Maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea: Threats, vulnerabilities and opportunities


Conakry, Guinea

The South China Sea, Malacca Straits, Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea are maritime landscapes that depict the importance of the ocean as a flow and stock resource. They are also landscapes that reflect dangerous threats to the global blue economy. Since 2005/2006, the rise of maritime landscapes under threat during times of peace has become a security matter featuring prominently alongside the established status of landward threats and vulnerabilities.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than along the African coast. Sea piracy off the Horn of Africa, vast migrant waves facilitated by criminal syndicates in the Mediterranean waters off Libya, and criminality in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea have become persistent headlines in the international media and on security agendas of governments.

By 2016, events in the Gulf of Guinea probably epitomised threats at sea off Africa. The International Maritime Bureau, for example, reported the Gulf of Guinea as the most dangerous sea for the first quarter of 2016. As in the case of the Horn of Africa, international attention, academic focus and the maritime industry at large became more concerned with the Gulf of Guinea than with events around the Gulf of Aden.

Although this shift is often expressed as quantitative comparisons with a strong inclination to relate piracy-styled incidents between the eastern and western African maritime regions, the Gulf of Guinea holds its own collection of maritime threats, vulnerabilities and opportunities.

Beyond the numbers game one finds an extensive setting of landward and maritime factors at play that collectively drive optimistic and popular notions of progress, development and growth. Such optimism is, however, often overshadowed by multiple maritime threats that hold dire consequences. Nevertheless, mastering the test of good order at sea through good governance holds the reward of access to the blue economy off west Africa – one that harbours vast stock and flow opportunities for governments, societies and business entities.

Opportunities vested in the Gulf of Guinea

West Africa comprises a vast ocean area along a clustering of states from Senegal in the far west, eastwards to Cameroon in the armpit of Africa, and from there down south to Angolan waters. This geographic expanse covers seventeen countries (this differs per source), including island states such as Cabo Verde and the oil-rich São Tomé and Principe. In addition, these countries harbour large populations, estimated to be in total in the region of approximately 435 million people.

The seventeen countries also form part of two important African Regional Economic Communities, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – with Nigeria as the most prominent member – and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), where Chad, a landlocked country, appears to dominate. Collectively the two regions comprise a large sub-continental entity and, even more important, a very large ocean domain along a coast line of about 6,000 km.

As a maritime landscape, the Gulf of Guinea offers vast mineral and living marine resources, as well as strategic maritime transport routes for international shipping. As its natural resources become integral to global economic and trade networks, the Gulf region becomes more important, and subsequently the importance of maritime security and good order at sea increases.

While one often finds the Gulf of Guinea portrayed in terms of its international importance, it is necessary to note its pivotal position for the littoral countries (those countries with shores on the gulf) with their large populations and vast hinterlands.

The Gulf is important as a stock and flow resource and two examples suffice: Firstly, fishing is a vast industry and source of employment for coastal communities in particular. As a source of protein, the Gulf is a major supplier of food for generally poor societies and thus an important element of food security as far as access and availability are concerned. Secondly, its growing energy stocks located at sea or in the coastal zones represent the bedrock of economic income for several countries, such as Nigeria, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo Republic, Angola, and now also Ghana.

In spite of an often pessimistic outlook upon this region, certain strengths remain. A vast land area with a climate conducive to the production of cash crops cannot be overlooked. Low domestic production alongside a growing population holds the potential of a large import market.

Collectively, littoral states off the Gulf hold jurisdiction over large maritime territories that strengthens its landward importance as the sea forms the gateway to and from the coastal countries and their hinterlands. An important reality is that littoral and hinterland countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea are all critically dependent on import and export trade and thus the imperative to uphold maritime security over the Gulf of Guinea.

In addition to the more generalised trade argument, the all-important energy aspect looms large – in particular, secured extractions and flows. Whether at sea, or land-based, Gulf waters are the conduit for energy product flows to international markets, and then, often overlooked, the gateway for refined fuel products re-entering the region from the sea. Alongside the scope of discoveries – the quality of the oil, vast gas reserves, a potential alternative to the volatile Middle East, and a growing potential to extract oil and gas at sea away from disruptive landward vulnerabilities – certain regions of the Gulf offer a lucrative future energy landscape.

