Early on the morning of Oct. 6, 14 pirates boarded a Panamax-size tanker off the coast of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and took its 24 crew members hostage. The pirates then sailed to the coast of Nigeria, where they offloaded close to 2,500 metric tons of gasoline and sold other onboard treasures. Just one month earlier, another band of pirates had damaged the West African Gas Pipeline off the coast of Lomé, Togo, suspending fuel deliveries to Benin, Togo, and Ghana.
This kind of maritime piracy one normally associates with Somalia or the Niger Delta (where five Indian sailors were abducted on December 17) but crime on the high seas is now commonplace throughout the Gulf of Guinea -- the immense body of water between Gabon and Liberia. And with piracy gradually declining off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea is rapidly becoming the world's most dangerous body of water. Between January and September of this year, pirates have attacked 42 vessels and taken 168 crew members hostage -- four of whom ended up dead.
Pirates began targeting ships in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the 1980s. These attacks were generally close to shore and in the form of armed robberies, with theft of not only oil but crew valuables and thousands of dollars in cash. In the last three years, however, attacks have grown more frequent and more violent, and they are occurring farther off the coast. Tankers are the target of choice for today's pirates, both because of their high value and because stationary ship-to-ship oil transfers make them vulnerable as they are linked by pipe.
The rash of attacks has spread from Nigerian waters to Benin, Togo, Ghana, and now Ivory Coast. Even Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea have been hit by well-planned sea raids led by highly organized gangs.
At the same time, the gangs have grown more daring, targeting the presidential palace in Equatorial Guinea in 2009 and pulling off a series of deadly bank robberies in Cameroonian coastal cities in 2011. Increasingly, criminal groups are recruiting local fishermen, who are best able to navigate the waters of the Gulf of Guinea. Lured by the prospect of easy money and facing competition from foreign vessels, many fishermen have sold their boats to pirates or turned to piracy themselves.
And the tide is rising. The region is beset by grinding poverty, political upheaval, and community grievances that stem from perceived injustices in the oil industry. Add to this the development of new offshore oil fields, oil contraband, illegal fishing, and rampant corruption, and you have a volatile mix.
Ineffective governance has also done its part to facilitate the rise of lawlessness on the seas. The countries that line the Gulf of Guinea have so far failed to cooperate in fighting the pirate threat. A border dispute over the Bakassi peninsula divided Nigeria and Cameroon for decades, and although it was recently settled, its legacy of distrust hampers genuine security cooperation between the two countries. Other states have been reluctant to fill the void, leaving the Gulf of Guinea largely unregulated and without an adequate maritime police force.