Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

HMS Black Joke (1827) Gulf of Guinea Piracy

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea affects a number of countries in West Africa as well as the wider international community. By 2011, it had become an issue of global concern.[1][2] Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are often part of heavily armed criminal enterprises, who employ violent methods to steal oil cargo.[3] In 2012, the International Maritime Bureau, Oceans Beyond Piracy and the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program reported that the number of vessels attacks by West African pirates had reached a world high, with 966 seafarers attacked during the year.[4] According to the Control Risks Group, pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea had by mid-November 2013 maintained a steady level of around 100 attempted hijackings in the year, a close second behind Southeast Asia.[5] Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea continues to be a concern to the shipping industry, which is affected significantly.[6] At the same time, governments in the region generally highlight that the fight against piracy requires a broad understanding of maritime security throughout the Gulf of Guinea.[7]

Scope of the problem

The Gulf of Guinea stretches from Senegal to Angola, covering over 6,000 km of coast line. It comprises 20 coastal states, islands and landlocked states and forms two regions: West Africa and Central Africa. The sea basin is of geo-political and geo-economic importance for the transport of goods to and from central and southern Africa. Additionally, it is a choke point for the African energy trade, with intensive oil extraction in Nigeria's Niger Delta.[8]

The term ‘piracy’ is widely used in the media and in official reports to generally refer to maritime crime in the region, but this is formally incorrect, as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as an act conducted on the high seas i.e. beyond territorial waters. Similar criminal activities that take place within territorial waters are not defined as acts of piracy following this definition in international law.[9]

Reports of attempted or actual attacks considered acts of piracy, differ wildly. This has added to a general confusion with regards to understanding the scope of the problem, fuelled significantly by the varied use of the term piracy itself, the uncoordinated and heterogeneous sources of information drawn from to prepare reports and the different stakeholders' interests in portraying the problem one way or another.[10]

Even though piracy in the region is not a new phenomenon, it has widely changed in the new century, with regards both to the typology and the number of attacks carried out.[11] In the past, the vast majority of incidents could be categorized as simple maritime robbery: individual sailors, usually carrying cash, were often targeted for robbery on shore, and attacked when ships were at port or transferring cargo close to shore. However, since the early 2010s, attacks have started to differ from this profile: incursions have been more serious and aimed at directly acquired cargos containing refined petroleum, as the region has increasingly been marred by illegal oil-bunkering.[11] According to a European Parliament report, this was due to the discovery of large amounts of offshore hydrocarbon, from which only the central government, local elites, and oil companies have actually profited. Consequently, some of those excluded from welfare have turned to such illegal maritime activity, in the form of 'petro-piracy'.[12]

By 2010, 45 and by 2011 64 incidents were reported to the UN International Maritime Organization.[1] However, many events go unreported. Piracy acts interfere with the legitimate trading interests of the affected countries that include Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As an example, trade of Benin's major port, the Port of Cotonou, was reported in 2012 to have dropped by 70 percent.[2] The cost of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea due to stolen goods, security, and insurance has been estimated to be about $2 billion.[1] Navies and law enforcement agencies trying to tackle problems with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea have to conduct a thorough analysis of different types of attacks.[13]

As of 2014, pirate attacks in West Africa mainly occur in territorial waters, terminals and harbours rather than in the high seas. This incident pattern has hindered intervention by international naval forces. Pirates in the region operate a well-funded criminal industry, which includes established supply networks. They are often part of heavily armed and sophisticated criminal enterprises, who increasingly use motherships to launch their attacks. The local pirates' overall aim is to steal oil cargo. As such, they do not attach much importance to holding vessels for ransom. Additionally, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are especially noted for their violent modus operandi, which frequently involves the kidnapping, torture and shooting of crewmen. The increasingly violent methods used by these groups is believed to be part of a conscious "business model" adopted by them, in which violence and intimidation plays a major role.[3]

According to the 2018 Oceans Beyond Piracy report, covering the year 2017, the number of seafarers affected by piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea has decreased slightly compared to 2016. In total 1,726 seafarers were affected by piracy and armed robbery in 2017 in West African waters, compared to the 1,921 the year before. While 880 failed attacks or boarding occurred, 21 episodes of kidnapping took place and 100 seafarers were taken hostages. In total, there were 97 piracy and robbery incidents involving weapons, 13 of those with guns and 2 with heavy machine guns. The total estimated cost in the area due to stolen goods, contracted maritime security, insurance has been $818.1 million.[14]

Factors behind piracy

Academics and researchers agree that despite the presence of a series of maritime security issue in the area, interest at the national level has long been limited. The main cause for this is thought to be the high number and relevance of challenges that countries in the region face inland, such as even more severe security issues and political disputes, that have driven the attention away from the problem.[15] Researchers have referred to the poor general maritime knowledge among both the political leadership and the public at large in the Gulf of Guinea, as ‘sea blindness’.[16] From this perspective, sea blindness can be considered as an important element inhibiting the level of political commitment to tackle the issue of piracy in the region.

