West African states are pledging to work together to fight the piracy spreading across the Gulf of Guinea, where it is damaging local economies and starting to impact on the region’s trade, according to the United Nations.
Some 53 piracy attacks have been reported in 2011, up from 47 in 2010. Four of the reported attacks occurred off Togo and 22 off Benin, which share 177km of coastline, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Neither country reported a single attack in 2010.
The IMO says the real figures are likely to be higher as attacks often go unreported when the value of goods and money stolen is below insurance minimums and the ships do not wish to be delayed by lengthy investigations.
Individual governments are trying to counter the threat, but many are weak and have limited resources. The Togolese government has made some progress due to constant naval patrols and its geographical distance from Nigeria - where pirates are thought to find refuge in the labyrinthine waterways of the Niger River Delta - but invariably they find new ways to escape the patrols, said sea captain Monty Jones, chairman of shipping agents Togo Oil and Marine.
In response to the attacks, regional cooperation has started to grow - in September Benin began a six-month naval alliance with Nigeria to undertake joint patrols along the coast. The navies of Togo and Ghana are expected to follow suit.
Chris Trelawny, Deputy Director of the Maritime Safety Division at the IMO, says the organization is working with 15 coastal states - all members of Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa (MOWCA) - to introduce a coast guard network, and is trying to draw on lessons learned elsewhere.
To help plan a coordinated regional response, an ECOWAS sub-committee of chiefs of defence staff will meet in Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, at the end of November. A further ECOWAS summit is planned for early 2012 to mobilize political support to combat piracy.
An assessment, co-led by UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), is also underway in West Africa to examine the scope of the threat and make recommendations for UN support to regional efforts to halt piracy.
“There is a good precedent for international cooperation working,” said Trelawny, citing success in piracy hot-spots such as the South China Sea and the waters off Singapore.
But any efforts at sea need to be backed up by rule of law on land. “You need the judiciary, the prosecution and the port authorities involved,” Trelawny noted.
A secure ocean will assist the long-term development of West Africa. If the waters were secure, private industries such as fisheries, processing plants and distributors would thrive, thereby providing more jobs and boosting the economy, Trelawny said. West African governments should “look at the 200 miles off the coast as an investment opportunity.”
Local economies “crippled”
At a regional seminar on maritime security in Cotonou in mid-November it was announced that there has been a 70 percent decrease in ship activity in the local port. “It [piracy] is having a serious effect on the local economies… The number of ships [in Benin] has gone down and the higher insurance rates are crippling everyone - that is obviously going to have an effect,” Trelawny pointed out.
Most attacks off Benin are directed at oil and energy tankers and are not only damaging local economies and threatening seafarers but could also threaten the security of the energy supply.
The economic damage that piracy can cause can be seen in East Africa, where the presence of Somali pirates has been “hammering” the tourism economy of the Seychelles. In Kenya, only one cruise ship has entered Mombasa port this year, Trelawny said. “It's a wakeup call to West African states.”
The level of violence in piracy attacks in West Africa is higher than those off Somalia, according to the IMO, with most incidents involving crew members being beaten or threatened with knives and guns, ship property and personal belongings being stolen, and the pirates leaving quickly.
“They [pirates] spray the wheelhouse with machine gun fire before trying to board. It is a normal military tactic: intimidate your enemy,” said sea captain Jones, who has been hijacked several times.
Many pirates are armed with handguns and long guns, he said, and are often high on drugs. “There is no way to reason with them,” he said, adding that a number of seamen have been killed by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea.
According to the IMO, the attacks are generally for theft, including the theft of oil, rather than for kidnapping and ransom. In previous years some attacks - such as those orchestrated by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) - have been politically motivated, Jones told IRIN.
“The pirates ran the ships out of Lagos [in Nigeria], so they moved to Benin, where they were safe for about three years. The pirates got more sophisticated and moved over to Benin, so now the ships have moved over to Lomé [capital of Togo],” said Jones.
An amnesty programme launched by the government in 2009 for militants in the Niger Delta seems to have reduced the frequency of attacks in Nigeria, said Trelawny. “But more effective enforcement in their waters is spreading piracy into other areas - the pirates will go where they can get away with it.”
Private sector to fill gap
Jones and others believe many pirates are fed inside information about valuable cargo and ship locations. “There are hundreds of containers on board and the pirates know exactly which container has the valuable cargo,” said Jones, who has operated in West Africa for 30 years.
“That means there is a leak, possibly with customs, who know the exact container number. This is much more sophisticated than what meets the eye. It’s not random gangsters, it's organized crime.”
With capacity low in many of the governments concerned, the private sector is stepping in to fight the scourge off the shores of Benin and Togo.
VLC Securité, a private security firm run by Mike Hounsinou, has been hired by ship charterers or owners to ensure the safety of cargoes and crews. "Sailors who are on board the vessels are afraid. They fear because they know what can happen in these waters," Hounsinou told IRIN.
On average, his guards are working on approximately five percent of ships in the Lomé anchorage. The dangers and the training required for the guards working on vessels mean their salaries have increased to 10 times higher than usual, Hounsinou said.
International support is also being offered. Training teams from the United States and European countries are trying to boost governments’ ability to fight piracy and protect oil platforms through the US-led Africa Partnership Station (APS), linked to the American military command, Africom.
So far, APS has provided boats to the navies of Togo, Nigeria, Benin and Ghana to help them fight pirates. The boats are valued at US$800,000 each, and with a range of 150 nautical miles the navy is only minutes away from any vessel in anchorage, according to Jones.
In response to Beninese President Boni Yayi's call for assistance from the UN Security Council, France has pledged an investment of $1 million over the next three years.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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