While the threat of piracy has gained international recognition off the coast of Somalia and farther out into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, pirate activities in the Gulf of Guinea have only recently caught the world’s attention. According to the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO), 64 incidents of piracy were reported in nine countries of the Gulf of Guinea region in 2011, up from 45 incidents in seven countries in 2010 (Ghanian Chronicle, May 15). However, one of the defining features of West African piracy is its considerable underreporting, leading most analysts to believe that the level of attacks is in fact significantly higher than is officially reported (AP, March 29). It is widely believed that pirate activity, when unreported events are included, has reached levels similar to those experienced off Somalia’s coast, which in turn has seen a recent decline in pirate activity. Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have been on the rise for several years, especially following the 2009 of members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). The independent criminal gangs responsible for the piracy are composed mainly of former Nigerian rebels that joined the criminal ranks following the amnesty (African Confidential, October 21, 2011). In the opinion of many, the amnesty served largely to benefit the MEND leadership, leaving those in the lower ranks desperate for economic opportunities and open to recruitment for pirate operations.
The surge in attacks has been concentrated in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria and Benin and has naturally led to mounting concern in the shipping industry. In August 2011, maritime insurers in London added the waters of Nigeria and Benin to a list of areas perceived as high risk as a result of increased pirate attacks in the Gulf. According to the International Maritime Bureau, there were 32 piracy incidents recorded off the coasts of Benin, Nigeria, and Togo in the first half of 2012, up from the 25 attacks reported in 2011.  After reporting that West Africa had become a piracy "hotspot," an IMB official further noted that this uptick likely does not reflect an actual increase in attacks but merely better reporting (AllAfrica.com, September 15, 2011; News24 [Lagos], July 18, 2012). In a worrying sign, pirate activity has occurred over the past year in Beninese and Togolese waters where no incidents were reported in 2010 or in early 2011. While attacks have traditionally centered off the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, the waters of Benin and Togo have become increasingly risky because of these nations’ weak enforcement capabilities, leading former MEND rebels-turned-pirates to shift their operations away from Nigeria’s comparably better patrolled waters. Moreover, the pirates have taken their activities to deeper waters, mirroring attacks by their Somali counterparts.
Attacks in West Africa generally target tankers along with oilfield service and support vessels. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has escalated over the years from low-level armed robberies to hijackings, cargo thefts, and large-scale robberies. Unlike Somali piracy, the attackers have not been driven by ransom payments. Pirates often take hijacked tankers to another empty tanker to collect its siphoned fuel to be sold on the black market. The original vessel is then brought back and released. In a prominent incident highlighting this method, armed pirates boarded a tanker on September 14, 2011, kidnapping 23 sailors off the coast of Benin about 62 nautical miles from the Beninese port of Cotonou, one of the farthest offshore seizures ever recorded in West Africa. The pirates sailed to an unknown location and released the crew unharmed ten days later after having unloaded its cargo of oil (AP, October 11, 2011; September 14, 2011). Benin’s underequipped patrol force was hours away and powerless to intervene.
The territorial waters of Nigeria and Cameroon have traditionally served as the focus of piracy in West Africa, driven in part by Nigeria’s oil assets. The International Maritime Bureau warned ships to “steer clear of waters off Nigeria” after a trio of piracy attacks that occurred in early February, including a deadly assault on the master and chief engineer of a cargo vessel who were shot and killed by pirates about 90 nautical miles south of Lagos (AFP, February 27). The other attacks included a tanker that was briefly hijacked and a thwarted attack on an international shipping vessel (Vanguard [Lagos], February 13). Meanwhile, thanks to the increased focus of the Cameroonian Navy since 2010, there has been a decline in incidents in Cameroonian waters, which is believed to have pushed pirates westward, resulting in a marked increase in piracy precisely since that time in Benin and Togo. 
Ostensibly, attacks declined in Nigeria’s waters in 2009 and 2010 thanks to a security crackdown in its waters and a general amnesty granted to southern rebels in 2009. However, it is believed that the lower levels of pirate attacks are more attributable to significant underreporting since the amnesty.  An IMB official has cited government pressure as a possible reason for this under-reporting (News24 [Lagos], July 18). In addition, the victims of the attacks themselves have an incentive to not report an incident in order to avoid the resultant higher insurance premiums. Whatever the precise number of pirate incidents, piracy is inflicting a significant economic toll on the region. The nations of the Gulf of Guinea are reportedly losing $2 billion annually to maritime crime, according to the Nigerian Navy (This Day [Lagos], February 23). Moreover, Benin saw a 70% decrease in the past year in the number of ships entering its main port of Cotonou, which carries 90% of Benin’s trade, representing 80% of the government’s budget. Cotonou is a critical port for landlocked nations to the north, according to the Minister of State in Charge of National Defense in Benin. 
As in Somalia, the future of West African piracy in the long term depends on the security and economic situation on the mainland. It will be impossible to achieve substantive improvements in the fight against piracy through purely defensive tactics on the open sea. For real improvement, the benefits of legitimate economic pursuits on the mainland would have to outweigh the benefits of piracy for would-be buccaneers.
Jamestown analyst Mark McNamee is an Intelligence Analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa at an international risk consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. region as well as a contract employee for the U.S. Army Combating Terrorism Center.
1. According to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Global Piracy Report, released on July 16, 2012, http://www.icc-ccs.org/news/747-six-month-drop-in-world-piracy-imb-report-shows.
2. Comments by U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice at a Security Council Debate on Piracy and Maritime Armed Robbery in the Gulf of Guinea, as reported in AllAfrica.com, February 27, 2012.
3. IMB Global Piracy Report, op cit.
3. United Nations Security Council Meeting, February 27, 2012, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10558.doc.htm.