UN: Gulf of Guinea countries push anti-piracy resolution

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 15:19

Nigeria Sea Piracy
Nigeria Naval officers stand in front of a newly commissioned locally made warship in Lagos, Nigeria, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

African countries are pressing for an international response to a piracy scourge in the Gulf of Guinea that’s estimated to cost coastal states some $2bn a year.

Norway and Ghana are circulating a draft resolution that aims to renew attention to the issue a decade after the United Nations (UN) Security Council last weighed in on the matter. It is one of four UN priorities for Ghana, which began a two-year stint on the council this month along with fellow Gulf of Guinea country Gabon.

Speaking on behalf of the three African members of the Security Council – Ghana, Gabon and Kenya – Ghanaian envoy Harold Adlai Agyeman on Monday called on other members to join the effort. A draft resolution began circulating late last week, The Africa Report has learned.

Climate of concern

“We remain concerned by the projected nexus between maritime criminal networks and land-based terrorist groups in the region,” Agyeman said at a briefing on West Africa and the Sahel. “We welcome the discussions that are being initiated in the council on maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, which we believe will help strengthen multilateral efforts in addressing the menace in the region.”

Norway envoy to the UN Mona Juul said Monday that she hopes to get a resolution adopted during Norway’s presidency of the council this month.

“Maritime insecurity is indeed a threat to the region – and to seafarers who pass through. Almost all kidnappings at sea happen in the Gulf of Guinea,” Juul told reporters at the UN. “The secretary general has asked member states to ‘collaborate urgently to address this issue.’ That is why Norway and Ghana, in consultation with countries in the region, have tabled [a] draft Security Council resolution.”

African seas, global issue

The UN push comes as the increasingly sophisticated pirates have been changing their tactics in recent years to focus on seafarer kidnappings for ransom as falling prices have made cargo and oil thefts less profitable.

Originally centred around the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, the pirates have spread out with bigger and better weapons and boats over the past decade. They now operate over a vast region extending hundreds of miles off the coast, according to Stable Seas, a transnational maritime security research organisation.

The pirates’ proliferation has turned the Gulf of Guinea into the world’s “piracy hotspot”. In 2020, the area witnessed 27 of the 28 incidents of kidnappings at sea recorded around the world.

Strategic character

“We believe this is a crucial question for the Gulf of Guinea, whose strategic character has been recognised by the whole world,” Gabon’s envoy to the UN, Michel Xavier Biang, told The Africa Report in a wide-ranging interview on his country’s priorities at the UN. “The Gulf of Guinea is the alternative to the Persian Gulf in terms of energy reserves. And it has a key advantage, which is that most of its resources are offshore and therefore somewhat insulated from political and social upheaval on the continent.”

The new focus on kidnappings of ship crews has created the perception among some that Gulf of Guinea piracy and armed robbery are “greater problems for international shipping companies and foreign seafarers than they are for African nations,” Stable Seas wrote in a November 2021 report produced with help from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and funding from the government of Norway.

A $2bn problem

The report calls that perspective “misguided”. It estimates the direct and indirect costs of piracy for the 12 coastal countries from Côte d’Ivoire to Angola to be at least $1.9bn per year, including $1.2bn in lost import tariffs, $524m for support to counter-piracy efforts and $170m in lost port fees due to decreased shipping – 2,000 times more than the estimated $1.1m in annual ransoms and thefts.

And that’s without counting the opportunity cost of reallocating money that could have been used for other purposes, such as the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in a part of the world where millions of people depend on the sea for their livelihoods.

“The frequency and violence of these attacks has preoccupied navies that could be addressing other maritime security threats, discouraged foreign investment, weakened state control of coastal and offshore areas, slowed the development of the blue economy, emboldened illicit traders and illegal fishers, and terrorised seafarer communities,” the report states.

Looking at the trends

The trends are not all bad, however. According to International Maritime Bureau, incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the gulf dropped to 28 in the first nine months of 2021, down from 46 during the same period the previous year.