Youth unemployment and widespread poverty are one of the main triggering factors for piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and as admitted by the UN Security Council during a meeting set to discuss a mission to the region ‘any comprehensive anti-piracy strategy might also need to take into account root causes, including high levels of youth unemployment’.[17] In such context, it is understandable that young people can be easily recruited into criminal organizations and are tempted to take part in illicit activities, including piracy.[18]:4 Severe political disputes are considered another reason contributing to the rise of piracy in the area, and in some cases directly feeding into the piracy activity itself.[18]:15 Of particular relevance are the activities of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, in the south of Nigeria; this organization has publicly stated to steal and smuggle oil ‘as a form of re-appropriation of wealth and as a form of protest’.[18]:16 Another major and relevant controversy has involved the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria; the two countries have been in dispute about the sovereignty over the Bakassi Peninsula, which has caused a lack of cooperation between the governments resulting in poor control over illegal activities.[18]

Corruption is another major contributing factor, especially with regards to the case of Nigeria. Attention has been called towards the political protection that some of those who attack installations and personnel of oil companies, especially in the Niger Delta, enjoy from certain local authorities. As reported, it is not infrequent that, once some pirate vessels are arrested by low rank officials, important military exponent intervene to order their release.[19] Although the Nigerian government has implemented some measures to counter corruption, the problem is still widespread and the government remains unable to restrict corrupt practices.[19]:17

A further element to consider is the legislative profile of the piracy issue in the region. This appears to be very lacking, both because of the inefficiency of laws and their poor implementation. For example, as it was explained during an interview at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, Ghana's maritime laws are outdated, and need to be revised in order to efficiently tackle illegal activities at sea.[18]:18 A number of actors, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMB), have engaged with African governments to encourage the ratification of international conventions to strengthen legal requirements implementation in view of combating maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea.[18]:18


This section provides a detailed account of the number and kind of attacks occurred in the Gulf of Guinea in the last years. This is done by resorting to the IMB's annual reports, in particular those ranging in the ten-year span between 2009 and 2018. These reports are the most detailed and complete source of piracy related facts, and provide a vast amount of information. However, IMB relies on ship-owners’ willingness to report piracy incidents, and needs the shipping industry to be comfortable to do so. As IMB itself admitted, this is not always the case. In fact, they may lack the willingness or simply the technical ability to do so, especially in the case of very small boats.[18]:22 This results in unreported acts of piracy, with some attacks falling outside the official statistics. Below, two tables list the actual and attempted attacks for the past ten years, where the numbers are all drawn from the same source for consistency purposes.

Actual attacks
Year Benin Cameroon Gambia Ghana Nigeria Togo
2009[20] 1 2 - 3 22 -
2010[21] - 4 - - 13 -
2011[22] 18 - - 2 7 -
2012[23] 2 1 - 2 17 6
2013[24] - - 2 1 15 3
2014[25] - 1 1 4 8 -
2015[26] - 1 - 2 9 -
2016[27] 1 - - 3 18 1
2017[28] - - - 1 20 -
2018[6] 5 6 - 9 30 -
Attempted attacks
Year Benin Cameroon Gambia Ghana Nigeria Togo
2009[20] 0 1 - - 6 2
2010[21] - 1 - - 6 -
2011[22] 2 - - - 3 6
2012[23] - - - - 10 9
2013[24] - - - - 3 3
2014[25] - - - - 3 2
2015[26] - - - - 5 -
2016[27] - - - - 9 -
2017[28] - - - - 13 -
2018[6] - 1 - 1 18 1

Regional response

Operation Prosperity

‘Operation Prosperity’ was an initiative launched by Nigeria and Benin in 2011 to ensure a secure maritime environment. The project was initially supposed to last for a period of six months, and was extended for another six months. The deal between the two countries foresaw that the Nigerian navy would provide the vessels and most of the logistics and human resources for the operation, while the Benin navy would open its waters for Nigerian naval vessels to patrol.[16]:3 Between the end of 2011 and the start of 2012, the area saw a reduction of attempted and actual attacks, thanks to the continuous presence of military forces in the maritime domain, and the two navies’ information and intelligence sharing. In addition to technical collaboration, the Benin navy also benefitted from training with its Nigerian counterpart.[16]

Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre Gulf of Guinea

Another interesting countermeasure is the launch of the Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre Gulf of Guinea (MTISC-GOG). As reported by RDDC, this ‘was initiated mainly by the industry as a result of the lack of involvement by regional states in maritime security’.[18]:36 This centre, which changed its name in 2016 to Maritime Domain Awareness for Trade – Gulf of Guinea, works as a voluntary reporting system, and encourages vessels to report their position and course of direction as well as any suspect activity they might encounter.

