Two successive maritime attacks took place in the beginning of November in the Gulf of Guinea. Pirates respectively kidnapped 9 and then 4 sailors off the coasts of Benin and Togo, while a joint naval exercise on maritime security between France and 14 African States was going on since October 28, 2019. These two significant exemples are emblematic of wider patterns characterized by the rise of maritime piracy off West Africa.
ATTACKS ARE INCREASING
During the last attack, four sailors on a Greek-flagged tanker were abducted off the coast of Togo, near the Lome harbour. Armed pirates boarded ladders to get on the boat, despite the presence of an armed security officer. The event was followed by the immediate dispatch of a Togolese speedboat and a plane, supported by a French plane. However, the authorities have not yet found the attackers and their hostages.
Similar attacks are more and more frequent in this region. Pirates are mostly Nigerians who operate from the Niger Delta waterways. Their modus operandi is precise: they never keep the ships. If they sometimes hijack them for several days to loot their bunkers, they soon return to the land to hide their hostages and ask for large ransoms for their release.
THE GULF OF GUINEA APPEARS TO BE THE NEW WORLD PIRACY HOTSPOT
In a report released in July 2019, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) underlines that a total of 37 attacks occurred in the region in 2019, while 23 occurred in 2015. The Gulf of Guinea hosts the two main oil-producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria and Angola, as well as many offshore oil wells. It is therefore very attractive to many multinational companies which have come to settle there, but also in the eyes of pirates whose attacks disrupt the major international shipping routes of the region.
The International Maritime Bureau also notes that 43% of the world total of sea abductions took place in the Gulf of Guinea in 2019. Paradoxally, if the maritime piracy phenomenon is spreading in West Africa, it is declining in the rest of the world. For example, the Gulf of Aden situated between the Horn of Africa (Somalia) and the Arabian Peninsula was the most affected area in the world between 2007 and 2012. However, the number of attacks has dropped drastically since – none have been recorded in 2019 – particularly thanks to foreign Sea patrols and the use of private security armed guards to protect the ships. A similar trend was observed in South-East Asia, where joint Sea patrols organized between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines resulted in a significant decrease in pirate attacks, which had reached their peak in the region between 2014 and 2015.
CURRENT RESPONSES TO THE LACK OF MARITIME SAFETY IN THE REGION ARE INSUFFICIENT
West African countries are trying to tackle the attacks which penalize their economies. In 2013, twenty-five West and Central African States signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, aiming at fostering regional cooperation for the prevention and suppression of any kind of unlawful acts in the Gulf of Guinea. Despite some concrete achievements, the threat of piracy persists because the implementation of this Code is hampered by the lack of resources, the thorny issue of maritime borders and the lack of national legislation on maritime matters in some of these countries.
To fill these gaps, several international initiatives have been implemented, such as annual assistance programs of the International Maritime Organization and exercises between the Western and Gulf of Guinea navies. Like the French operations Grand African Nemo organized in late October, such exercises are regularly held to develop the skills of local security forces in the fight against piracy, illegal fishing and trafficking of all kinds taking place in this strategic maritime area.
 « Togo : quatre marins enlevés au large de Lomé », TV5 Monde, 04.11.2019
 « Des marins enlevés par des pirates au Togo », 05.11.2019, BBC News
 « Le golfe de Guinée est désormais le pire point chaud du monde dans le domaine de la piraterie », News 24, 29.10.2019
 « Golfe de Guinée : la sûreté maritime est aussi une question terrestre », Jeune Afrique, 06.12.2017
By Emilie MOUSSET, Junior Analyst