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Piracy A Growing Threat To West Africa

Pirates off the coast of Somalia
Pirates off the coast of Somalia

Threat is increasing in scope and violence in the Gulf of Guinea.

West Africa’s light, sweet crude is easier and cheaper to refine than Middle Eastern oil. It is also located off-shore, which means lower transport costs and reduced risk of loss from civil unrest, theft, corruption and political upheaval. To meet increasing demand for this valuable commodity, the nations of West Africa have undertaken to double production over the next decade. Unfortunately, they face an increasingly irritating and dangerous foe in the region: piracy is increasing in scope and violence in the Gulf of Guinea.

The Gulf of Guinea has, in the past year, seen a tremendous increase in pirate attacks. So far, pirates operating there have been after goods and not interested in kidnapping for ransom, as is often the case in attacks off the coast of the Horn of Africa. Nonetheless, the costs are crippling to the nations of West Africa: for example, after it was designated as high risk by a maritime insurance company last year, the port of Cotonou, which carries 90 percent of Benin's trade and is a vital transportation link for neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad, lost a significant amount of its shipping traffic.

Last year, backed by France, Nigeria and Benin launched joint sea patrols in the Gulf of Guinea. Also, 15 member nations of the Economic Community of West African States are developing plans to deal with piracy. But not much can be done without a collective surveillance system, and a mechanism to coordinate information gathering and exchange.

To help solve these problems, since 2007, the United States has provided some $35 million in assistance to West African states to build maritime security capacity, including radars, boats, and associated training. The United States is also working with these states through programs like the Africa Partnership Station and the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership.

“Piracy and maritime armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea have threatened the economies, governments and people of the region for far too long,” said U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice at a recent Security Council debate on piracy.

“National and regional political will, with the support of the international community, will be critical to long-term success in reversing this threat.”