Maritime Insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea is a vast region stretching from Senegal to Angola, encompassing 17 countries and covering approximately 6,000km of coastline. It is an important shipping route for transporting oil and gas and, on any given day, home to around 1500 fishing vessels, tankers, and cargo ships moving through this vast part of the ocean. The Gulf of Guinea hosts a large percentage of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves. It is one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, and this alone is a critical source of employment for millions of people in the region. In West Africa alone, up to a quarter of jobs are linked to the fishing industry.


Figure 1. Map of the Gulf of Guinea. Credit: Institute for Security Studies.

Unfortunately, this area so rich in resources and endless potential is facing a threat to its stability and prosperity. The vast resources available in the Gulf of Guinea have attracted an alarming amount of criminal activity. According to the International Maritime Bureau, this region accounts for approximately 95 percent of global kidnappings, overtaking the Gulf of Aden and Somalia as the leading piracy hotspot in the world. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing have crippled the local populations that rely on this source of income. Because of inadequate legal frameworks and weak political and economic bargaining, most countries in this region have made partnerships with other nations outside the African continent to use their fishing grounds.


Not only will this ravage the environment, but it will devastate the stability and security of this region. Criminal activities like piracy, illicit trade, and armed robbery at sea are more attractive to impoverished communities. Greater cooperation between countries in the Gulf of Guinea will be necessary to address unemployment, especially in the youth, as they are the target demographic for illicit activities like piracy. Furthermore anti-corruption measures and economic development will be critical to addressing these situations in the long term.


Maritime piracy is directly linked to the oil industry and the resulting economic, social, and environmental conditions in areas like the Niger Delta. Citizens of this region depend mainly on income generated from oil, yet due to government perversion and profiteering, only a small percentage of the revenue reaches local residents. In a strict context, this regional instability is not simply a security issue at sea, but a secondary production of state failure and bad governance. When the government fails to protect its citizens from factors like corruption and unemployment it produces insecurity on land and that expands further into maritime insecurity.


The Nigerian project Deep Blue Project is a glimmer of hope among regional uncertainty. The project is estimated to have cost $195 million dollars and covers all maritime security matters in Nigeria. Nigeria’s maritime enforcement capacity will be bolstered with the latest technology, (e.g, unmanned aerial assets and fast intervention vessels) and the development of infrastructure (e.g, new command and control centres) as well as enhanced training of security forces, thanks to this project. According to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) between August 2019 and June 2020, 80 percent of the necessary assets had been delivered and the Command, Control, Computer Communication, and Information Centre (C4i) were officially launched.


Figure 2. Suspected pirates off the Gulf of Guinea. Credit: US Navy/Jason R Zalansky.

The Deep Blue Project is definitely a step in the right direction and it is sure to have a positive impact on maritime security for the years to come. However, the confluence of socio-economic deprivation, lack of opportunities for civilians to reap from the country’s rich resources, and corruption, are the root of the current maritime situation in the Gulf of Guinea. Instead of developing a project aimed at addressing maritime insecurity, perhaps a project could be developed to address the lack of opportunity in coastal communities, allowing them to prosper and reap the benefits of fishing grounds currently being exploited by commercial trawlers.


The exploitation of fishing resources by foreign countries is alarming because of the effects that climate change will have on these African countries in the future. It is a well-known fact that climate change affects temperatures, oxygen concentration, current patterns of the ocean currents, and warmer temperatures. These factors are expected to lead to a 21 percent decline in the annual landed value of fish in West Africa and a decline of nearly 50 percent in fisheries related employment by 2050.


The Deep Blue Project might be a positive step forward and a good project to work off for other countries considering bolstering maritime security but it must not be the only focus in improving maritime security. Until the grievances of civilians in coastal communities have been heard, and problems like corruption, over exploitation of fishing grounds and profiteering have been addressed, the maritime security situation will only become more problematic and more complex to resolve, even with maritime projects and defence spendings. By addressing problems the communities are facing, governments directly address the very core of the maritime insecurity issue in the Gulf of Guinea.