The Gulf of Guinea: A maritime landscape under threat

Unfortunately, the ocean domain off much of west Africa is subjected to a host of maritime crimes. In this regard, a 2013 study by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung mapped these threats as acts of violence at sea, trafficking in drugs and illegal substances, organised transnational crime, and illegal fishing alongside ecological risks. A brief scan of the literature on maritime security threats in the Gulf of Guinea highlights two trends. The first is a persistent slant to prioritise piracy, and second, that Nigeria remains the hub from where most threats stem. Irrespective of this view, the Gulf of Guinea has – unfortunately for those who wish to exploit this sector of the African blue economy – received a label similar to that of the Horn of Africa, which has most dangerous waters off the continent.
Maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea results from landward and maritime drivers. On land one finds a number of catalysts. Structural and proximate causes of weak governance play out. In an overview of the literature, written in 2015 by Lopez-Lucia, Fragility, violence and criminality in the Gulf of Guinea, governance and corruption, economic and socio-political exclusion, unemployment, and natural-resource dependent economies are listed as structural causes.

Proximate causes stem from, among other factors, weak law enforcement, porous borders and transnational trafficking, environmental degradation and illegal and underreported fishing, border disputes, and the scarcity of refined petroleum products. Lopez-Lucia avers that organised crime, fragility and violence form the substance of the threats at play. One indicator of this dynamic springs from weak governance expressed as safety and rule of law that is less than satisfactory, if not absent. For littoral countries along the Gulf, the general security governance count for 2015 depicts below-average indicators, to very weak in some instances (see map below).


Designated maritime zones in the Gulf of Guinea

Turning to actors associated with threats in the Gulf of Guinea, one finds a broad typology depicting international, national and sub-national entities. Literature such as research reports from Applied Knowledge Services (2015), Chatham House (2013), the study by Ukeje and Mvomo Ela for the Fredrick Ebert Stiftung African approaches to maritime security – The Gulf of Guinea (2013), and a report of the International Crisis Group (2012), all use the aforementioned levels of actors at play. Their interactions and mergers are, however, a difficult matter to disentangle and remain topical over time.

Local militant groups morphing into criminal syndicates and organised transnational syndicates are major catalysts for ongoing crime in the Gulf of Guinea. National actors play a dual role as they contribute to insecurity, while also being the primary entities for resolving the wave of maritime threats off their shores.

One grouping that sustains maritime threats in the Gulf of Guinea, and the Nigerian coastal region in particular, is quasi activist-political groups acting as rebel entities and extending their activities off-shore. While the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is perhaps best known, the recent claims by Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) that emerged in early 2016, added a disturbing element to threats in this region. The NDA openly challenges the Nigerian government, their armed forces and international oil companies. The prominence of the NDA emerges amidst claims by lesser militant groupings such as the Red Egbesu Water Lions, the Concerned Militant Leaders, the Indigenous People of Biafra Movement, the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Front and other activist groups that ally with or drift from more militant movements. Although localised to the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, the latter is the most productive region for oil production and exports, and perhaps the centre of gravity that has become the measure of insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea region.

The above militant outline depicts much of what the Nigerian government has to confront, but the threat becomes duplicated in smuggling networks that deal in drugs, contraband, human cargo, and also in the illegal fishing industry that shows disturbing proportions in the waters of the wider Gulf. The latter includes a host of crimes under the banner of illegal fishing that include, for example, physical fishing transgressions, but also crimes spilling onto land and into the bureaucratic-administrative systems of littoral countries and even beyond Africa. The networked nature of most maritime crimes constitutes the dangerous and difficult part of what governments off the Gulf must confront. It is their transnational nature, resulting from collaboration between African and international criminal networks, that opposes any response strategies with difficult complexities.

Irrespective of how one lists or groups the threats, a common picture unfolds, of networked criminal syndicates with interests in what the Gulf waters offer. Two threats are particularly dangerous: militant strikes on shipping and infrastructure at sea, and the threat of this becoming a terrorist strategy or being eclipsed by terrorist agendas from known groups in the regional hinterlands. Although often listed as a threat, no convincing evidence is on offer, tough terrorism remains a persistent high-risk, low-probability threat on the maritime threat agenda in the Gulf of Guinea.

A largely non-state actor network is thus challenging the sovereignty and control of littoral states over their maritime waters and compelling them to increase national and regional maritime security governance.

Towards good order at sea in the Gulf of Guinea

In Maritime security and development in Africa (2016), Smed observes that what unfolds at sea demonstrates that security challenges do not stop at the coast, and thus the imperative that this is reflected in responses. Countering maritime security threats in the Gulf of Guinea shows a growing learning curve by weak states, as well as other policing responses to overcome their lack of maritime awareness and actions. By building horizontal (actor versatility) and vertical (non-state to international organisation) capabilities, west African countries are constructing a network of agencies to prevent and counter maritime threats.

