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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Regional Cooperation Key to Curbing Gulf of Guinea Oil Piracy

  • The Gulf of Guinea, rich in natural resources, has been a hotspot for piracy, impacting maritime safety and oil production.
  • Recent years have shown a decrease in traditional piracy activities, replaced by oil bunkering crimes, due to improved safety standards and regional cooperation.
  • Despite the reduction in piracy, recent sophisticated attacks in international waters and the ongoing threat of oil bunkering highlight the need for continued naval presence and vigilance in the region.

The Gulf of Guinea has become famous for its piracy crimes over the last two decades, with many ships being invaded by modern-day pirates looking for wealth. Despite repeated attempts to crack down on criminals in the region, little has worked to stop the activities completely. However, the recent strengthening of safety standards as well as greater regional cooperation are helping to deter violent criminal activity and are expected to improve transit safety in the region in the coming years. 

The Gulf of Guinea is strategically located, stretching from Senegal to Angola, covering approximately 6,000 km of coastline and 20 commercial seaports. It provides an important transport route for oil and gas, as well as goods, to and from central and southern Africa. It is highly trafficked, with around 1,500 fishing vessels, tankers, and cargo ships passing through the waters each day, representing around 25 percent of African maritime traffic. It is therefore highly attractive for maritime crime. The region that the maritime route spans is rich in natural resources, from hydrocarbons to metals and minerals. The Gulf provides around 60 percent of the continent’s oil production, with two-thirds of reserves concentrated in Nigeria’s waters. 

Acts of piracy have been taking place in the Gulf of Guinea for several years, making safety a key concern for energy companies and maritime workers. Piracy is defined under international law as threatening “maritime security by endangering (…) the welfare of seafarers and the security of navigation and commerce. These criminal acts may cause the loss of life, physical harm or hostage-taking” situation.” However, in recent years, piracy has given way to bunkering activities - the act of oil theft. Bunkering is achieved by diverting and smuggling oil by loading unauthorised ships. This can result in oil spills and explosions and leave pipelines vulnerable to leaks. 

In recent years, several criminal networks operating in the region have shifted away from traditional piracy activities in favour of oil bunkering. Rather than boarding ships to steal goods or kidnap workers in exchange for ransoms, criminals are increasingly targeting vessels carrying refined goods, looking to steal oil products. This is likely because the financial incentives are that much higher. The total earnings for piracy and kidnapping for ransom in 2021 equated to around $4 million, compared to oil bunkering’s multi-million-dollar potential. 

Further, criminals have been deterred from invasive attacks following the implementation of the 2013 Yaoundé Code of Conduct, which promotes information sharing and reporting. This has been further supported by regional and international cooperation and monitoring of the seas by military forces to prevent attacks. Successful piracy convictions in Togo and Nigeria in 2021 reinforce the progress made in the region. 

Nevertheless, the Gulf of Guinea cannot escape its reputation for piracy. In March 2023, a Danish-owned Liberian-flagged oil tanker, the Monjasa Reformer, was boarded by three pirates, forcing the 16-member crew to take shelter in the ship’s secure room. Communication with the tanker was lost. Pirates kidnapped six crew members, who were eventually rescued in Nigeria in May. It was not reported whether a ransom was paid for their release. 

This attack followed a lull in piracy activities in 2022 when three ships were reported to have been attacked compared to 26 in 2019. Before the Danish tanker, two other attacks had been reported in the region in the first quarter of 2023. The recent attacks have taken place further out in international waters, likely as criminals attempt to avoid getting noticed. Pirates have been using more sophisticated tactics, with some using large, stolen shipping vessels as hubs during attacks. This has led shippers to urge naval forces to establish a stronger presence in the region. 

France and Nigeria are now working together to tackle piracy in the region. Five Nigerian naval ships and the French carrier Mistral joined forces in October on a four-month mission aimed at securing the maritime route. French naval vessels have been almost permanently deployed in the Gulf of Guinea since 1990. Nigerian naval exercises are also common since the launch of the Yaoundé Protocol. Regular drills are carried out to prepare the navy for potential pirate attacks, as well as to deter criminals from piracy and bunkering activities. 

Despite the recent attacks, the number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea has fallen sharply from around a decade ago. The signing of the Yaoundé Protocol has encouraged greater cooperation among African nations, as well as support from international powers. Strict legal repercussions have deterred criminals from violent acts of piracy in the region. However, this has resulted in criminals bunkering oil or carrying out more sophisticated attacks further out in international waters. A stronger naval presence in the region could help deter attacks on tankers and other vessels, while reporting and information sharing should continue to be encouraged to prevent possible attacks. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com


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