Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security: Lessons, Latency, and Law Enforcement


Editor’s Note: This is part of a short series examining maritime geography and strategic challenges in specific bodies of water, ranging from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Guinea and the South China Sea.

On Jan. 1, 2024, Nigerian pirates attacked the Hana 1, a small chemical tanker sailing through the waters of Equatorial Guinea, and kidnapped nine crew members. Almost 1000 seafarers and local nationals have been kidnapped for ransom by Nigerian pirates in the last decade. Although attacks have waned since peaking in 2019, the threat has by no means disappeared.

To date, local and foreign militaries have responded to piracy with both onshore and offshore measures, but these have proven insufficient. A long-term solution should include new economic and political strategies that address the day-to-day problems that countries in the region face, including unemployment, pollution, and corruption. A rapidly expanding population needs political representation and strong civil society organizations to reduce the temptations of extremism and violent crime. A bottom-up approach to security would help the West engage effectively with West African countries whilst also pushing back against misinformation from Russia and economic competition from China.



Oil, Unrest, and Piracy

In 1956, Shell began commercial oil production in the Niger Delta. Since then, environmental pollution, corruption, and divisive policies enacted by the Nigerian government have created a fertile breeding ground for conflict. Agitation, protest, and civil war occurred in the region from the 1960s onwards, leading to an armed insurgency in the 2000s by groups demanding greater political autonomy and a share of the country’s oil wealth. Insurgents targeted oil infrastructure, including the Bonga oil platform over 100 kilometers offshore. Groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and the Bakassi Strike Force also kidnapped oil workers and executives until they were effectively paid off by an amnesty program in 2009.

The Nigerian government promised employment and training programs as well as lucrative oil industry contracts, but corruption in the amnesty system combined with a poor security environment across the country meant that many of the root causes of the conflict were never addressed. As a result, the tapping of oil pipelines and illegal refining of crude oil, known as “oil bunkering,” remains a major issue in the Niger Delta. These activities support a thriving black market while causing massive environmental damage — especially when the illegal refineries explode and torch the surrounding bush. Legitimate economic activities such as agriculture and fishing have been destroyed by pollution, removing opportunities for people in the region and forcing them into illegal activities. Organized crime remains high, with cults and gangs known as “confraternities” making use of bunkering profits to buy weapons. These groups also find ready recruits in young migrants fleeing rural poverty who look to gangs to ensure their own personal and financial safety.

These developments onshore in the Niger Delta shaped the way maritime crime developed offshore over four distinct phases. Initially, maritime crime became an issue in Nigeria and West Africa generally in the 1980s. Armed robberies and thefts were opportunistic in nature, reflecting the prevalence of criminality onshore and the weakness of security institutions. Then, beginning in the 2000s, maritime crime took on terrorist dimensions with the rise of militant groups. Following the 2009 amnesty, however, maritime crime became more financially motivated, even if pirates still claimed their activities were protests against the oil industry. In this third period, oil tankers sailing offshore were hijacked and had cargo siphoned off into smaller vessels. Kidnapping took place, but this was not the pirates’ main goal, and other types of merchant ships were rarely attacked. The targeting of tankers showed that maritime crime was still based on the black-market oil industry in West Africa, operating in the shadow of the legitimate oil market. In the fourth phrase, starting in 2016, pirates pivoted from hijacking of tankers to kidnapping ship crews for ransom.

The hijacking of the MT Maximus in February 2016 off Côte d’Ivoire was followed by neighboring countries’ successful communication coordination, which led to the vessel’s interdiction south of Lagos by the Nigerian navy. This series of events demonstrated how the current phase of maritime crime emerged. An anti-corruption drive by President Muhammadu Buhari meant that elites were no longer able to sponsor large-scale oil theft operations from hijacked tankers. Furthermore, coordination by the neighboring naval forces showed that international relationships between political and military institutions had been strengthened. Therefore, the modus operandi of the pirates changed to reflect this new market reality. In kidnapping crews, pirates found targets that are easier to hide and transport. This type of crime requires less skill to carry out and less financial investment.