While the threat spectrum extends from possible terrorist scenarios, to violent piracy incidents, to softer ecological dangers, to stark humanitarian threats vested in human cargoes, a slow but encouraging response network is emerging.

Given the range of maritime threats in the Gulf of Guinea, international, regional and national responses play out. Although an exhaustive discussion is not possible here, some important players are at work. At the international level, the UN and its specialised agencies pave the way, using UN resolutions, for better government responses to threats in the Gulf of Guinea. These resolutions suggest strategies to prevent and prosecute maritime crimes in particular. The European Union is involved with its 2014 Strategy on the Gulf of Guinea and the subsequent Action Plan (2015), that attend to maritime security, in particular, through capacity building, and strengthening the rule of law and regional cooperation to set in place the crucial institutional and legislative basis to fight crime at sea.

The G7 Friends of the Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security Experts Group coordinates the growing international cooperation; attempts to prevent duplication; and facilitates investigations and prosecution. Important here is that this group of friends draws attention to the maritime crime ambit beyond that of piracy. The US and France strongly support this initiative, and given the threat-response complexity, such an ordering mechanism has its obvious advantages, given the number of parties and programmes involved. International contributions, as outlined here, are augmented by growing African initiatives, with regional responses showing most progress.

The growing regional contribution

Regional responses hold the potential to bring about the often claimed ‘African solutions to African problems’. ECOWAS, as well as ECCAS, play leading roles, as they have turned their security agendas off-shore as well to address threats at sea. Both regional communities created maritime awareness centres and designated maritime zones for patrolling and policing purposes. The designated zones of ECCAS cover Gulf waters, from Angola to the volatile Nigerian maritime border (See Zone D in Map 1). In response, ECOWAS, for example, added Zone E (Map 1), which includes Nigeria, Benin and Togo, to share information, pool resources and coordinate maritime responses. Collectively, zones D and E cover the most dangerous waters in the region.

The designated zones and coordinating centres are ordering concepts for maritime responses that take the following outline. First, a realisation that the maritime threats cannot be artificially or conveniently confined to Nigeria and its Niger Delta unrest, with its spill-over potential. Second, regional and interregional cooperation best covers the geographic scope of the maritime threats and thus the required responses show a regional understanding of the threats at play. Thirdly, international assistance reinforces actions at sea and underpins and formalises the normative and regulatory arrangements that countries and regions set out. This latter connection requires administrative and practical execution, best learned from experience and as rapidly as possible. Here one finds that African littoral countries cooperate with more experienced partner countries, multi- or bilaterally, to master technical, tactical and operational skills. Lastly, international cooperation with the UN to integrate regional arrangements with UN resolutions, and also the imperatives of the African Union’s AIMS 2050 maritime strategy, must be taken into account.

From this it becomes apparent that some realisation dawned that individual national efforts are counterproductive and that vertical, as well as horizontal, synergy for effectiveness and more legitimacy must be sought.

The Gulf of Guinea also harbours a number of issue-focussed bodies that attempt to resolve particular matters of contention between states bordering the Gulf of Guinea. One lingering uncertainty which hampers actions to contain maritime crime, but could also spark interstate conflict in the region, is uncertainties about maritime borders. The Maritime Organisation for West and Central Africa (MOWCA), with a 25-country membership, strives towards safe shipping for the region and the establishment of a coast guard, but its laudable aims do not amount to real operational contributions to promote maritime security.

In contrast, the Gulf of Guinea Council (GGC), with its headquarters in Luanda, Angola, attempts to mediate in maritime disputes, particularly where resources and border demarcations play a role. Both are indicative of earlier attempts to respond to the lingering problems in the Gulf of Guinea, but also of the declaratory-operational voids that characterise institution building in this region: Verbal commitments must culminate in operational actions, but MOWCA and the GGC both are more latent than operational.

