With the world’s attention on terrorism and militancy, BOLA OLAJUWON writes about the rise in piracy and organised crimes in the Gulf of Guinea and the need for urgent international intervention.
LAGOS: UNITED Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres is concerned about tensions in Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Cameroun. Threats from extremist groups, including Boko Haram, al-Qaeda affiliates, Ansarul Islam, the Islamic State jihadist groups, have increased since 2015.
Guterres, at 74th General Assembly, said: “Time has come for urgent mobilisation to support countries and people of the Sahel” against the violence in the area.
But as the 15-member UN Security Council focus on humanitarian situation caused by Boko Haram activities in the Lake Chad Basin region, a growing number of incidents of piracy have gradually shifted into the Gulf of Guinea. This has added to the multi-dimensional security threats faced by the region. Much was not heard about the spiralling threat during the discussions of the global leaders at the UN General Assembly.
Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari sought the collective efforts of stakeholders in the maritime sector to rid the nation’s waters of emerging security threats. The President made this call on Monday at the first-ever Global Maritime Security Conference in Abuja. The President said statistics indicated that efforts to eradicate the menace by governments of the region are yielding result, citing the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting centre. He hailed the Nigerian Navy “for actively responding to reported incidents by dispatching patrol boats”.
But, a report made available to Daily Afrika by National Project Officer, Outreach and Communications, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Nigeria Country Office, Abuja, Sylvester Tunde Atere, said rather than decreasing, the trend of piracy and organised crimes in the region has found many coastal countries insufficiently prepared in terms of their capacity to effectively prevent attacks and counter-attacks carried out by pirates within and beyond their coastal waters.
Moreover, all types of trafficking flow through the Gulf of Guinea continue to constitute a major breeding ground for transnational organised criminals operating across the region and globally with devastating effects on people.
$2.2bn lost to piracy in Gulf of Guinea annually
Raising his concern over the issue, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok Ibas said West African countries, including Nigeria, are losing an estimated $2.2 billion annually to piracy and other maritime crimes in the Gulf of Guinea. At the Annual General Meeting and inauguration of the new executives of the Maritime Security Providers Association of Nigeria (MASPAN), the Naval chief, quoting a statistics by the United Nations Foods and Agricultural Organisation, said countries in the region lose about $370 million to illegal and unregulated fishing.
Ibas said owing to the high cases of piracy and sea robbery within the Gulf of Guinea, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has ranked the region as one of the most troubled waterways, after the Gulf of Aden.
Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) Dr Dakuku Peterside also decried the scourge of maritime insecurity, especially in the Gulf of Guinea.
However, in an interview with Daily Afrika on the matter, a security expert and chief executive of Trans-World Security System Ltd, Dr Ona Ekhomu, attributed spiralling cases of organised crimes in the area to the weak territorial protection of the Gulf of Guinea by member states. He added that the weak security situation has allowed foreign and local organised criminals to perpetuate their activities in the area. Ekhomu noted that the most active naval force in the area is the Nigerian Navy, lamenting that there is little that other naval forces from the Republic of Benin, Ghana, Togo and others could do.
West Africa accounts for three-quarters of tramadol seized globally
It has been discovered that West Africa accounts for three-quarters of tramadol seized globally on the sea. The amount of this banned substance seized in Nigeria – mostly at its ports – rose from less than eight tonnes in 2014 to close to 150 tonnes in 2018. In the whole of West Africa, more than 430 tonnes of tramadol have been seized in the period between 2014 and 2017, with tramadol seizures being recorded in Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria and Togo.
The steep rise in wildlife and forestry products smuggling
Another trafficking flow discovered to be on a steep rise border on wildlife and forestry products, which include ivory, pangolin scales and rosewood. According to media reports in 2018 and early 2019, more than 37 tonnes of mostly pangolin scales were seized. They allegedly originated from Lagos seaports. This marks a sharp increase from the less than eight tonnes of pangolin scales seized in 2016 and 2017 by all the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) collectively. Further, West African waters are abundant with high prized seafood and estimated to have one of the highest incidents of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the world, representing up to 37 per cent of the region’s total catch.
The massive gap in bringing arrested pirates to justice
Reports indicated that recent efforts taken by some countries to strengthen their legal, institutional and operational response are laudable, but are yet to show their full impact. A massive gap remains in terms of bringing captured pirates to justice, identifying their financiers and trace, seize and confiscate their illicit proceeds. This gap is most glaring when comparing the more than 1,400 convictions obtained against pirates off the Horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean against none so far in the Gulf of Guinea.
According to the UN body, one of the fundamental stumbling blocks has been the inadequacy of the legal framework. Many countries in the region are yet to fully domesticate the relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Legal assessments carried out by UNODC in 12 countries of Central and West Africa between 2014 and 2019 indicated that only a few national frameworks fully met the requirements of UNCLOS in terms of criminalising piracy and establishing universal jurisdiction. Thus, successful investigations leading to effective prosecutions remain rare, making maritime crime and piracy low-risk high reward criminal activities.
Attacks at sea in the Gulf of Guinea have passed through various transformations and are becoming increasingly complex and violent, similar and possibly exceeding what was previously experienced in East Africa.
The need for legal frameworks to tackle quick evolution of criminal offences
To counter this threat and improve criminal justice responses to maritime crime, the UNODC Nigeria Country Office said legal frameworks need to follow the quick evolution of criminal offences committed at sea by creating new regulations, improving the quality of existing legal instruments, as well as updating key definitions in line with the UNCLOS, in particular, its Article 101 on piracy and its Article 105 on universal jurisdiction.
The lack of harmonised legal framework across the region also presents a challenge to international cooperation. Dual criminality requirements may hinder countries to effectively cooperate and potentially create safe havens for pirates.
Need for international collaboration on military patrols
Dakuku said there was an urgent need for international collaboration to tackle the menace. He said: “Dealing with the issues of piracy and maritime crime requires inter-agency collaboration as well as regional collaboration between sister agencies in the participating countries.”
The Nigerian Navy (NN) has acquired more than 300 patrol crafts to combat maritime crimes in the country’s territorial waters. The Navy said it also arrested 206 vessels and barges as well as hundreds of suspects for various maritime offences in the last four years.
Military experts, however, said navies in the Gulf of Guinea need to come together with the support of European countries to tackle the menace.
Ekhomu noted that despite the performance of the Nigerian Navy in patrolling the Gulf of Guinea, it still required advanced naval platforms to bring sanity to the area. He added that the cost of lifting platforms and patrolling the area would only be borne by the Nigerian Navy, since the other member-countries, who jointly owned the economic zone, are financially not capable.
The security expert said the Gulf of Guinea leaders can also reach out to European navies and other foreign powers to assist in patrolling the area. He advised the Nigerian Navy to acquired modern platforms than waiting for foreign navies to give it discarded or decommissioned platforms. According to him, modern warfare dictates that with Nigeria’s peculiar position, it must rejig its focus from being land-centric to maritime-centric in the acquisition of military infrastructures.
UNODC on the domestication of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
However, the UNODC Nigeria Country Office has called on countries in the region to, as a matter of a priority, ratify and domesticate the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in particular, its Article 101 on piracy and Article 105 on universal jurisdiction, ensure that offences other than piracy, established under domestic law, meet the requirements of “serious offence” as defined by Article 2 of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.