An Industry-Based Approach to Maritime Security in West Africa

by N.R. Jenzen-Jones

This piece was written in October 2011. It first appeared in the Journal of International Peace Operations (JIPO) volume 7, number 4. You can find it here

The sharp rise in piracy in West Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, has featured prominently in recent news. Piracy as a whole is costing global trade an estimated $12 billion (USD) a year, with the primary target being the oil industry – a key sector of the West African economy – which threatens the strategic interests of the United States, EU, and China.

There are other issues, along with piracy, that are prevalent in the Gulf of Guinea. Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the waters of West Africa has been referred to as the ‘worst in the world’, with London-based MRAG Limited estimating illegal catches to be 40% higher than reported legal catches. The smuggling of people, arms, and narcotics is also a significant issue in the West African maritime domain. On top of these issues, a plethora of local and transnational criminal and terrorist organisations are connected either directly or tangentially to piracy in West Africa. Chief amongst them are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

The Atlantic Council’s November 2010 report on ‘Security and Stability in the West African Maritime Domain’ highlights the role maritime security issues play in determining the region’s overall level of stability; “Central to West Africa’s high levels of insecurity and instability is the criminal exploitation of its expansive, largely ungoverned maritime domain.” In particular, the security of the West African maritime domain is key in ensuring:

  • The unimpeded flow of oil from the Gulf of Guinea and the security of energy related infrastructure and assets;
  • The safe and efficient flow of vessels, cargo, and people bound to or from foreign ports;
  • The absence of a safehaven for transnational terrorist and criminal organisations;
  • Political development, sustainable economic growth, and enduring stability in the region as a deterrent to state failure, humanitarian crisis, human rights abuses, and violent extremism.

The convergence of so many security threats within West Africa, and particularly in the maritime realm, requires a multi-faceted, long-term approach. To counter these threats, capacity building operations conducted by private security companies could provide a robust, enduring solution. Such operations would complement, rather than compete with, existing strategies implemented by local governments, foreign governments, and private industry.

Piracy in West Africa has been on the rise since mid-2009, and has spiked sharply over the course of this year. The UN Security Council has recently voiced its concern over the increase, noting an intention to deploy a United Nations assessment team to the region to “examine the situation and explore possible options for United Nations support”. Some analysts have pointed to the widely-publicised success of Somali pirates, and suggested this has directly influenced pirates in the Gulf of Guinea. However, reports have indicated that attacks in West African waters have also tended to be more violent than those off the Horn of Africa, and that many robberies likely go unreported due to the high frequency of illegal oil bunkering in the Niger Delta. The recent increase in frequency and severity of attacks has prompted the Lloyd’s Market Association Joint War Committee to raise the threat level of Nigeria, Benin, and neighbouring waters to the same category as the waters off the Horn of Africa.

On the other side of the continent, naval forces from around the globe have been deployed to the Gulf of Aden / Horn of Africa in order to deter pirates, and protect international shipping from attacks. Whilst there have been admirable results from these programs, there are also some notable shortcomings. With the number of merchant ships requiring protection vastly outstripping the assets deployed in theatre, there exists a simple problem – these warships cannot be everywhere they are required at once. Against an asymmetric threat such as piracy, deploying warships in large enough numbers to counter all pirate vessels is simply not cost effective. For example, the cost of the US counter-piracy operation, represented predominantly by the presence of US Navy assets in Combined Task Force 151 and in NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, is approximately $64 million per year. Then there are the expenses of other NATO countries, the EU, China, India, and other nations involved to consider. Such expenditure seems excessive for the results achieved.

The role that private security companies can play in protecting ships at sea has been well-documented, and the very high success rate of such is widely known. The value of well-trained, appropriately employed armed contractors cannot be understated; such guard forces are now provided by a number of companies, and can provide a significant deterrent and defence capability to ships’ Masters. Moreover, such an embarked guard force can provide a high level of protection, available at all times, for a reasonable economic outlay. Armed guards do occasionally run into trouble, however. More importantly, as has been widely noted, piracy is a problem that starts ashore.

