Gulf of Guinea: Africa's new pirate paradise

DAKAR - A year after vowing to banish buccaneers from their waters, countries in the Gulf of Guinea - the new epicentre of piracy in Africa - are struggling to get their act together.

The coastal area extending from Senegal to Angola has stolen the limelight from the Gulf of Aden on the piracy front.

From hijacking cargo ships and siphoning their fuel to illegal fishing and transporting contraband, seafaring robbers are squeezing the region's economy.

Between Jan and Sept the Gulf of Guinea recorded 33 incidents of piracy and armed robbery, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

While an improvement on the 47 attacks recorded in the same period last year, the figure still dwarfed the number of incidents recorded off the coast of Somalia, where international military patrols helped keep the reported tally down to 10.

The pirates operating off the coast of Nigeria, Togo and Benin are heavily armed and violent, according to the IMB.

Sometimes crews are held hostage for several days and subjected to violence, making them increasingly reluctant to travel these waters.

With shipping representing up to 20 percent of the revenues of some affected countries the banditry is also taking an economic toll.

At a summit in Cameroon in June 2013 regional leaders decided to set up a centre responsible for coordinating anti-piracy efforts across the region, with local offices all along the coast.

"The 24 heads of state present in Yaounde (Cameroon) didn't just come for the visit. The actions are there, we're no longer just talking about it," Cameroon's Foreign Minister Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo told the inaugural edition of the Forum on Peace and Security in Africa in Senegal's capital Dakar on Monday.

But the new anti-piracy centres still lack computers and satellite imagery; national navies are short of patrol boats and speedboats and regional dialogue has not always been as intensive as promised.

Often the navy, naval police and coastguard work at cross purposes.

"At the national level you have a multitude of services falling over each other. Every agency tries to have prerogatives that aren't even part of its remit," Rear Admiral Cheikh Bara Cissokho, chief of staff of the Senegalese navy, told the Dakar forum.

Political connections

Furthermore, countries in the Gulf of Guinea are sometimes locked in bitter border disputes, namely over the control of offshore oil fields.

"How can Ghana and Ivory Coast organise common patrols if their border hasn't even been definitively drawn?" asked Barthelemy Blede, a researcher on maritime security at the Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS) in Dakar.

The funding of the new, regional security framework has also yet to take shape, "and foreign aid is still limited", said Blede, who also lamented that shipowners were still resistant to further levies on vessels.

For all the experts at this week's Dakar Forum, Nigeria was the weakest link, with most of the attacks taking place off its shores.

The assailants, meanwhile, were growing their catchment area by establishing "subsidiaries" outside their home countries, said Veronique Roger-Lacan, France's special representative for the fight against maritime piracy.

Speaking at a summit of the west African regional ECOWAS bloc this week Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said piracy in the region had reached "a worrisome dimension".

"Nigeria calls for stronger and more effective regional, continental and global alliance to rid our region of terrorism, piracy and violent extremism," he said.

The consequences of the high-seas hold-ups may be more far-reaching than thought.

Blede noted that attacks in Nigeria's waters had ramped up in the run-up to the country's presidential election in Feb.

The timing of the uptick, he said, "suggests that piracy could be used to finance political activities," he said.

Compared with the Gulf of Guinea, the Gulf of Aden comes off as almost idyllic.

But Roger-Lacan is sceptical.

"All those in charge are saying that the minute the navies withdraw, the sponsors of piracy will resume their activities," she warned.