The Gulf of Guinea: Weaknesses in International Cooperation

When we think of pirates, we imagine the high seas, gold, eye patches, and the occasional parrot. This image is far from the modern-day reality, where swords have been replaced by semi-automatics and gold by crude oil. The African continent in particular has had a long history combatting pirate attacks.

Source: Astrid Schmid z Pixabay 

Though in recent years, the piracy hotspot along the coast of Somalia (Gulf of Aden) has been in decline, the threat has simultaneously increased along the Gulf of Guinea on the West coast of Africa. Unlike the Somali pirates, those in the West target trade cargoes, especially tankers laden with oil, posing a threat to both the national economies of the states along the coast, most notably those of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Cameroon, as well as the economic partnerships with large trading nations, including the United States of America, United Kingdom, France, and the People’s Republic of China. The attacks have greatly disrupted shipping lanes and, though the affected African nations have taken some measures to combat the threat, a comprehensive cooperative solution is yet to be reached.

Oil Exporters from the Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea is a major shipping trade route for African exports, which include energy and mineral resources that are strategically important to coastal states as well as their trading partners all over the world. The coast is home to some of the major global energy producers, such as Nigeria and Angola, two of the world’s top ten crude oil exporters. For some time, Europe and the US received a quarter of their crude oil supplies from this region. The significance of these exports is so strong, that any disruptions in oil output from the affected nations could lead to consequences such as a rise in global oil prices. Furthermore, the disruption in trade routes caused by piracy may cause investors to turn their backs to these African nations, negatively affecting their national economies and impeding any chances of development. As things stand, current international donors only focus on short-term project funding, although the persisting issues must be addressed through long-term sustainable means. Additionally, there is an increasing need to prevent other maritime security challenges such as drug and human trafficking, and illegal transportation of weapons into continental Africa.

The Maritime Crisis

The maritime crisis in the Gulf of Guinea (to the extent it can be called maritime, as most of the underlying roots lead back to domestic weaknesses) is often compared to the case of the Horn of Africa, where piracy was raging until 2018. Similar to this case, international cooperation is a major contribution to solving the crisis in the Gulf of Guinea, but this is precisely where a shift of perspective must occur to ensure sustainable success. This is also where more problems arise. International efforts have confined themselves to speaking of piracy as the main culprit. Youth employment, domestic terror, and a lack of viable business alternatives in the West African countries lead young adults to the black market, and these issues are simply not being addressed. The ‘capacity building’ endeavours of international organisations, such as the Maritime Organisation for West and Central Africa (MOWCA) and the US led African Partnership Station (APS), prioritise certain issues, while others are being neglected. There is a heavy focus on military and judicial ‘capacity building’, but no regard for the regional infrastructure that promotes illegal activities. This selectivity of security priorities is strongly dictated by external actors. This leads back to two main reasonings: claims of expertise and resource availability. Through this, the West African nations may be included in decision-making processes, but they rarely have the final say. This, in turn, leads to a general lack of coordination and local ownership of the projects. Even in a case of international cooperation in their own region, these nations seem to have to follow others’ tactics, greatly disregarding pressing issues of development, that will (in theory at least) incidentally help eradicate piracy.

What next? 

It is clear that the maritime crisis is not a simple one, but then again, threats to international peace and security rarely are. The crisis in the Gulf of Guinea may seem confined to West African waters, but the consequences are much more far-reaching, making this a global issue that requires an international solution, which should, in contrast to current standings, be largely coordinated by the countries affected.  While efforts have been made over the years, it remains clear from existing literature and statistics that further action will require a more in-depth, inclusive and comprehensive strategy that expands into domestic policy.

The article was written by intern Rebecca Gösker as an introduction for future research.