued by social conflict and political instability.

Strong international interest in stabilizing the region

There is a strong incentive for intervention: The countries along the Gulf of Guinea produce around 500 million liters (three million barrels) of crude oil every day. Europe buys 40 percent of its oil in this region, the US some 30 percent. So it's not surprising that the international community is interested in stabilizing the Gulf of Guinea region to take the wind out of the pirates' sails.

Map of the Gulf of Guinea
There are huge oil resources in the states along the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa

But while a number of international naval vessels are deployed to the Horn of Africa, nine of them part of the EU's 'Atalanta' mission, military experts are advising against a massive military presence in Africa's west.

"The situation in the Gulf of Guinea is different in comparison to that in Gulf of Aden," Pottengal Mukundan, director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) told DW. "Somalia is a failed state, where an international presence is necessary. In the Gulf of Guinea all the countries are sovereign states with functioning governments."

Instead, Mukundan suggests that it would be best if the international community supported these countries in building their own maritime security strategy to fight piracy.

The German frigate 'Bremen' (Carmen Jaspersen/dpa/lniOnkel)
The German frigate 'Bremen' is part of the international naval patrol in the Gulf of AdenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Thierry Vircoulon from the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Nairobi agrees an international naval mission is not the right answer. "The security response in Gulf of Guinea should be the sole responsibility of the countries themselves. They are trying to improve their capacities, they have to improve their regional cooperation," he said.

Other pirates, different aims

Piracy in the gulf of Guinea started about 10 years ago - at first only off the Nigerian coast, and limited to small fishing boats or local ships transporting goods. But the increase in oil exports prompted the pirates to change their targets - now they go after the big oil tankers.

"Nigerian and Somali pirates use a similar tactics when attacking ships. They go far out onto the sea with fishing boats. Then, they switch to smaller boats so they can approach the ship they target. Then they hijack the ship and take it to an unknown destination," Mukundan said.

German freighter 'Hansa Stavanger'
Pirates use smal vessels to attack tankers and cargo shipsImage: Anonymous/AP/dapd

While Somali pirates mostly aim to collect a ransom for the ship and its crew, West African pirates are more interested in the cargo. "They capture the ships for a few days to steal part of the cargo," said Michael Strahl of the magazine "MarineForum." The pirates then pump tons of oil from the tankers to sell on the black market, he said.

Strahl said that pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are very prone to violence. "They're much quicker at shooting to kill, and they are more brutal with the crew. That could be partly due to the fact they are not primarily interested in hostages, unlike the Somali pirates for whom the hostages are the real capital."

Governments need to act

Unemployment, high costs of living and rampant corruption make piracy a lucrative business for an increasing number of people. "There are even some civil servants, border police and soldiers who are involved in piracy," Strahl said.

It's mainly young people who don't see any future for themselves who turn to piracy. Nigeria, where many of the pirates come from, has been exporting oil since the 1990s, yet the extensive revenue has not trickled down to the population. Instead it's mostly the elites who have benefited. 90 million of Nigeria's population of 151 million live below the poverty line.

Flame burning at Nigerian refinery (EPA)
Nigeria's oil revenues have not reached the majority of the populationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That's why Vircoulon believes that regional cooperation and improved naval activity alone won't help - above all, the problems must be solved within the countries along the Gulf of Guinea. Fighting crime is not enough, he said: "One needs to go beyond that, there must be economic reforms, to decrease unemployment among the people."

Mukundan said he hopes that things will change and that some steps in the right direction are already being taken. "In Nigeria, several pirate gangs were recently caught and are now in custody. In Togo, too, the government has been taking active steps to curb pirate attacks," he said.

It remains to be seen how effective these and other measures will be, and how well the Gulf of Guinea countries will manage to curb piracy.