Why you should care

Because this coast is more dangerous than the one off Somalia.

It’s Tuesday morning, and Phillip Belcher pauses anxiously before opening an email. The subject line reads: “Vessel under attack at this moment.” He clicks through to the bleak description that notes a ship is under attack by a skiff, or small boat and under fire. “Nobody attempted to board vessel yet,” the message continues, “but the crew is afraid that it may happen.” From Belcher’s office in central London, there is little he can do for those seamen besides hope for the best.

As marine director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, which represents oil tankers from 40 countries, Belcher is getting used to receiving alerts about ongoing pirate attacks. But they don’t come from the famously pirate-friendly coast of war-torn Somalia. Instead, they’re increasingly being sent from the shores of Africa’s wealthiest country: Nigeria. Last year alone, 49 boats were attacked and 37 crew kidnapped in these waters, whereas Somalia saw only one attack, and no hostages were taken.

Over the past decade, most talk of piracy seemed to lead back to East Africa. And for good reason: The international overexploitation of local fishing stock and lack of law enforcement had helped turn the failed state of Somalia into a pirate’s paradise; since 2005, more than 500 vessels were attacked by pirates in the area. But now, thanks to increased security measures including armed guards on board and international naval patrols, the tide has changed. As the number of incidents comes down on Africa’s east coast, it is rising in the Gulf of Guinea, which has a coastline of about 3,420 miles, roughly the size of the Gulf of Mexico.

If they’re not going to be kidnapped, their lives are of little value to the pirates, and they’re often used as human shields during an escape.

This spells bad news for the eight countries with coastlines on the Gulf. The U.N. estimated the coastal states and foreign investors have lost at least $2 billion annually due to piracy, and the Nigerian army says that oil theft in 2015 alone cost the country $2.2 billion. The threat of piracy is also increasing the cost of business for the hundreds of shipping companies in the area because of heightened insurance premiums. Meanwhile, the lingering threat of violence exerts a big toll on the well-being of seafarers. “The idea alone is enough to cause a lot of anxiety,” says Tom Holmer, program manager of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program, which supports victims of piracy and their families.

And these are not the flip-flop-wearing, AK-47-wielding Somali pirates that Tom Hanks fought in the blockbuster Captain Phillips. In West Africa, the mostly Nigerian pirates belong to well-organized international criminal networks and are armed to the teeth with automatic weapons. But in the Gulf of Guinea, the prize is the cargo not the crew. Kidnapping ransoms can amount to peanuts compared to the market value of a “small” tanker carrying 5,000 tons of refined oil. That doesn’t mean seafarers are safer in Nigerian waters: On the contrary, if they’re not going to be kidnapped, their lives are of little value to the pirates, and they’re often used as human shields during an escape.

None of this has gone unnoticed by local law enforcement. Last year, the Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa was set up to coordinate piracy-fighting efforts. Its executive director, Cmdr. Kamal-Deen Ali, says its focus is to increase the capability of navies and coastal forces so they can provide safe anchorages for tankers. Seafaring companies are also doing their part by increasing training for crews and spending millions of dollars on their own safeguarding mechanisms, from barbed wire and water hoses to “citadels,” a boat version of a panic room. These combined efforts have led to a 29 percent decrease in attacks in 2015 compared to 2014.

Still, some experts believe this trend in reductions won’t last without addressing the environment of corruption and political instability that lets piracy flourish. So far, progress has been uneven on this front. While Ghana has a strong rule of law, the Republic of Congo and Nigeria rank among the world’s most corrupt countries. Ali says criminal leaders in the region are so well connected politically that one of their nicknames is actually “Government.” There also needs to be a greater focus on bringing the criminals to justice with prison terms, says John Stawpert, manager at the International Chamber of Shipping.

What’s more, even with West African countries pooling resources, their navy doesn’t have the capacity to launch anti-piracy missions of the size we’ve seen in the South China Sea or Gulf of Aden. And unlike tankers passing through Somalian borders, boats are not allowed to enter Nigeria’s territorial waters with their own armed personnel.

Despite the challenges, Belcher is still hopeful that the lessons from East Africa and the increased regional coordination will succeed in making the Gulf of Guinea safer. He’s just received another email: The pirates did not manage to board the vessel. For today, at least, the coast is clear.

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