Understanding the Dynamics of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Niranjan Jose

Source: African Center for Strategic Studies

The Gulf of Guinea (GoG), a 4,000-mile-long area in West Africa that stretches from Guinea to Angola, is a vital marine route connecting Europe and America to West, Central, and Southern Africa. Aside from its strategic position, the GoG is said to be rich in hydrocarbons, and numerous Western nations rely on it for a significant portion of their crude oil.

In 2020, the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre documented 195 occurrences of piracy and armed robbery at sea, seeing more instances of crime than any other defined maritime area. The GoG was responsible for 95% of the 135 crewmen abducted from their ships. While both piracy and armed robbery can occur in maritime space, piracy occurs exclusively outside a country's 12 nautical mile territorial limits. Any state may intervene and exert authority to attempt to capture suspects. Armed robbery at sea occurs in territorial seas and is prosecutable by the coastal state.

An insufficient legislative framework also threatens to undermine maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. Article 100 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea combines two interconnected piracy commitments. States must first eliminate piracy at the national level, and then collaborate with other states on the regional and international levels. To put the former into practice, Gulf of Guinea states must enact and execute laws covering all aspects of piracy. Nigeria became the region's first country to pass a nationwide anti-piracy law in June 2019.

Nigeria is a country of 150 million people that makes up 25% of Africa's population. It is also the world's 14th biggest oil producer. The country's most impoverished, insecure, and conflict-prone area is the Niger River Delta, which borders the Gulf of Guinea. The region's unstable governments depend on international oil firms' earnings, which are mostly exported. As a consequence severe unemployment, poverty and resource mismanagement plague the area. Many of Nigeria's main ports are run by the state. A recent investigation by the Nigerian anti-corruption commission reported that “corruption is reported to be a legitimate and accepted tool to promote business interests. Gifts are required, even at port agencies”.

Trends of Piracy

The situation in West Africa is compounded by the increased activities of sea pirates who strive not only to capture all the natural riches and resources but also to disrupt regular commercial and marine transit routes within the sub-region. The danger of maritime piracy increases the expense of protecting people and cargo while also increasing the risk of an environmental disaster if pirates seize ships carrying chemicals, oil, or nuclear waste. This would obviously represent a serious environmental concern for the whole sub-region.

Most West African pirates unload seized merchandise (usually oil) onto coastal boats after the stolen ship enters the pirates' home country's territorial seas. International patrols are often unable to pursue suspected pirates into West African territorial seas due to sovereignty issues. With numerous nations attempting to wrestle control of the Gulf of Guinea, pirates and criminals can easily kidnap ships and siphon off the oil. Unlike the seas near the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea is not patrolled by major foreign fleets. The Gulf of Guinea governments have weak national fleets, and the thriving illegal market for crude oil fuels West African piracy.

Despite all regional attempts to reduce it, piracy in the Gulf is likely to persist. Because insurance firms cover the cost—and frequently more than the value—of stolen goods, the maritime sector has no incentive to suppress piracy. Furthermore, widespread corruption renders local patrols ineffective, as Nigerian naval forces are easily bribed. Despite the obvious need for international assistance to combat piracy, there is a lack of both legal authority and international will to prosecute pirates. Western nations prefer not to prosecute pirates because they lack the legal authority to convict. Instead, they want pirates entrusted to local governments that have jurisdiction to prosecute them.

Final thoughts

This regional instability is a result of state failure and weak governance, not only maritime insecurity. Instability on land soon leads to insecurity at sea. Piracy is expanding in Nigeria because of “years of inattention, desperation, and lawlessness along the globally vital shipping route”. Thus, piracy off the Nigerian coast is due to both the country's reliance on oil and policy-makers' misuse of natural resources. Furthermore, most local ship owners are hesitant to effectively defend their ships against pirates since such expenses would dramatically reduce their revenues.

Domestic laws must work well with international laws, and states, police, and armies must be able to work together to fight illegal activities without getting stuck in the political muck that often happens in more restrictive legal systems. Sharing of information and intelligence may help navies and coast guards ensure freedom of the seas. But the fact that it is still hard to catch and punish criminals, whether they are involved in piracy or human trafficking, shows that there is still a lot of work to be done.


Niranjan Jose holds a BBA. LL.B (Hons.) degree from the National Law University Odisha, India. His research focuses on climate change, international political economy, and global security. His writings have appeared in The Hindu, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, ORF, and the Middle East Monitor, among others.