West Africa grapples with piracy in Gulf of Guinea hotspot

A French warship on which nine magistrates and three Ivorian police and gendarmerie officers spent two days to strengthen their capacities and better combat the piracy that is ravaging the Gulf of Guinea, in the port of Abidjan, on Friday. -AFP

GULF OF GUINEA, NIGERIA - A Nigerian navy speedboat loaded with special forces troops skims across the waves towards a suspect vessel in the Gulf of Guinea.

Guns ready, black-clad officers clamber up a rope ladder and fan out across the decks, looking for pirates believed to have taken the crew hostage.

This time the threat is not genuine: the boat is a French naval supply ship and the raid staged as part of an international exercise off West Africa's coast.

But the menace Nigeria -- and countries along the Atlantic shore -- are seeking to tackle is deadly real.

The waters of the Gulf of Guinea, which stretches some 6,000 kilometers from Angola in the south to Senegal in the north, are among the most dangerous in the world for piracy.

While attacks by pirates have declined globally including in other hotspots like the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, the numbers remain steady off West Africa.

In the first nine months of this year the Gulf of Guinea accounted for 82 percent of crew kidnappings around the world, according to the International Maritime Bureau, an organization monitoring crimes at sea.

In a stark illustration of the problem, 13 sailors were kidnapped in two separate attacks on Norwegian and Greek vessels in the waters of Benin and Togo, west of Nigeria, even as the international exercise was still going on.

Despite the headline-grabbing incident, regional navies like Nigeria's point to a decline in attacks since 2018 and say increased international cooperation, better resources and more assertive patrols are helping.

"It is a challenge but it is not insurmountable," Commodore Sunday Oguntade told AFP, as he monitored the exercise from the frigate NNS Okpabana.

"When the maritime environment is free for illegal activities to thrive it impacts on the economic interests and national interests."

Much of the problem originates in the Niger Delta where the region's vast oil wealth has failed to trickle down to local populations and widespread poverty has stirred unrest.

Pirates emerge from the creeks and swamps in high-powered speedboats to raid passing ships, kidnap crews and spirit them back to Nigeria's shores.

"Nigerian piracy currently ranks in the top two security concerns, with the geopolitical crisis in the Straits of Hormuz" between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, said Jakob Larsen, head of maritime security at BIMCO, the world's largest shipping association.

Tactics have shifted over the past decade as a fall in the oil price and tighter regulation has seen criminal gangs switch from stealing cargoes of crude to abducting sailors for ransom.

Regional navies -- including Nigeria's -- have long struggled with underfunding and a lack of resources to police the waters off their shores.

Larsen said Nigerian naval activity is mainly conducted on a payment basis as "public-private partnerships where commercial companies offer the services of navy ships" as protection to visiting ships.

"There is a risk that this reduces the incentive to reduce the piracy threat, as a reduction...would be bad for business," he said. -AFP