Weaknesses in International Law: Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

By Jamison Gaither

Throughout the history of international trading and traveling, pirates have posed threats to traders and travelers on the high seas. Overall, pirates today are using similar tactics to their historical counterparts, either utilizing cargo theft, hostage taking, or hijacking vessels to support themselves and their operations. Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) outlines the international definition of piracy, guarantees security in international waters by granting universal jurisdiction over the high seas, and requires cooperation in the repression of piracy. 

However, there has only been a single recent case of the international community completely repressing piracy: Somalia. Achieved through the means of a Security Council Resolution after the president of Somalia requested assistance, this act showed the limitations of UNCLOS implemented by states to protect their sovereignty, as the international cooperation seen in the fight against the Somali pirates was only possible due to the request of Somalia’s president for help. Sovereignty is considered one of the most important characteristics a state can have, and this idea often pushes states to treat domestic problems as entirely their own, refusing to accept help from outsiders. Such is the case in the Gulf of Guinea, where Nigeria, the wealthiest nation in the region, refuses to agree to international help, claiming they fear a loss in sovereignty, which is pushed by their own involvement in international piracy. 

Nigeria, Oil, Petro-Pirates…

To comprehend the nature of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria’s involvement, one must understand Nigeria’s history with oil-based insurgency, which began in 2005 with the formation of the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), formed to combat the exploitation of Nigeria’s oil by international companies. Since its inception, this group has attacked pipelines and raided offshore platforms. From 2005 to 2009, this insurgency greatly affected Nigerian oil production. One successful attack against a major offshore platform operated by Royal Dutch Shell led to Nigeria’s oil production falling to a twenty-five-year low. This development led to peace talks in 2009, with Nigerian political leaders forced to negotiate. However, the insurgent leaders were bribed by the government, lived in luxury as negotiations occurred, and eventually took individual payments for peace. This did not carry over to the majority of the population, who continued to suffer from the monopolization of Nigeria’s oil by foreign companies. This brings us to the present, where three main methods of attack are employed: attacking a ship in port, launching a coastal attack with or without kidnapping, and outright hijacking of vessels. However, all of these share a key common goal: the theft of petrol.

Called petro-pirates, these groups are highly organized with an extensive intelligence network consisting of corrupt local and state officials with access to shipping schedules and manifests. Using this information, pirates can stalk, board, hijack, and then siphon fuel onto another ship for transport. Such an operation is possible due to the help of Nigerian elites, for these destitute pirates would not otherwise have been able to logistically organize. They are also well-armed, using a variety of firearms in over one hundred attacks between 2006 and 2016, even using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) twice during this same period. These pirates need friendly ports to unload their goods, again showing the deep connection between these pirate groups and the Nigerian government. Pirates have even bragged about their connections: a 2012 interview with two men arrested for piracy claimed their financiers were a network of officials and government workers, one saying “[Pirates are] sponsored by some power people in Nigeria whose names I will not want to mention…Some of them are even in the Presidency.” Even if not as high up as the Presidency as has been claimed, these pirates are too well prepared, funded, and equipped to conduct piracy without the assistance of a larger, more powerful entity, one that needs sovereignty to protect individuals within a territory. 

… and the Dilemmas of a “Not Completely Failed” State

The Gulf of Guinea exhibits regional piracy due to national concerns surrounding state sovereignty. As the wealthiest nation in the region, Nigeria should be a leader in stifling piracy; however, its concerns over sovereignty undermine any potential international attempts to quell piracy in the region. Since it is not a failed state like Somalia, it thus refuses to allow the deployment of even private armed guards at the risk of losing any aspect of its sovereignty. Nigerians offer escort vessels with national naval officers onboard, an action that was nevertheless criticized by an executive as having “turned security into a business.” Nigeria’s navy is also not equipped to fight efficiently and may even be part of the piracy network, as there have been cases in which pirates fled immediately before the navy’s arrival.

In sum, the combination of Nigeria’s history with oil-based insurgency, the government’s involvement in piratical bunkering, and Nigerian resistance to international influence make suppressing piracy – as done before in Somalia – almost impossible. Nigeria is likely using piracy as a means to appease its population, which has been historically angered by the exploitation of Nigerian oil. The government permits piracy to prevent extreme attacks like the aforementioned MENDs in 2008. The government’s involvement, then, is a conscious act that they have continually supported, for it would be impossible for these pirates to steal, store, and sell their stolen oil and loot without the presence of a larger network profiting from their exploits. The Nigerian reluctance to international intervention can then be seen as not only a result of their involvement, but also the relative strength of Nigeria in Africa and the regional power implications that could result from a loss in their sovereignty. Therefore, Nigeria’s excuses of sovereignty have been used to protect pirates operating in the region as a means to prevent movements as seen in the past, as well as cover their own involvement in international piracy.

Jamison Gaither is a Political Science and Public Affairs Master of Arts student at SLU-Madrid from Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.

To quote this article or video, please use the following reference: Gaither (2024), “Weaknesses in International Law Generating Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea,” https://crisesobservatory.es/weaknesses-in-international-law-piracy-in-the-gulf-of-guinea

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Featured Image Credit: GULF OF GUINEA © 2019 by US Africa Command is licensed under CC BY 2.0