Security at Sea

As the risks of piracy and maritime crime developed in West Africa, law enforcement and shipping had to respond. A priority was to increase maritime domain awareness and regional information sharing. Nigeria developed the $195 million “Deep Blue” project, which included command-and-control systems, intelligence systems, and over 100 naval vessels, air platforms, and drones. Countries with smaller budgets, such as Togo and Ghana, bought or were donated naval vessels. The E.U.-supported Yaoundé Architecture Regional Information System enabled information sharing across the Gulf of Guinea between countries and was instrumental in the recapture of the MT Maximus. However, like all navies, the challenge for west African navies is the cost of maintaining larger fleets while local issues such as corruption and unstable economic conditions make this much more difficult.

Navies from countries outside West Africa have also faced challenges. Several European countries have deployed naval assets on long-term commitments to the region but face questions of sovereignty and accusations of neo-colonialism. The Italian frigate ITS Luigi Rizzo was commended for stopping a pirate attack on the bulk carrier MV Arch Gabriel in 2022. However, in November 2021 while off the coast of Nigeria, the Danish frigate HDMS Esbern Snare engaged a pirate skiff, resulting in the deaths of five pirates and the arrest of four others. Unfortunately, there was no legal process in place to hand the pirates over to Nigerian authorities from the Danish frigate. The Danish navy then left three of the pirates adrift in a dingy, while the remaining injured Nigerian was taken to Denmark for trial where he was found guilty but not sentenced. Nigeria, in turn, considered prosecuting Danish forces for their actions against Nigerian nationals. This case exemplified the challenge of policing offshore waters — both for local governments who want to maintain their sovereignty but may not have the capability to do so, and foreign governments who want to maintain order at sea for trade but may not have the necessary local political support.

As a result, shipping companies fall into a gap between geography and political realities, where they are forced to take on the responsibility for their ships’ security. Some of the states’ cost of providing security to ships have been passed directly onto shipping with the creation of commercial structures that allow state naval assets to be contracted to secure individual ships. This approach differs according to the laws of each particular country, but generally it results in mix of putting on-duty military personnel aboard vessels, sometimes through a private maritime security company, and using privately owned security vessels with a detachment of military personnel onboard. At times, it can even involve the deployment of a naval ship to escort merchant vessels into ports.

The shipping industry for its part has been slow to understand the threat. There remained a belief amongst dry cargo operators that the only threat was against tankers, despite the number of attacks on bulk and dry ships ticking inexorably upwards. The insurance sector designated a new area as “high risk” and new security guidelines for the Gulf of Guinea were introduced. However, the efficacy of these guidelines relied on compliance by the ship’s crew. Seafarers are not trained security professionals (nor should they be), meaning that security recommendations were often missed or incorrectly applied — doors were secured but windows were not, razor wire was installed but was rusty so it could be easily pulled away, or a citadel (a safe room) was constructed but the door did not lock.

Thankfully, this is beginning to change with greater professionalization of security within the shipping industry itself. Some larger shipping companies have dedicated in-house security teams and there is a growing recognition that some security structures, such as the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, are out of date and unsuitable for the modern challenges of piracy, drug smuggling, and non-state armed groups.

The Persistence of Piracy

The number of pirate attacks has significantly fallen in the last two years, likely through a combination of increased local naval capability and improved on-board security. But will this trend continue? Somalia, where the December 2023 hijacking of the MV Ruen caught the shipping industry by surprise, shows that when root causes remain unaddressed, piracy can return quickly when the security situation changes and the attention of law enforcement shifts elsewhere.

In Nigeria, there are a number of issues that should be addressed to ensure piracy does not emerge again. Firstly, there is a risk of state collapse and an ongoing authority crisis. Nigeria’s economy is extremely reliant on the revenue from its oil. So long as this remains the case, fluctuations in the oil market, the move to alternative sources of energy, or domestic mismanagement can all generate crises of governance. Secondly, the people of the Niger Delta continue to feel exploited by the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies. While the region continues to suffer from frequent oil spills, this leads many locals to view violent activity as legitimate. Finally, illegal oil markets, as well as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in West Africa, lead to an “embeddedness of crime” that can be redirected toward piracy.

