Just as tales of piracy’s golden age fixate on the Caribbean, the image of the modern pirate belongs firmly to the Horn of Africa, where global shipping is said to be terrorised by opportunistic Somalis and Yemenis.
However, dig into the latest figures, and it becomes clear that the Horn of Africa is no longer the global piracy epicentre that it once was. Piracy’s second golden age is firmly over. Numerous international operations, most notably Operation Ocean Shield (2009-2016), have driven down the number of annual attacks to the single digits. In 2012, the region saw 275 pirate attacks – in 2022, it saw just 1. A NATO-led coalition, including the Chinese PLAM, Russian VMF, and Saudi RSNF, conducted concerted anti-piracy raids, performed security duties for international shipping companies, and worked to improve local logistical capacity.
By any conceivable metric, the world’s piracy hotspot is now the Gulf of Guinea.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, 40% of reported piracy incidents in 2020 occurred in the Gulf of Guinea. In the same year, over 95% of maritime kidnappings took place in the region, while a December 2021 study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated an annual cost of $1.925 billion to global trade.
But while the centre of gravity has shifted, perceptions have not.
Outside of the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2634, conversations about West African piracy have been few and far between in international diplomatic arenas and security forums.
Compared to the robust Horn of Africa response, a coordinated, consistent international effort to stamp out Gulf of Guinea piracy has been conspicuous by its absence. It’s difficult to see the real-world ramifications of the UNSC’s “deep concern”.
What little international response has emerged has done so from West Africa itself. Twenty-five West and Central African countries signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in 2013, establishing regional centres for sharing information and pooling resources. This architecture has been plagued by persistent under-resourcing and inconsistency of available information.
These regional efforts are necessary, but they are not sufficient.
Without the operational and logistical ability of more established naval powers, the well-intentioned Yaoundé framework is at risk of devolving into a resource-intensive game of whack-a-mole. Local navies simply do not have the rapid-response capability, nor the logistical sophistication, to combat widespread international piracy. Nations further afield must take notice.
Those hoping for a reprise of Ocean Shield should temper their optimism. If coordinated Chinese and Russian intelligence sharing with the United States sounded ambitious in 2009, it’s a flight of fancy in 2023. Even setting aside the growing enmity between Washington and Beijing, and Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine, the appetite for starry-eyed multilateralism is much diminished.
This vacuum ought to lend itself to creative thinking. The problem remains worthy of our attention, but we can no longer rely on the United States to step up and lead a globe-spanning coalition as it once did. If not the Americans, then who?
Look at any map of the Gulf of Guinea, and the presence of one international organisation looms large; it’s impossible to ignore the presence of the Commonwealth. Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Togo, and Gabon are all members, with the latter two having joined at Kigali in 2022. Nigeria in particular is the region’s largest economy and most significant naval power; it’s also one of the Commonwealth’s most influential member states.
Commonwealth political, diplomatic, and security leadership should get around the table with regional stakeholders and pioneer a concerted Commonwealth mission to eliminate piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Doing so would have immense benefits for those involved, improving relations in West Africa, ensuring a more secure environment for international trade, and reinforcing supply chains.
What’s more, those Commonwealth countries capable of seriously participating in a joint operation are the very same countries eager to assert their place on the global stage. Post-Brexit Britain is desperately searching for purpose and direction outside of Europe, while Narendra Modi’s New India is keen to showcase its newfound ability to project power and contribute constructively to the international arena. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia, and others have all shown themselves willing and capable of contributing to long-distance multilateral operations.
A relatively small Commonwealth naval mission could, over just a few years, slash the number of attacks and save shipping companies billions of pounds, all the while building local capacity and resilience to ensure long-term regional security.
More cynically, established Commonwealth players have a vested geopolitical interest in building political good-will in Nigeria, a country set to be the third most populous in the world and amongst the ten largest global economies by 2050. Creating a framework for cooperation now, alongside institutional and interpersonal links, will ease future diplomatic efforts and provide a tangible advertisement for engagement with the Commonwealth network.
This is to say nothing of the benefits of improved relations with reliable Ghana, and Commonwealth new-boys Togo and Gabon.
There are already blueprints for how a joint taskforce like this could work. The aforementioned Operation Ocean Shield is one – a joint mission with rotating leadership. The operation was structured around small deployments from each of the navies involved, directed by a core leadership, and enabled to share rapid, high-quality information. From guarding shipping vessels to training and equipping local partners, Ocean Shield relied upon the informational breadth and physical coverage that only a coalition can provide.
Ocean Shield also teaches us that a Commonwealth anti-piracy mission in West Africa would be relatively resource light for each of the participant states, and highlights the need to build local capacity, enabling regional partners to coordinate post-intervention.
But getting it right will require learning new lessons, not just reinforcing old ones. Piracy off West Africa’s coast is tangibly different to the maritime security patterns that we are familiar with. What happens off-shore is tied inextricably to what’s happening on-shore, even more so than in the Horn of Africa or the broader Indian Ocean.
Unlike the seaborne threat of Somali piracy, maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea is often an extension of on-land smuggling, fuel-bunkering, and illegal fishing operations. These activities are concentrated in the Niger Delta but cut across regional and national borders. A Commonwealth naval mission would need to be supported by a significant drive to improve the logistical and operational capacity of coastal police forces, port authorities, and local governments.
Even despite these unique challenges, the fundamental reality remains the same – established Commonwealth powers, including Britain, have an opportunity to contribute to global security, build significant good-will in West Africa, and reinforce unstable supply chains. The time and resource commitment would be relatively small, and the rewards would be great.
To do so will require a repudiation of foreign policy orthodoxy, and a rediscovery of our ability to act multilaterally without relying on Washington’s convening power. Tackling Gulf of Guinea Piracy could be the first step towards a renewed Commonwealth foreign policy approach, engaging disparate nations on an issue of shared self-interest, while standing up for global free trade and the rule of law – a realist framework with internationalist outcomes.