In July last year President Boni Yayi of Benin sent a worried letter to the UN secretary-general. His country was being threatened by the activities of pirates, who were scaring shipping away from the ports on which his country's revenues depend. He wanted international help of the kind which had been deployed against piracy off the coast of Somalia.
His letter put the issue of piracy off the West African coast onto the world agenda. The attacks continue and still cluster in the vicinity of Benin and its neighbour, Nigeria, but despite UN missions and a Security Council debate, the international community is still unsure of the best way to proceed.
On 6 December Coventry University organized a conference on Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea, in collaboration with London's Chatham House. One thing which emerged very clearly from the sessions was that what is being called piracy in this area is very different from piracy off the East African coast, and the kind of international naval deployment used against Somali pirates is unlikely to help.
In fact Chris Trelawny, deputy director of the Maritime Safety Division at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), suggested that most of what was going on in West African waters was not really piracy at all, within the meaning of the international conventions. "Piracy is defined as happening `outside the jurisdiction of any state', so outside 12 miles is piracy. If it's inside 12 miles we classify that as armed robbery against ships. The difference is jurisdiction. Piracy is a universal crime and states have an obligation to intervene. Inside 12 miles it is the coastal state's responsibility."
Of the attacks which have been reported to IMO over the past 10 years, only a minority, 108, have happened in international waters: 170 were within territorial waters and 270 actually took place in port. So these are crimes taking place within national jurisdiction, and even though some of the coastal states of West Africa have states and judicial systems which are quite weak, there is no void of authority, like that in Somalia.
Using an international naval task force to address the problem is inappropriate in other ways too. Navies can be very good at deterring pirates, or chasing them and recovering stolen weapons and cargo, but they are not designed or trained to collect evidence and process criminals for prosecution.
One of the speakers at Chatham House was Tony Attah from Shell Nigeria, a company which has suffered severely from maritime crime, sometimes losing whole cargoes of crude oil to pirates. Nigeria has a joint military task force which is now mandated to tackle oil theft but Attah is frustrated by the results. "We are aware that over 1,000 illegal refineries have been destroyed through the efforts of the navy, and a number of tankers full of stolen crude have been seized in high profile raids, but despite the increased focus to date, we are not aware of a single thief being prosecuted or convicted. The big barons behind this criminality walk free."
The oil industry, much of it offshore, is one of the main lures for maritime criminals in the area. And, says Attah, this is not petty crime. "I can tell you this is a well-financed criminal phenomenon, a parallel industry, with a well-developed supply chain and growing sophistication. It includes trained engineers who weld valves to high pressure pipelines, boatyards which construct and supply barges."
Oil is also the reason why the issue is of wider international significance. The region supplies around 40 percent of Europe's oil and 29 percent of that consumed by the USA. Keeping these shipping lanes open and safe is vital for world supply. The outside world is ready to offer some help - both the British Navy and the US Africa Command were represented at the meeting. Both have offered training and capacity building to West African navies and coast guards.
For these national forces to work together is clearly important because the criminals are so mobile. One speaker likened fighting piracy in the region to sitting on a balloon - push down on one side and it pops up at the other; push on the other side and it pops up somewhere else. Joint military patrols by the Nigerian and Beninois navies reduced attacks in their own waters, but moved the pirates' attention to Togo and Côte d'Ivoire.
So far that has been the only joint action; apart from that, regional cooperation has mostly involved meetings and seminars, held by regional bodies.
One of the major gaps is a lack of information, highlighted at the meeting by Lt-Cmdr Stephen Anderson of the UK's Royal Navy whose ship, the Dauntless, recently returned from a patrol in the Gulf of Guinea, and who had clearly been very struck by the near impossibility of finding out which ships were meant to be there, and which were suspect vessels.
There is a sense at the moment that the region and its international allies are still feeling their way. Piracy off the west coast of Africa is not yet at the same level as that that off Somalia to the east, but there is a clear concern that it could escalate.
The deputy executive secretary of the Gulf of Guinea Commission, Ambassador Florentina Ukonga, addressed a heartfelt appeal to all those concerned. "With the right combination of efforts. to achieve a common legal framework for the arrest and prosecution of criminals, adequate financial investment and capacity building - piracy can be reduced to a bare minimum.
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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