Monday, 24.06.13 to Tuesday, 25.06.13 - Yaounde, Cameroon

Gulf of Guinea: a summit meeting for more Maritime Security?

On 24–25 June 2013 a summit meeting took place in Yaoundé, Cameroon, involving government representatives from 25 states in West and Central Africa on the issue of "Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea". It was the first summit in Africa devoted exclusively to the topic of maritime security.

By Denis Tull, Resident Representative, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Cameroon

On 24–25 June 2013 a summit meeting took place in Yaoundé, Cameroon, involving government representatives from 25 states in West and Central Africa on the issue of »Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea«. It was the first summit in Africa devoted exclusively to the topic of maritime security.

The aim of the summit was to adopt measures to combat the increasing maritime insecurity (piracy) in the Gulf of Guinea. The inter-regional framework was particularly noteworthy, bringing together members of the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) and the Central African Economic Community (ECCAS).

Piracy has long been a problem beyond Nigeria’s borders. The Gulf of Guinea has now become one of the most severely affected regions world-wide.

The intensification of what hitherto has been only rudimentary regional and inter-regional cooperation is being driven decisively by external actors with strategic interests in the region, primarily the United States and France. It remains open, however, how much local »ownership« there is.

The resolutions made at Yaoundé include a commitment to a joint strategy to combat piracy, to be developed within three years. In the meantime, national policies and legislation to combat this cross-border phenomenon are to be harmonised. Operational military plans are also to be developed.

The exclusively security-policy and repressive focus of the resolutions means that no structural solution to the problem is to be expected. Given the overwhelming prevalence of authoritarian governments in the region, political and socio-economic causes are also unlikely to be addressed.

From 24 to 25 June 2013 a summit meeting took place in Yaoundé, Cameroon, involving representatives of 25 states in West and Central Africa on the topic of »Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea«. Twelve heads of state and government travelled to Yaoundé, including Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and the head of state of the Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara. It was the first summit in Africa devoted exclusively to the issue of maritime security. Also noteworthy was the fact that the member states of three regional organisations were represented: the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS), the Central African Economic Community (ECCAS) and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC). To date, inter-regional cooperation on the continent below the level of the African Union (AU) has been exceptional. The venue was also remarkable. Cameroon rarely puts its head above the parapet, either regionally or internationally. President Paul Biya generally steers clear of African summit meetings, for example, the AU summit of heads of state and government in Addis Ababa in May 2013, celebrating the organisation’s 50th birthday.

Basic Situation

The Gulf of Guinea is the coastal region running south from Senegal in West Africa to Angola. The strategic significance of the region is undeniable. On one hand, a large number of container ships headed for Europe and the United States navigate the waters of the Gulf. On the other hand, over the past decade the Gulf has become one of the most important regions in the world for oil and gas production. Oil production stands at around 5.5 million barrels a day. The high growth potential of oil and gas; their development at sea or in coastal areas; the proximity of the European and North American markets; the instability of the Middle East; and, finally, the growing demand for fossil fuels in emerging countries all contribute to the heightened importance of the Gulf of Guinea.[1] In the perception of external actors, however, itsstrategic importance has also increased markedly, leading to an enhanced military and diplomatic presence, especially on the part of France and the United States. The expansion of organised crime and terrorism has also contributed to the increased concern.

The downside of economic development is that criminal activities have become more lucrative in recent years. The proliferation of maritime insecurity has been fostered above all by the region’s political context and adjacent states, however. This is because despite or rather even because of the abundance of natural resources, poverty, corruption and conflict are virulent. Most states in the region are not in a position to establish a monopoly on the use of force. Security organisations and law enforcement agencies are ineffective, in particular in coastal regions and at sea. In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer (around 2.4 million barrels of oil a day),these problems are particularly pronounced and thus it is not surprising that the country is the epicentre of maritime insecurity.[2]

Maritime insecurity has increased in recent years in West and Central Africa. Its geographical scope has also expanded. Measured in terms of recorded attacks in 2012 it extended from Guinea in the west to Angola in the south (see Table 1). Due to the significant decrease in piracy off the coast of Somalia as a consequence of massive military deployment West Africa was one of the most severely affected regions in the world in 2012, with 62 documented attacks on shipping. In total, 207 sailors were taken hostage. Most attacks took place in the waters of Togo (15) and Nigeria (27). During 2013 there has been a further increase. In Nigeria alone there were already 22 attacks in the first five months of the year.

Table 1: Instances of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, 2006–2012 (insert PDF)
Source: International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Annual Report 2012, London 2013, p. 5.

Notwithstanding the widespread use of the term »piracy« what is taking place off the coasts of West and Central Africa is not plundering on the high seas as understood by international law. West Africa’s pirates generally operate near to the coast, that is, within the territorial waters of nation-states. Most attacks can be classified as armed robbery, aimed at ships and oil platforms. From time to time there are also raids on the mainland perpetrated from the sea. The raid on EcoBank in the Cameroon economic and coastal metropolis of Douala in March 2011, in which the bank robbers attacked from the sea, is one example. Offshore there is a security vacuum in many parts of the region, fostered by the lack of or only ramshackle navies and coastguards, lack of equipment and meagre resources. Development of the relevant capacities is a matter of urgency.

