Piracy in West Africa grabbed global headlines when two American sailors were kidnapped during an attack on an oil supply vessel off the Nigerian coast.
The captain and chief engineer, both US citizens, were released in early November 2013, nearly three weeks later.
These were not the first kidnappings of Americans by pirates. But the latest incident garnered global attention at a time when incidents of piracy and other criminal and terrorist activity are spiking in the region.
The Strait of Malacca was the first seaway in recent years to experience a surge of piracy that impacted international shipping. However, the raiders’ activities have been reduced considerably as a result of stringent measures.
Piracy in the Gulf of Aden has also attracted global attention. But efforts to combat crime at sea have been having an impact.
Hijackings off Somalia, for example, fell by half in 2012 compared with 2011 with only 14 ships successfully boarded.
In contrast, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports a sharp rise in activity in West Africa in 2012 with 58 incidents off the Gulf of Guinea. This includes 10 hijackings and 207 crew members taken hostage with 27 incidents in Nigerian waters and 15 in Togo.
The most troubling aspect of these crimes is not the increase in the number of attacks and the spread of activity initially centred in Nigerian waters, but how piracy is expanding throughout the region.
Unfortunately, while counter measures have had a dramatic impact on other hotspots, that does not necessarily mean that they can deal with rising lawlessness in the Gulf of Guinea and surrounding coastal waters.
First, the nature of the threat is different. Illicit activity in the region is not targeting international commercial shipping - holding a few big ships for large ransoms.
The Gulf and the surrounding coastal waters and wetlands include extensive oil and gas reserves, where petroleum extraction, transport and related activities are a lucrative target for personnel hijacking, disrupting activities, siphoning oil or stealing cargo.
Further, tanker traffic and pipelines are particularly dense in the area around Nigeria because the country is a major oil producer but lacks the capacity to refine petroleum products. So in addition to its extensive exports it imports refined-petroleum products - all representing opportunities for piracy.
Second, the focus of crime is mostly in territorial waters. That means international naval operations, like those undertaken in the Gulf of Aden, would be less effective.
Third, rather than a regional effort, anti-piracy operations will be driven by what each nation elects to permit and has the capacity to undertake.
One study estimated that the combined maritime forces of the region comprise fewer than 25 large security vessels.
The ability to mount effective anti-piracy operations is also hampered by poor governance and cooperation, and local politics.
Political unrest in the Niger Delta, which peaked in 2009, exacerbated illicit and sometimes violent and destructive activity.
In response to these threats there are efforts at increased interstate regional cooperation. The Economic Community of West African States and the Gulf of Guinea Commission drafted an anti-piracy code of conduct that was signed by 22 countries in June 2013.
The most promising outcome of this agreement will be a regional maritime security centre, based in Cameroon, which will serve as a clearing house for information between governments.
While laudable efforts, these initiatives cannot address the core challenges within the states, particularly Nigeria, where governance, political, economic and security issues have created space for organised criminal activity to prosper.
Despite these challenges, the patchwork of security should be sufficient to allow growth to outpace the troubles created by expanding web of illicit activities.
- James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in World Review.