Each day, the Gulf of Guinea ships 1.5 million barrels of its oil to the United States, as well as 1 million to Europe, 850,000 to China, and 330,000 to India -- altogether, 40 percent of Europe's oil imports and 29 percent of the United States'. The high stakes -- as well as the severity of the problem -- have not gone unnoticed. For example, the Gulf of Guinea Commission recently organized a conference on the issue, stating that it is "worried by the increasing number and the geographic expansion of pirate attacks and armed robberies at sea." The secretary-general of the Economic Community of Central African States agreed that maritime insecurity now extends to the whole region, from "Côte d'Ivoire to Angola."
In the short term, the problem makes trade more costly. In the long term, the result can be far worse: It compromises the region's economic development and the stability of coastal states.
With the support of their trading partners and the private sector, coastal states have started to build navies and coast guards and to deepen security cooperation. In September 2011, Benin and Nigeria launched "Prosperity," an anti-pirate operation. Likewise, Cameroonian authorities have deployed a special unit to patrol the waters off the Bakassi peninsula. The private sector is also stepping up ship security with defensive equipment and armed guards, while the regional organizations in charge of peace and security, ECOWAS and ECCAS, are formulating strategies to combat piracy.
So far, however, this flurry of activity has been uncoordinated, meaning that it will at best serve as a deterrent. To eradicate piracy, states will need to engineer cooperative policing strategies that enable them to tackle the transnational nature of the problem.
More troubling still is that these stopgap measures leave the root causes of maritime insecurity unaddressed. Just as the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Aden resulted from the collapse of the Somali state, the rise of crime in the Gulf of Guinea is due mainly to poor governance of the regional economy. Piracy and the regional trade in contraband oil are closely linked, and most of the Gulf of Guinea states have been unable to develop legitimate commerce in their maritime zones. Today in Benin, for example, contraband oil represents 95 percent of national consumption -- up from 5 percent in 2000.
Governments in the region should not just prioritize policing of their waters. They must seek to institutionalize regional cooperation and develop their coasts. Strengthening maritime law enforcement should go hand in hand with boosting job creation along the coast. In the Gulf of Guinea, the fight against piracy must be waged on land if it is to be won at sea.