Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Gulf of Guinea, a large area of the West African coastline from Gabon to Côte d’Ivoire — has become the new hotspot for piracy and illegal fishing. It is also the gateway through which SA’s more than €22bn annual exports to Europe pass.

This is because multinational antipiracy and antipoaching operations off the Somali coast have been so successful that the world’s pirates and illegal fishing operations appear to have moved elsewhere.

Pirate attacks have become increasingly violent, and Gulf of Guinea navies are weak, with only Nigeria possessing frigates. Aside from co-operation between small regional forces and naval support from the US’s African naval force, there is no multinational force at sea comparable with the EU and Nato’s counterpiracy task forces off the Somali coast.

The SA navy wants to deploy a frigate and marines to the Gulf to assist local navies. The SAS Amatola, a frigate, is patrolling that coast on its way back from Germany — but it costs the navy R410,000/day to guard a section of coastline, and the navy cannot afford to have a presence in the Mozambican channel and the Gulf simultaneously. It has provided a permanent presence in the Mozambique channel since January 2011.

A study on piracy in the Gulf by the Nigerian navy’s Rear Admiral Adeniyi Adejimi Osinowo, who is also a consultant on the AU’s Africa Integrated Maritime Strategy 2050, notes that the cost of piracy (on the high seas) and armed robbery (in state-controlled waters) in the Gulf is estimated at US$2bn/year.

The losses attributed to illegal, unregulated and unmonitored fishing there are judged to be $1.3bn/year.

Both figures are the world’s highest — and the losses are not all direct: in one year alone, Benin lost $81m in customs revenue due to the threat of piracy because shipping companies avoided its port at Cotonou.

According to a 2013 report by independent think-tank Chatham House, Nigerian crude oil theft — which has at times reached the level of 100,000bbl/day — mostly involves oil company employees who siphon oil out of pipelines, storage tanks and export terminals, and transfer it to barges and small tankers run by smugglers. The smugglers then convey the oil to large "mother ships" run by black marketeers lurking in international waters.

This illicit oil is then merged with that of the legal stream of producers and is openly sold in the primary markets of Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Bryan Abell, the West African operations director for seaborne security firm Six Maritime, says the largest part of Nigeria’s oil black market consists of "organised criminal rackets backed by corrupt political elites ... [that have] brokered deals with the region’s oil majors and security forces".

But small opportunistic gangs are in a better position to ride out the depressed oil price.

Lacking political patronage and links to corrupt oil industry officials, they "instead rely on criminal wit to crack oil pipelines, loot vessels and collect abduction ransoms. With negligible operating costs and no illicit bureaucracy or shareholders to answer to, these groups can more easily adapt to market forces and exploit additional revenue streams".

Osinowo believes there is a deficit of 58 offshore patrol vessels for the Gulf, but he says naval deterrents need to be backed by "targeted economic development on the coast".

Reuters noted in a report this month that a spike in crude oil theft in Brazil was precipitated by the worst recession on record; the same phenomenon has been reported in the US.

According to Osinowo’s study, Gulf maritime security would be improved by better intelligence on piracy and smuggling networks, and satellite and radar surveillance, as well as "recommended transit corridors" and "voluntary reporting areas" for legitimate shipping, which worked well off Somalia and confined countermeasures to narrower reaches of ocean.

As Europe is the primary destination for illegally caught fish, the European parliament voted in February to create a public register of its fleets fishing in foreign waters and to blacklist operators caught stealing.

This month, the EU endorsed an international ocean governance plan that promotes maritime security and sustainable fishing.

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