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.
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.