Piracy is just one of the challenges facing shippers in West Africa

26th January 2019

Cotonou and Lagos are two of the busiest ports around the Gulf of Guinea, a “hunting ground for pirates,” according to one recent headline. Other media reports have taken a similar tack: “West Africa continues to be a piracy hotspot” or “Piracy attacks on the rise in West Africa” are two examples, contributing to anxiety among crews. 

Such generalizations, however, are neither helpful for shipping companies nor crew. One problem is the lack of an agreed definition. Even though West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea are often used synonymously, the latter is only a small part of a region that stretches from Senegal all the way to Angola.


Governments from this diverse group of countries have committed themselves to improving maritime security including, but not limited to, the fight against piracy. There’s increasing recognition that capacity-building is necessary.

Unfortunately for the shipping industry, piracy is not the highest priority among maritime security challenges that also include illegal fishing, drug trafficking, fuel smuggling, illegal migration and many others. In short, governments are not likely to spend their limited resources on the fight against piracy.

That is not a bright outlook for companies operating vessels in the region or for seafarers manning those ships. Attacks against merchant ships have been a problem in many countries throughout West Africa for decades. It is unrealistic to believe that the situation will improve dramatically in just a few months. At the same time, threat levels vary significantly in different areas and for different ship types.

Several attacks against product tankers were recorded at the Cotonou anchorage in early 2018, seemingly repeating a pattern that could be observed between 2010 and 2012. More recent attacks, however, should be analyzed in connection with other illegal practices in the region rather than as straightforward piracy, underlining the importance of a longer-term analysis.

Furthermore, authorities in Benin have tried to counter the threat by providing military personnel as armed guards on anchored ships and conducting additional patrols around Cotonou’s anchorages. Yet with only six patrol boats, Benin’s small navy is hardly equipped to provide a permanent presence at sea.

Virtually all countries in West Africa suffer from such a lack of capacities to counter a multitude of maritime security issues. In Nigeria, it’s led to a unique partnership between the Nigerian Navy and the private sector. Private security companies own and operate patrol boats that are then partly manned by naval personnel and used to escort merchant vessels to ports or provide security for offshore installations.

Even though the sprawling metropolis lies little more than 50 nautical miles east of Cotonou, continuously high numbers of security incidents have contributed to Nigeria’s bad reputation in the shipping industry.

While escort vessels will help to reassure crews, it takes operators some time to find a good security provider. Several companies offer their services, but due diligence assessments show that not all are able to fulfil operators’ legal and operational requirements.

Assessing Risk

Evaluations show that the threat level for a product tanker on voyage from Cotonou to Lagos is very different than the threat level for a container ship or an LPG carrier on the same route. All those vessel types, however, have come under attack off the Niger Delta in recent years, attacks in which perpetrators try to kidnap crew members – a notably different scenario from many other countries in the region where crews are mainly concerned about thefts at anchorages.

For shipping companies, insurers and regional navies, it is important to thoroughly analyze attacks against ships. Statistics collected by different organizations are not easy to compare due to different classifications and reporting standards.

Moreover, incidents are sometimes reported as suspicious even though they merely reflect patterns of life in the region. It is understandable that close encounters with fishing vessels may be a cause for concern. Such reports, however, should be put in context rather than simply forwarded to a large number of recipients, adding to the already existing anxieties.


Aside from actual attacks against ships, maritime operators in West Africa have another important problem to deal with: corruption. Corrupt practices, including by outside countries, undermine good order at sea.

Outside the continent, attention has somewhat shifted from counter-piracy missions around the Horn of Africa to a broader approach regarding maritime security in West Africa.

The long-term sustainability of projects funded by international organizations is far from certain since the political priorities of international partners are often different from those in countries receiving assistance.

Reasons for Optimism

At the same time, there are reasons for optimism. The blue economy’s potential for economic growth and development in the region is getting more and more recognition. Positive examples include countries such as Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, but long-term efforts to build navies remain necessary and are often overshadowed by land-based security issues that are much more urgent.

Dr. Dirk Siebels is a Senior Analyst at Risk Intelligence in Denmark and an expert on maritime security issues in sub-Saharan Africa.



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