By RAMONA KUNDT
BRUSSELS – While piracy off the coast of East Africa is gradually diminishing, violence at sea along West African’s Gulf of Guinea region is rising but with a twist, namely the improving ability of pirates to combine communications, intelligence, arms and tactics to approach and capture vessels.
The maritime security challenges around the African continent were discussed during a roundtable debate here organised in late November by the UK-based International Centre for Parliamentary Studies. The event brought together representatives from shipping and maritime industries, port authorities, technology companies, research and academia, government and EU officials.
Although Africa’s piracy and hijacking incidents have decreased over the past years, piracy-related risks remain high, the experts warned. Maritime security along the West African coast focusing on the region’s oil and gas resources, but is more violent than that of East Africa’s littoral waters. West Africa’s pirates are increasingly politicized, while terrorist networks are infiltrating traditional groups, said conference speakers, who said this is leading to an escalation of violence across the region, particularly in the coastal areas of Nigeria.
A myriad of criminal activities have been reported across the region in recent months: not only piracy and illegal oil bunkering but also arms and drug trafficking, smuggling and counterfeiting, illegal migration, child and slave trafficking, illegal fishing and environmental pollution.
During the first quarter of 2012 alone, Nigeria’s Joint Military Task Force reportedly destroyed 3,778 illegal refineries and seized eight vessels, 120 barges, 878 “Cotonou” style (fishing) boats, 178 fuel pumps, 5,238 surface tanks, 606 pumping machines and 626 outbound engines belonging to oil thieves.
West Africa is also becoming a major transit point for drugs from South America on their way to Europe. Containers, ships, aircraft and vehicles are not properly tracked, so African ports are easily used to import and export illicit cargoes of arms, drugs, counterfeit goods, gold, ivory, cigarettes, according to officials at the conference.
Serge Rinkel, director of programmes and services at Borderpol, said Nigeria annually loses some $800 million to poaching, $9 billion to piracy and $15.5 billion to oil theft or illegal oil bunkering. Worst, over 70 percent of eight million illegal weapons in circulation in West Africa are inside Nigeria.
Ibrahim Zailani, executive director of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, told the conference that most problems in the maritime domain in West Africa can be traced back to the lack of proper law enforcement and justice administration. The Gulf of Guinea embraces 14 countries with different legal systems “which make police, judicial and intelligence cooperation virtually impossible”, he said.
The role of private maritime security companies (PMSCs) in counter-piracy was also addressed during the event. There are approximately 250 PMSCs now operating on the international maritime security market but Nigeria does not allow them to operate within its territory.
While the deployment of PMSCs on board ships transiting East Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline have radically pushed own the number of successful hijackings, few metrics have been developed by insurance providers or shipping companies to verify and assess the quality of PMSCs.
Robert Bell, senior civilian representative in Europe for the US Secretary of Defence, said the core elements of Washington’s new approach to counter-piracy on the African continent is to dismantle land-based pirate networks and build host nation capacities. He said the US government wants closer cooperation with Interpol to use its global database on maritime piracy and with authorities of the Republic of Seychelles. The latter will host one of five regional anti-piracy prosecution and intelligence coordination centres funded by the EU. These should become fully operational in January 2013.
Europe and the US will only win this battle if their support to African governments leads to ironclad rule of law procedures, strong criminal intelligence networks and effective community policing, including forensics capabilities. That’s a very tall order to pull off in a continent littered with the traces of previous capacity-building projects funded by the international community. How to start small in the face of huge threats is the obvious challenge in this picture.
Meanwhile, what do about the PMSC vacuum in West Africa? The Gulf of Guinea’s patchwork of disparate maritime security policies makes it difficult, if not impossible, for private security companies to provide an armed deterrent inside territorial waters. This function is often delegated to local government security forces with questionable degrees of training and effectiveness, according to conference participants. Until the public sector is seen as part of the solution, it will be perceived as part of the problem.