“The overall number of incidents in the Gulf of Guinea decreased last year thanks to national anti-piracy efforts, including the adoption by many states of relevant legislation and maritime strategies,” UNODC executive director Ghada Waly told the Security Council on Monday.

Still, she said, progress has “stalled” on the maritime security architecture for the Gulf of Guinea debated a decade ago.

“The repercussions of piracy and maritime insecurity on regional peace, stability and development remain profound,” Waly said.

Regional cooperation

The Security Council last acted on the issue with back-to-back resolutions in 2011 and 2012, and a presidential statement in 2016. These called for the development of a regional anti-piracy strategy in cooperation with the African Union.

In 2013, regional states signed the Code of Conduct Concerning the Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery against Ships and Illicit Maritime Activity in West and Central Africa. The so-called Yaoundé Code of Conduct paved the way for the creation of the Yaoundé Architecture for Maritime Safety and Security.

Areas of focus

The new push should focus on strengthening capacity building, training of maritime security forces and improving joint law enforcement surveillance and other operational capabilities, China’s UN deputy permanent representative Dai Bing said Monday.

Gabon’s Biang, for his part, said equipment and other support in the fight against pirates needs to be accompanied by tighter cooperation. Indeed, pirates and other maritime criminals often operate along maritime borders, allowing them to flee into another country’s waters if pursued.

“When you’re tracking pirates, if they cross borders, you cannot enter another country’s territory if there isn’t cooperation. And often times, there’s also a need for cooperation with the countries that pirated ships are registered in to make sure action is effective,” he said. “So there must be a platform of cooperation between the different states with maritime borders as well as with flag registries that circulate in the gulf.”

Prosecution priority

Further progress on criminalising and prosecuting acts of piracy is also a key focus for the UN.

During her briefing Monday, Waly said the UNODC is assisting with legislative and regulatory frameworks in 16 coastal countries. It has also trained almost 2,000 judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers.

The UNODC “supported Togo and Nigeria in achieving the first ever successful prosecution of piracy in the region last year – a landmark step toward achieving maritime security in West Africa,” she said, pointing to the July 2021 sentencing by a Togolese court of nine people to years of jail time for acts of maritime piracy.

US support

The United States (US) also supports the effort. “We agree that there is a serious problem with piracy and maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea. And the US wants to support all efforts to address that,” a senior US diplomat tells The Africa Report.

“We’ve been doing bilateral and regional capacity-building programmes, as well as addressing some other issues, legal issues – how to prosecute the criminals involved, etc.”

Signing up stakeholders

The Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), one of the world’s largest shipowner associations, issued a similar plea for stronger policy when it contributed to the development of a Gulf of Guinea Declaration on Suppression of Piracy last May. The document was signed by more than 500 stakeholders, including many of the world’s largest shipping companies as well as the maritime authorities of the biggest flag states, Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands.

Jakob Larsen, the head of maritime safety and security at BIMCO, tells The Africa Report that several of the declaration’s priorities are ripe for inclusion in a UN resolution, including:

  • Building prisons and encouraging regional states to prosecute pirates;
  • Tangible support for anti-piracy law enforcement by non-regional naval forces that can complement the underpowered African navies (such as the Danish frigate Esbern Snare’s deadly 24 November shoot-out with pirates);
  • Increasing effective law enforcement activity ashore to disrupt pirates’ land bases;
  • and improving transparency of law enforcement agencies, military forces and protection services amid reports of collusion between Nigerian sailors, security escort companies and pirates, for example.

After Denmark last week released three of four pirates captured by the Esbern Snare, BIMCO called on Gulf of Guinea countries to step up prosecutions.

“If regional coastal states help prosecute apprehended pirates,” Larsen said in a statement, “it will significantly strengthen the case for capacity-building and support from the international community and underpin the development of the blue economy in West Africa.”

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