Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea: an unending menace

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Aluseyi Adejuyigbe
Olatunde Adejuyigbe & Co, Lagos


The Gulf of Guinea (GoG) is the region along the coast of West Africa spanning almost 4,000 miles and stretching from Guinea to Angola. The countries on the GoG basin are Nigeria, Ghana, SaoTome and Principe, Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Benin, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.

Geographically, the location of the GoG makes it an important maritime route, linking Europe and America to West, Central and Southern Africa. Apart from its strategic geographical location, the GoG is reported to have a high concentration of hydrocarbons, and several Western countries source an appreciable quantity of their crude oil from the region.

Maritime insecurity in the GoG has been a huge concern for almost a decade and it appears to be defying all efforts to curb it. The incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the region became apparent in the early 2010s.

According to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre in its January 2021 report, 195 incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea were reported globally in 2020, compared with 162 in 2019. Of the 195 incidents, 161 vessels were boarded, 11 fired upon and three hijacked. The three hijacks and nine out of the 11 fired upon took place in the GoG; more than any region in the world. Crew were kidnapped in 25 per cent of the attacks. Furthermore, the GoG was said to have accounted for 95 per cent of the 135 crew members kidnapped from their vessels in 2020 globally.[1]

Piracy and armed robbery at sea are both criminal acts committed in a maritime space, but they differ in that piracy can only occur on the high seas beyond the 12 nautical mile limit of a country's territorial waters. It is thus a universal crime, and any state can intervene and exercise jurisdiction to try to apprehend the suspects. Armed robbery at sea is committed within territorial waters, and the coastal state can exercise jurisdiction.

A general review of counter-piracy efforts in the GoG

Since the surge in incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the GoG, there have been concerted efforts by the countries along the basin, regional bodies and the international community to curb the menace and prevent an escalation to the level seen in Somalia. Undoubtedly, the solution to insecurity requires a collective effort, and there has not been a shortage of this in previous years.

Below are some of the efforts made thus far to curb piracy and armed robbery at sea:

  • Angola, Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, and Sao Tome and Principe signed a treaty in Libreville, Gabon establishing the Gulf of Guinea Commission in July 2001. The commission was to create a framework for cooperation among the countries along the GoG basin, defend their common interest and promote peace.
  • In 2009, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe set up a joint force to ward off criminals from their common coastlines.
  • In November 2012, following a conference on peace and security in the GoG region, the participating countries made a declaration (Luanda Declaration on Peace and Security in the GoG), and called for regional cooperation and inter-state dialogue among member states.
  • The United Nations Resolution 2018 of October 2011 urged the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) to make concerted efforts to counter piracy and armed robbery at sea by means of bilateral or regional maritime patrols. Its resolution 2039 0f February 2012 urged GoG states to collaborate with the African Union and convene a summit to draft a regional strategy to combat piracy.
  • Twenty-five African governments signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in 2013 to facilitate the sharing of information among the states. An inter-regional coordination centre was set up in Yaoundé to coordinate information sharing between the regional centres located in Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo and Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.
  • The Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa (MOWCA) created the Integrated Coastguard Network, which coordinates inter-regional maritime security policies. MOWCA's mandate also includes liaising with the UN and its maritime arm, the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
  • The United States Africa Partnership Station is a maritime programme supporting regional efforts to counter piracy in the GoG. The programme aims to increase maritime domain awareness and facilitate regional integration. In addition is the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) plan on capacity building among the nations in the region, and regional security organisations to counter piracy and illegal trafficking.

Country-specific anti-piracy efforts: Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon

Nigeria, one of the countries on the GoG basin, is a hotspot for incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea. Militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta region carried out several attacks on international oil companies, and also kidnapped their employees and kept them hostage in their agitation for better resource control and responsible exploration activities in the region. Although the government was able to disarm the militants through military force and a subsequent amnesty programme to rehabilitate them, some criminal elements stepped into their shoes. These criminals, motivated by illicit gain, attack ships, engage in illegal bunkering of oil and kidnap crew for ransom. The nefarious activities of these criminals have now extended beyond Nigeria to the coasts of Togo, Benin, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

The arduous task of combating piracy and armed robbery at sea is one that the Government of Nigeria has given top priority, and it has expended a lot on the procurement of security apparatus and needed infrastructure.