Yaoundé Code of Conduct

The widest regional initiative to counter piracy is the Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illicit Maritime Activity in West and Central Africa, also known as the ‘Yaoundé Code of Conduct’. This was adopted in June 2013 with a view to promoting maritime cooperation and information sharing and coordination. In particular, signatory states committed to arresting, investigating, and prosecuting persons who have committed piracy or are reasonably suspected of committing piracy; rescuing ships, persons and property subject to piracy; designating a national focal point to facilitate coordinated, effective and timely information flow; cooperating on the development and promotion of training and educational programs for the management of the marine environment.[29] However, it is worth noticing that the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, as any other similar code of conduct, is not a legally binding document and does not impose any obligation on signatory states. Therefore, its full and effective implementation is necessarily dependent on the good will, wealth and capacity of such states.

International response

The international community has expressed concern over the increasing number of reports of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre reported that the range of the attacks is extending and the level of violence against the crews is "dangerously high".[30]

The United Nations

The UN Security Council issued two resolutions, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, initiated by Benin and Togo, which set out the need for promoting the maintenance of peace and stability in general in the Gulf of Guinea region and encourage international partners to enhance the counter-piracy capabilities of regional states and organizations. In the 2011 resolution, the Security Council expressed

"its concern over the threat that piracy and armed robbery at sea pose to the safety of seafarers and other persons, including through their being taken as hostages, and deeply concerned by the violence employed by pirates and persons involved in piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea."[31]

Consequently, the organization

"encourages States […] through concerted action, to counter piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea through the conduct of bilateral or regional maritime patrols consistent with relevant international law (UN link) and calls upon States, in cooperation with the shipping industry, the insurance industry and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to issue to ships entitled to fly their flag, appropriate advice and guidance within context of the Gulf of Guinea."[31]

In the 2012 resolution, the Security Council,

"expressing its deep concern about the threat that piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea pose to international navigation, security and the economic development of states in the region urges States of the region of the Gulf of Guinea to take prompt action, at national and regional levels with the support of the international community where able, and by mutual agreement, to develop and implement national maritime security strategies, including for the establishment of a legal framework for the prevention, and repression of piracy and armed robbery at sea and as well as prosecution of persons engaging in those crimes, and punishment of those convicted of those crimes and encourages regional cooperation in this regard."[32]

The International Maritime Organization

The International Maritime Organization's 2017 strategy for implementing sustainable maritime security measures in West and Central Africa outlines the organization's strategy to enhance maritime security in West and Central Africa, with a view to countering piracy and armed robberies against ships and to support the development of the maritime sector. This strategy consists of several elements, including the effective implementation of IMO conventions, in order to build the necessary legislative infrastructure to criminalize piracy; bilateral assistance and continued follow up engagement, to be carried out in a tailored way so as to match the needs of IMO member states; regional training, which focuses on developing legal frameworks for the prevention and repression of piracy, and on training officials at various level for the investigation of piracy-related crimes; assignment of expertise to accelerate change and facilitating channels of communications among IMO member states.[33]

The International Maritime Bureau (IMO) reported in January 2020 that piracy in the Gulf of Guinea had increased by 50% in 2019.[34]

The European Union

The European Union is one of the main actors in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. In 2014 the EU adopted its strategy for the Gulf of Guinea, which is based on the overall goals laid out under the aforementioned Yaoundé Code of Conduct. It has four strategic objectives: building a common understanding of the scale of the threat (reducing so-called "sea-blindness"), helping regional governments to put in place robust multiagency institutions, supporting the development of prosperous economies and strengthening the existing cooperation structures. In addition, the EU is attempting to develop long-term security and stability through the promotion of inclusive growth, generating benefits from wealth and job creation for all people.


Interpol has also launched a number of initiatives to improve the capabilities of the local police forces to tackle piracy effectively. The action of Interpol has revolved around three main areas: improving the evidence collection capabilities of the local police forces; facilitating a better cooperation between the actors of the different countries involved; making sure that hostages are debriefed and interviewed and all relevant information is gathered.[18]:42–44

Chronology of selected attacks

See also


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