One model that has shown a promising cost-benefit ratio is capacity building operations. An example of such is Triton International Ltd’s training of the Somaliland Coastguard. Since 2009, Triton has been involved with developing and implementing both training and operations plans for the Coastguard, providing the region of 3.5 million people with a broad spectrum maritime capability, unique within Somalia. To this end, Triton developed a 12-week basic training course for the Coastguard, as well as specialised modules on tactical maritime operations, maritime law, and vessel maintenance. Based out of the ISPS Code-compliant port of Berbera, the Somaliland Coastguard has delivered significant security progress with limited funding and materiel. The Coastguard operates small, fast patrol boats equipped with deck-mounted 14.5mm KPV heavy machine guns.

There have been several measures of success. First, in 2010 alone, the Triton-trained Somaliland Coastguard captured, prosecuted, and jailed more than 120 pirates. Officials in Somaliland have said that pirates rarely cross into their waters from renowned pirate havens in the region due to the Coastguard’s reputation for intercepting them. Second, as a result of these measures, the World Food Program considers Berbera a safe port for the delivery and distribution of food aid destined for the region. Finally, the Coastguard has also intercepted vessels intending to conduct IUU fishing.

The Triton model is cost-effective and efficient, serving as a good example of an “expandable platform”. That is, the Somaliland Coastguard model, if extrapolated to assist some of the smaller, under-patrolled nations in the Gulf of Guinea, could provide these states with the capability to begin countering maritime threats in the region. Many of these smaller nations in need of maritime security assistance have short coastlines, and would require only minimal investment to establish a relatively effective patrol force. For example, Togo’s coastline is a mere 56km long, Benin’s 121km, and Liberia’s 579km. By comparison, Somaliland has a 740km coastline.  Capacity building programs can also gain access to areas – namely the littoral and coastal zones – where foreign defence assets may not otherwise be welcome. By partnering with the host nations or communities in areas of concern, the international community is able to increase its awareness of the threats at hand, and to determine how best to respond to these. Funding sources for such a program could be diverse, ranging from local governments or foreign governments, to shipping companies, international bodies, NGOs, or cultural diasporas.

Private industry is in a unique position to be able to deliver such programs at a reasonable cost, and without placing further demand on the already-strained naval assets of many nations with strategic interests in West Africa, particularly the US. Such capacity building models have distinct national security benefits for foreign powers; the deployment of navel assets required to keep vessels and key infrastructure secure is expensive and inefficient in many scenarios. Capacity building models allow for the development of increased maritime security capabilities that are essential to protecting not only local, but foreign interests. This is especially true when you look at the energy security threats presented by pirates as well as local and transnational criminal and terrorist groups in the Gulf of Guinea.

Capacity building programs represent a very real, scalable approach to countering the numerous maritime threats present in the Gulf of Guinea. Challenges certainly exist, but similar challenges in other regions have been mitigated cost-effectively through an industry-based approach. Such programs are eminently compatible with existing strategies of foreign government-led capacity building, such as the United States’ Africa Partnership Station (APS) program, with local initiatives to bolster maritime security forces, and with the existing private sector practice of deploying armed guards on merchant vessels. With a broad-spectrum approach to the problem, such complementary strategies provide the region with interconnected layers of security in order to deal with maritime threats as comprehensively as possible, and in a cost-effective way.

Further Reading

Advancing U.S., African, and Global Interests: Security and Stability in the West African Maritime Domain – Atlantic Council (John Raidt & Kristen E. Smith)

Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa – Congressional Research Service (Lauren Ploch)

A Mature Maritime Strategy For Africa to Meet National Security Goals – Joint Advanced Warfighting School, Joint Forces Staff College, National Defense University (CAPT Ray A. Stapf)


UPDATE 06/02/2012: Global West Vessel Special Nigeria Limited have been awarded a ten-year, $130 million USD contract for maritime security in Nigeria.
Photo courtesy of

8 thoughts on “An Industry-Based Approach to Maritime Security in West Africa

  1. Pingback: Company Spotlight: Triton International And The Somaliland Coastguard | Feral Jundi

  2. Found this from a LinkedIn post. I’ m very interested in the economic costs of piracy in W Africa from hits to oil revenue and etc. Any statistics or figures you could point me to?

  3. Is having maritime security on your ship, really a deterrent against Somalian piracy? The answer is a resounding yes.
    Good Job!

  4. Pingback: Changing Landscape of Gulf of Guinea Piracy as UN Takes a Secondary Role « Communis Hostis Omnium

  5. Pingback: okay, security cooperation in africa is sketchy: where do we go from here? « Securing Rights

  6. Pingback: US MARSEC Capability Development Programs in West Africa: Current Status and Future Prospects | The Rogue Adventurer

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