Illicit fishing is a major challenge to all policymakers and law enforcement outfits in the Gulf of Guinea. It stretches law enforcement capability, providing a vacuum where other illegal activities can flourish. Moreover, foreign fishing fleets working in the region have had direct and damaging effects on human security in coastal communities. In Ghana a practice known as “saiko” is devastating fish stocks and local fishing markets. Chinese-owned but Ghanaian-flagged fishing trawlers use illegal nets to catch smaller fish normally reserved for artisanal fishing, then sell these to local fishermen. Elsewhere, the Sierra Leone government has sold a section of coastal rainforest to China in order to build an industrial fishing harbor, despite reports of Chinese trawlers overfishing in the country’s waters and targeting protected marine reserves.

China’s Expanding Influence

While illicit fishing is not solely a Chinese problem (European fishing fleets have also faced criticism), such developments demonstrate the scope of China’s economic presence in the region. Beijing’s investment in civilian ports reinforces this. China has a share of several key ports in the region, including Lagos and the new port of Lekki in Nigeria. It also has 50 percent ownership of the container terminal in Lomé, the deepest natural port in the Gulf of Guinea with key transport links to countries in the interior of the Sahel.

This strong economic presence, along with Chinese involvement in onshore mining, has led to fears in the West over Chinese strategic and military intentions. Reports emerged about China’s plans to build naval bases in Equatorial Guinea in 2021 and in Gabon in 2023. Although no bases have yet been built, such accounts increased Western anxiety. However, such concerns may be overblown. In contrast to Djibouti, where China’s base is located at a key point between the Middle East and Africa, the Gulf of Guinea is not a strategic “chokepoint.” China has carried out diplomatic naval visits to countries in the Gulf of Guinea, including Nigeria in July 2023, but then so have most European navies, as well as those of the United States, India, Brazil, and even Russia. China has also not engaged in military exercises in West Africa. The annual Obangame Express, organized by U.S. Africa Command, brings together nearly all West African navies in training on maritime security operations. China, for all its economic clout in the region, has not yet reached the level of diplomatic or military engagement required to embark on such exercises.

Of course, China may reach this level in the near future. Joint military exercises in 2023 with South Africa and Russia show that China’s naval presence can reach around the continent from east to west. Furthermore, the wave of coups in West Africa has brought to power a new set of undemocratic governments that may look to China for support to shore up their regimes.

If Western governments can show that economic prosperity can be delivered through both democracy and continued economic investment, and that the challenges of “peak oil” and climate change can be addressed, then the links between African countries and the West will remain strong. But if the West recedes and allows fossil-fuel reliant economies to move closer to authoritarian countries and abandon any nascent green initiatives, this will not only will it be a strategic, diplomatic, and military failure, but it will also have long-term consequences for global warming.

Engagement With Locals, Not Just Leaders and Law Enforcement

Currently, nearly every coastal government in the region is increasing its naval capability. But to be effective in fighting maritime crime, they should also engage with coastal communities as stakeholders, rather than simply seeing them as part of the threat. In Nigeria, environmental clean-up is one key route to improving trust with communities in the Niger Delta. A more equitable share of profits from the oil and gas extracted from the communities’ homes would help too, and there are working examples elsewhere of this. The development of port infrastructure can improve the wider economy, although examples from elsewhere in Africa show this should be done carefully to avoid creating more problems. The Kribi port development in Cameroon impacted local fishing areas and the Lamu Port Project in Kenya increased pollution.

Western governments can play an important role in supporting reforms in the security and justice sectors and ensuring that human rights are maintained during economic development. But they should also proceed carefully to avoid accusations of meddling. In short, the West should empower regional allies to solve their own problems, rather than telling them what to do.

Western concerns about an increasing Chinese presence often reflect fears about the West’s declining influence in the region. It would be more useful to recognize where the West’s strengths still lie — in supporting institutions and democratic processes, ensuring all inhabitants of the region benefit from economic growth, and fostering mutually beneficial economic programs. Many countries face the challenge of maintaining political and economic stability while also undertaking projects to ensure their countries can maintain pace with the energy transition. It will be particularly difficult for countries whose economies are dominated by the extraction of fossil fuels and who do not have sufficient alternative energy resources to support their economies and populations during the jump to renewable energies. Those countries are more likely to be enduring sources of piracy, and to look for support elsewhere if the West does not engage proactively and positively.



Max Williams is a maritime security expert based in the UK. He is currently the Chief Operating Officer at Africa Risk Compliance Limited.

Image: Rumsey Map Collection