The naval contribution

International, regional, and national frameworks, agreements and ventures to cooperate all ultimately become dependent upon the ways and means to apprehend and prosecute transgressors successfully. Unfortunately national legislation in the regions is often absent or out of step with the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which obstructs successful policing and prosecution by policing agencies. In the meantime, a preference for coercive policing and other enforcement measures persists. The drive for naval means in Nigeria in particular, but also by neighbouring states, is ongoing as a way to contain maritime-related crimes that fan out over large tracts of the Gulf of Guinea. Several west African countries are in the process of acquiring naval-styled patrol vessels to police and enforce jurisdiction in their territorial waters and further afield. Within the past two-to-three years, Angola ordered seven patrol craft from Brazil, Cameroon received two patrol craft from China, Equatorial Guinea received one frigate from the Ukraine, Gabon obtained two patrol craft from France, Nigeria acquired four US patrol vessels in 2015, Ghana received four patrol vessels from China and Ivory Coast added numerous small patrol vessels to its inventory. The acquisitions indicate that littoral countries around the Gulf are setting up the means to protect, or – if necessary – defend their maritime assets.

In addition, navies are trained continuously in policing techniques by visiting naval contingents from countries such as France, the US and the United Kingdom, but also Brazil (in the case of Angola). One example is the training of Angolan, Togolese, Nigerian and Ghanaian service members to fight piracy and illicit trafficking in the Gulf of Guinea. Reinforcing the military-policing option is the series, since 2009, of annual Obangame Express naval exercises, with participating navies from the Gulf of Guinea and from further afield to test policing actions against maritime threats in the waters of the Gulf.

In 2015, the exercise included African navies, as well as naval vessels from the European Union, South America and the US. It covered the coastlines of most Gulf of Guinea states and tested the Yaounde Code of Conduct assumptions on regional cooperation and information sharing between partners against maritime threats in the waters of the Gulf. Although perhaps not optimally structured, one finds an ongoing programme of acquisitions, training, international exercises and cooperation amongst countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea to increase governance at sea. In the Gulf of Guinea one also finds a growing presence of private military actors working at sea alongside naval and other actors, a phenomenon one can no longer ignore in any discussion on maritime security.

A rising actor: Private contractors

Responses to maritime security threats in the Gulf of Guinea include a significant role for private security contractors. Employed by governments, private entities, and multinational oil companies, private contractors have become prominent players when it comes to containing and preventing threats at sea and in the coastal zones of the Gulf of Guinea. Caught between suspicion and expediency, private contractors fill the void often left by governments that lack the means, or cannot agree on cooperation to extend governance and policing over critical maritime zones and infrastructure at sea.

Although bordering on unauthorised or even illegal practices at times, private security contractors have become a critical stand-in security provider, while states, regional and international actors step up their commitments to bring about more maritime-security governance in the Gulf of Guinea.

Turning the tide in the Gulf of Guinea

Finally, and in conclusion, a few thoughts on opportunities, given the pessimistic view that often hangs over this African maritime hub. The Gulf of Guinea is tied into the energy-thirsty world around it and the reigning maritime nexus to energy extraction and shipping it out.

As a productive living marine environment, the waters of the Gulf also hold prospects of food security for the very large populations on its shores. Environmentally, destruction practices hold severe human security implications for two densely populated African regions in terms of freedom from want and living in a healthy environment. In this vein new thinking on ocean governance ties in with the Gulf of Guinea envisaged as a leading maritime zone of responsible and sustainable ocean management.

Such foresight dictates that governments bring their national legislation in step with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as properly aligned legislation underpins the rule of law at sea. A further opportunity resides in the existing regional security architecture that holds much potential to increase security governance over the Gulf, as the institutional groundwork for this is already in place.

The institutional set-up and political commitments from ECOWAS and ECCAS are workable departures for wider cooperation with partners willing to assist financially, with logistics and also training. Different from events off the Horn of Africa that presented decision-makers with a blank canvas for re-introducing maritime governance, the Gulf of Guinea offers more structured opportunities to harness expertise from international and private partners.

This brings about a third advantage. The mix of regional entities with a maritime interest is made up of national, regional, as well as non-governmental and private actors. The art is to orchestrate this lingering collection of expertise, interests and resources nationally and regionally through astute maritime leadership based upon an understanding of the vital role the Gulf of Guinea has to play.

Finally, the Horn of Africa and the waters off Libya reveal how rapidly transnational crime can turn national and regional maritime assets into national and even regional liabilities; the subsequent threat landscape; and therefore, the imperative to steer the Gulf of Guinea towards a well-governed and productive African maritime landscape.

Professor Francois Vreÿ is an associate professor in the Faculty of Military Science and research coordinator for the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA) at Stellenbosch University.

This article was specifically written for the Nanyang Business School, Singapore NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation.