MW Flashpoints: The Gulf of Guinea - Growing Calm on the High Seas Amid a Worsening Crisis Onshore
A recent rise in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has prompted an increased international naval presence in the region. Although largely successful in addressing the threat to commercial shipping traffic on the high seas, the situation on land continues to worsen amid rising militant and criminal activity in the Niger River Delta. With little sign of improvement, this will likely continue to have an impact on global energy exports and regional security for the foreseeable future.
Stretching from Senegal to Angola, the Gulf of Guinea is comprised of some 6,000 kilometers of coastline along West Africa’s central coast. The region accounts for some 60 percent of the continent’s total oil production and is home to 4.5 percent of the world’s proven crude oil reserves and 2.7 percent of its proven natural gas reserves. Two-thirds of these reserves are found within the exclusive economic domain of Nigeria. In addition to maritime piracy, the region is also host to illegal fishing by international vessels that cost its littoral states some US $1.95 billion annually. The Gulf of Guinea is also a major global transit hub for narcotics and it is estimated that some 25 to 35 percent of all Andean cocaine consumed in Europe passes through West Africa.
Global attention increasingly turned toward the Gulf of Guinea in the 2010s amid rising incidents of piracy with a 2013 article from the International Crisis Group (ICG) calling for increased global and regional cooperation. 2019 saw a massive rise in incidents of maritime abductions with 121 crew members kidnapped that year. In 2020, that figure grew to 130 crew members, accounting for 95 percent of the world’s captured seafarers that year. Although attacks have occurred off the coasts of ten countries in the region, most have occurred in the waters off southern Nigeria’s Niger River Delta. An August 2020 report by the Ghana-based Centre of Maritime Law and Security (CEMLAWS) describes the Niger River Delta as the “epicenter of the threat”, noting that all pirates arrested as of the date of publication had originated from Nigeria.
The August 2020 CEMLAWS report offers an extensive description of the tactics employed by pirates in the gulf. These include sophisticated planning, scouting, and intelligence operations with groups employing high-horse powered speedboats (typically 150/225 YAMAHA) equipped with aluminum ladders, drums for carrying oil and resupplying fuel, and high-grade Motorola radios and satellite phones. The most common weapons employed by these groups were reportedly knives, machetes, AK-47s, and submachine guns. In addition to targeting tankers and container vessels, 2020 also saw a rise in attacks against fishing vessels. Regional navies were largely powerless to stop these attacks: a consequence of African militaries’ longstanding tendency to prioritize land and air power over their sea capability in an effort to retain internal control and settle border disputes.
A concerted global effort to combat piracy on the high seas
Global efforts to stem piracy in the Gulf of Guinea intensified in 2021. That year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report calling for regional and global cooperation on the matter. This was followed by the unanimous passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2634 on May 31, 2022, calling for increased patrols and greater regional governmental and institutional cooperation, among other measures. The European Union launched its Co-Ordinated Maritime Presence plan for the Gulf of Guinea in January 2021 and this has since been extended until at least January 2024. Meanwhile, the United States increased its presence gulf while cooperating with regional and international partners. Moreover, the Russian Navy conducted anti-piracy naval drills in late 2021 and Beijing has also been increasing its naval presence in the region. Finally, regional navies have increasingly improved their capabilities with Nigeria investing 165 million euros into new ships, aircraft, and enhanced offshore surveillance.
Insofar as addressing piracy in the gulf, the results of these efforts have been largely successful. A November 2022 UN report found that incidents of piracy fell from 123 in 2020 to 45 in 2021 to just 13 in 2022. However, although Nigeria has been pushing for the elimination of the war risk insurance premium on vessels passing through the Gulf of Guinea since 2021, as of the writing of this report, there is no evidence that this has been removed to date. Moreover, the UN report calls for enhanced regional and global cooperation to continue to address the situation as well as efforts to address root causes such as poverty and youth unemployment onshore. In this way, despite recent progress, the situation on the high seas remains far from resolved.
Niger Delta: root causes at the “epicenter of the threat”
Although there has been a marked improvement to the situation on the high seas, conditions in the Niger River Delta continue to deteriorate. Despite accounting for the majority of Nigeria’s oil output, the delta states are home to some of the highest unemployment rates in the country and poverty is rampant. Moreover, the ecological degradation that has come as a result of decades of environmentally unsound oil extraction has greatly reduced the region’s quality of life, preventing millions from earning a livelihood via the traditional means of farming and fishing. This has contributed to a major ramp-up of insurgent and criminal activity in recent years.
The Niger Delta has never fit well into Nigeria’s federal system. The region formed a large portion of the successionist Biafran Republic in the 1967 – 1970 civil war that saw the deaths of one to three million people from violence, disease, and starvation. It has since been home to multiple ethnic and religious-based insurgencies as well as crackdowns on the part of the federal government. Violence has been escalating since 2016 following the bombing of a Shell oil pipeline by the insurgent group known as the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), which declared its existence in March of that year. Other insurgent groups include the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDL), Niger Delta Red Squad (NDRS), Adaka Boro Avengers, and several others. Starting in 2019, a Biafran separatist movement has also emerged: this dominantly Christian Igbo group frequently alleges that the predominantly Muslim Buhari government is seeking to Islamize the country. It also claims that the Igbo people have been systematically discriminated against since the end of the civil war.
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The impact of the deteriorating situation in the oil-rich delta has had a major impact on the Nigerian state, which depends on oil revenues for roughly 75 percent of its funding. Instances of oil theft have risen drastically with an estimated 120,000 barrels stolen per day in the first half of 2019: these accounted for 6% of Nigeria’s total production and are roughly equivalent to the daily output of Japan, the world’s 44th largest producer. Daily production fell from 2.5 million barrels in 2011 to just over 2 million in July of 2022 and there are reports that some groups are even constructing their own pipelines to siphon off crude reserves, costing the country some US $3.3 billion in total revenue annually. At a time when oil revenues and exports have risen globally amid favorable prices, Nigeria has consistently fallen short of its production quotas with exports now at their lowest in 25 years. Angola has emerged as Africa’s largest oil producer for the first time as a result.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) government has made extensive efforts to address the situation in the delta to little avail. A Muslim of the northern Fulani ethnic group and former head of the 1983 – 85 military junta, ex-general Buhari’s presidency has not been well received in the delta following his electoral victory over the Christian and delta-born Goodluck Jonathan in 2015. Following increased violence in 2016, the Buhari government ordered a greater military presence in the delta that year. His government also attempted an enhanced amnesty program for militants in the region in 2018 but this was ended in 2022 with mixed results. The private sector has also stepped in to assist the government in stemming violence and theft in the region with Aiteo, one of the country’s largest pipeline operators, donating 50 river patrol boats to be used by the navy in August 2021. However, these efforts have yet to yield substantial results.
The limited impact of military efforts to control the situation in the Niger delta highlights the region’s unwillingness to cooperate with the central government. The country’s latest elections show little hope moving forward.
Politics: Delta opposition and a highly-contested election
Nigeria’s 2023 elections have been fraught with controversy. Although early polls had Peter Obi’s Labour Party (LP) at a nearly three-fold lead over the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), it was Bola Tinubu’s APC that secured a decisive win. This has been followed by widespread allegations of intimidation and vote fraud by both major opposition parties and the US State Department has called for improvements to the country’s electoral process. Moreover, these elections saw the lowest voter turnout in over two decades at just 34.75 percent.
In the presidential elections, of the nine states that comprise the Niger River Delta, five voted overwhelmingly for the center-left Labour Party (LP). Two others voted for the center-right and socially conservative People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and just two voted for the ruling APC. Moreover, the results in the two states that voted for the APC have been among the most heavily contested in the country. In Ondo, there have been accusations that the APC tampered with voting machines and in Rivers, there are reports that election officials were intimidated and threatened by police and military personnel. Rivers also had the highest recorded voter turnout in the country at 68.18 percent – nearly double the national average – and early vote counts had the LP heavily in the lead there. Two delta states also had some of the highest percentages of rejected ballots in the country. The region’s results in the National Assembly elections tell a similar story of opposition with most states and districts voting for the opposition PDP. However, APC has retained its firm majority in both legislative bodies, giving the delta little chance of having an impact on federal policy under the incumbent APC government.
What Nigeria’s 2023 elections tell us is that, although the ruling APC will retain power, it is largely without the consent of the Delta region, even by the likely fraudulent standards of the latest election results. Moreover, with the results showing a regional favoring of both left and right-wing parties, it appears to not be a question of ideology, but rather a simple matter of opposition to APC rule. After decades of economic and ecological hardship, while seeing revenue from the extraction of their natural resources flow to powerful elites in Abuja, Lagos, and abroad, the various peoples of people of the Niger Delta are left largely without a voice in Nigerian national politics. With the issues of youth unemployment and rampant poverty largely unaddressed, the root causes of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are similarly left unresolved. This does not bode well for the region, the Nigerian state, or global commercial activity on the Gulf of Guinea moving forward.
An unstable situation in a precarious state with global consequences
Although a concerted international naval presence has been effective against piracy on the Gulf of Guinea thus far, its sustainability remains to be seen. With greater security challenges in the Niger delta left largely unresolved, the offshore situation is likely to deteriorate should the international community lose its resolve. Moreover, the Nigerian state’s incapability to successfully quell criminal and successionist activity in the delta while being deprived of the oil revenues that are most likely needed to sustain a military and naval buildup do not bode well. Nor does the failure of the federal republic’s ability to give the various peoples of the delta a voice in national politics.
If left unresolved, the regional and global consequences of this situation could prove disastrous. Nigeria continues to deal with militant activity in both its northern and southern regions, rising costs, reduced revenue, and a high reliance on food imports. Should the situation continue to deteriorate, a destabilized Nigeria could have disastrous internal and cross-border consequences for Africa’s most populous state. Moreover, as a top-ten global oil exporter at a time when sanctions have left the world cut off from supplies from Russia, the second largest exporter, a sustained downturn in Nigerian oil exports could have a major impact on global energy prices moving forward. In this way, although the situation in the Gulf of Guinea appears to have improved, the root causes that have spawned continue to be left largely unaddressed.