The Nigerian Navy carries out a series of regular security operations to rid the waterways of pirates. More than 173 boats were acquired in 2018 to enable the Navy to effectively police the GoG and riverine areas in Nigeria. Its surveillance equipment, which includes the Regional Maritime Awareness Capability System (RMAC) system and Falcon Eye System, has been upgraded. This was disclosed by the Chief of Naval Staff during a press briefing to mark the 62nd anniversary of the Nigerian Navy.[2]

In a report released recently, the Chief of Naval Staff mentioned that although piracy attacks increased slightly in 2020, about 70 per cent were unsuccessful due to the robust surveillance system of the Nigerian Navy and its prompt response to the incidents.[3]

The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), a regulatory agency for the maritime industry, has made strides in the effort to curb piracy and armed robbery at sea. In conjunction with the Nigerian Navy, delivery was taken of special mission vessels equipped with sophisticated gadgets to aid intelligence gathering, and timely detection and response to criminal activities in the Nigerian maritime space. The Deep Blue Project[4] is a maritime security project to tackle insecurity in the country's territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to the GoG. It will involve training security forces, acquisition of assets and development of infrastructure. As part of this project, a Command, Control, Computer Communication and Information Centre (C4i) was launched in Lagos. In May 2020, the agency established a NIMASA/Industry Working Group to coordinate efforts between the government and the maritime industry in tackling piracy and armed robbery at sea.

Plans are in the works to roll out a Nigerian National Maritime Reporting framework aimed at supporting vessels in distress with the C4i playing a pivotal role in coordinating the multi-agency response.

Nigeria demonstrated its commitment to curbing piracy and armed robbery at sea when it enacted the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Act 2019, (the 'SPOMO Act'). It is the only country in West and Central Africa to have standalone anti-piracy legislation. The SPOMO Act gave effect to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 and the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (the 'SUA') 1988 and its protocols. The objective of the SPOMO Act is 'to prevent and suppress piracy, armed robbery and any other unlawful act against a ship, aircraft and any other maritime craft, however propelled, including fixed or floating platform'.[5]

Notable provisions of the SPOMO Act

Definition of piracy

The definition of piracy in the act[6] tallies with its definition in Article 101 of the UNCLOS as consisting of:

'(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;

(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).'

A few of the offences classified as maritime offences include armed robbery at sea; an act (other than piracy) committed by any person or group of persons within Nigerian jurisdiction where they unlawfully seize or exercise control over a ship, aircraft, fixed or floating platform, or cargo by force, threat or intimidation; use of a ship or aircraft in a manner that causes death or serious injury or damage; and an act of violence against a person on board a ship, aircraft, or fixed or floating platform that is likely to endanger the safe navigation of the ship, aircraft, or fixed or floating platform.

The Federal High Court is vested with the exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine any matters under the SPOMO Act. [7] The act provides for a wide range of penalties and punishment upon conviction for any of the offences: fines, restitution to the owner and forfeiture to the government. A person convicted of the crime of piracy, for instance, will be sentenced to life imprisonment, a fine of not more than N50m and also forfeit whatever the person gained from committing the crime.[8]

Provision is made in the act for the establishment of the Piracy and Maritime Offences Fund for implementing the SPOMO Act.[9]

It is encouraging to know that subsequent to the enactment of the SPOMO Act, suspected pirates arrested by the Nigerian Navy are now being prosecuted.[10] The first conviction under the SPOMO Act was made last year, when a Federal High Court convicted three persons accused of taking part in the hijack of a fishing vessel off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. They were fined in lieu of prison sentences.


The Ghanaian Navy carries out regular patrols of its territorial waters, and security officers of the Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority regularly patrol its anchorage areas for the Tema and Takoradi ports.[11]

There is a plan to create a maritime security fund from which Ghana can equip its Navy and other security agencies in its fight against piracy.[12]


The territorial waters of Cameroon were relatively safe, but a few incidents of piracy were recorded in 2019, and this prompted the government to take action to ensure the security of ships at its Doula anchorage, including having local armed guards on board ships.[13]


The war on piracy and armed robbery at sea can only be won when all hands are on deck. The sharing of information among countries bordering the GoG is vital, and collaboration with Western states and international organisations must continue. It is suggested that other countries in the GoG region should emulate Nigeria and enact local legislation against piracy. It is hoped that many more convictions of suspected pirates will be made this year under the SPOMO Act in Nigeria, and hopefully that will serve as a deterrent to would-be pirates.


[1] See icc-ccs.org accessed 20 January 2021.

[2] See https://shipsandports.com.ng/navy-reiterates-commitment-secure-nigerias-maritime-domain-2 accessed 20 January 2021.

[3] See https://shipsandports.com.ng/nigeria-recorded-214-pirate-attacks-107-sea-robbery-in-2020-navy accessed on 20 January 2021.

[4] Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure.

[5] S 1.

[6] S 3.

[7] S 5(2).

[8] S 12.

[9] S 19.

[10] The Nigerian Navy arrested over ten pirates who attacked a fishing vessel, MV Hailufang II, off the coast of Côte d'Ivoire last May, and handed them over to NIMASA for prosecution. The trial is ongoing.

[11] See https://safety4sea.com/west-africa-piracy-updates accessed 24 January 2021.

[12] See https://safetyatsea.net/news/2020/ghana-wants-a-fund-to-fight-piracy accessed on 24 January 2021.

[13] See n 14 above.