Need for Regional Cooperation

The governments of the region have not kept pace with the extension of cross-border maritime insecurity, even though political concern about the issue has undoubtedly increased: in Central Africa since 2009 and in West Africa only since 2011.[3]Against this background the efforts associated with the Yaoundé summit can be interpreted as the logical next step.

ECCAS has had its own maritime security strategy since 2009. Its core is a regional coordination centre in which relevant information is gathered and exchanged. Furthermore, the member states are already conducting joint patrols along the coastline, divided into different operational jurisdictions.

The West African community of states ECOWAS does not yet boast a comparable level of cooperation. For the past two years or so, however, the first steps have been taken to catch up. This was spurred by the alarming number of maritime attacks experienced by Benin in the course of 2011, which previously had barely been affected. This made it clear that piracy would not be confined to Nigeria alone. The governments of Benin and Nigeria therefore put maritime security on the agenda of the United Nations (UN) and the UN Security Council. Since then, the issue has also reached ECOWAS level, if only as a topic of rhetoric.

The lack of cooperation both within West Africa and between West and Central Africa is compensated by the activism of France and the United States. Both states have not only stepped up their military presence in the region, but also, within the framework of security-policy cooperation programmes, they are providing the navies and coastguards of adjacent countries with support in the form of material aid, training and consultation.[4]

At the political level, too, Paris and Washington have not been idle. They are seen by both local and external observers as behind the initiative to significantly extend regional cooperation in the area of maritime security. This pressure is based on the assessment of external actors that in West and Central Africa there has hitherto been a lack of institutional and legal harmonisation, which could serve as a framework for intensified inter-regional cooperation. There has been no appreciable agreement to date at the political and strategic levels, either.

Outcome of the Summit

A new chapter in regional and inter-regional cooperation to combat maritime insecurity may have been opened with the Yaoundé summit. Although the heads of state and government were unable to agree on a multilateral strategy, one will be designed and implemented over the coming three years. The guidelines for the interim period will be furnished by a »code of conduct«. It provides that the signatory states harmonise their national legislations in order to set in motion cross-border prevention and combating of piracy. This concerns primarily the prosecution of pirates across land and sea borders, also in the event of imminent danger, as well as the extradition of pirates to neighbouring states. Furthermore, national strategies and operational plans to combat piracy should be developed, coordinated at regional level. The provision of equipment and matériel for effective maritime surveillance has also been raised. In Yaoundé an inter-regional coordination centre for combating piracy is also to be established. No agreement has been reached for the time being on the funding of these plans. While many heads of state and government directed the usual appeals to the »international community« to act as decisively in the Gulf of Guinea as in Somalia, other state leaders called for voluntary contributions from adjacent countries in order not to further undermine states’ independence and sovereignty.


The Yaoundé summit was a political first in every respect. It was the culmination of initiatives directed towards stronger inter-regional cooperation in combating piracy and maritime insecurity since 2011. The resolutions made must be measured in terms of their implementation, however. Furthermore, there is a question mark against the local ownership required if inter-regional maritime cooperation is to be sustainable beyond summit communiqués. The interests of regional states and external actors do not necessarily coincide. The same applies within the region itself. While small states suffering heavily from piracy, such as Benin and Togo, will no doubt welcome both external support and multilateral cooperation, larger countries, more concerned with their own sovereignty, such as Nigeria and Angola, may not be so amenable.

The summit’s exclusive focus on security-policy aspects is certainly questionable. It promotes largely reactive responses to maritime insecurity, to be borne by naval forces and coastguards. This narrow concentration ignores the political and economic causes of piracy, which arise from the subjection of largely young populations to a policy of irresponsible and iniquitous exploitation and distribution of resource wealth, corruption and social exclusion. The fact that not a few of the heads of state and government who met in Yaoundé are the architects of such policies renders the outcome of the summit as comprehensible as the support provided by the increasingly militarised Africa policies of France and the United States. They are thus still a long way from improving the situation. What is needed rather is an approach that promotes the rule of law and transparency in these resource-wealthy states, which are plagued by corruption. The transformation of the economy should also be on the agenda, because the region’s much-lauded high growth rates are mere window dressing. The extractive activities (oil and gas) that are largely responsible for this growth do not create jobs. The region’s political systems must therefore be addressed urgently. Unfortunately, all the indications are that Western governments are more inclined to pursue the imperatives of Realpolitik.

[1] Michael Roll/Sebastian Sperling (eds), Fuelling the World – Failing the Region? Oil Governance and Development in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, Abuja: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2011.

[2] Denis Tull, »West Africa«, in: Stefan Mair (ed.), Piracy and Maritime Security: Regional Characteristics and Political, Military, Legal and Economic Implications, Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2011, 28–33.

[3] International Crisis Group, TheGulf of Guinea: The New Danger Zone, Brussels 2012.

[4] See "Quand la marine française traque les pirates", in: Le Monde, 20.6.2013.

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