Tag Archives: Gulf of Guinea

Drones in Africa: A Leap Ahead for Maritime Security

By CAPT Chris Rawley and LCDR Cedric Patmon

Technology adoption moves in fits and starts. The developing world cannot be forced into accepting new technology, but it can be enabled, and often in a surprising manner. A recent example is the leap in communications technology. During the 20th Century most of the world developed a robust network of terrestrial-based telecommunications based primarily on the ubiquitous land-line telephone system. Without this infrastructure in place Sub-Saharan African countries were largely left behind at the start of the information revolution. But at the turn of the new century something interesting happened. Rather than retroactively building an archaic phone system Africans embraced mobile phone technology. From 1999 through 2004 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa eclipsed those of other continents, increasing at a rate of 58 percent annually. Asia, the second fastest area of saturation, grew at only 34 percent during that time. The explosive growth of mobile phones and more recently smart phones across practically every African city and village has liberated economies and facilitated the free flow of information. This technology also enabled Africans to lead the world in mobile money payment solutions, bypassing increasingly obsolete banking systems.

Today, Africans have another opportunity to leap ahead in technology to protect one of their most important areas of commerce – their coastal seas. Africa’s maritime economy is absolutely critical to the continent’s growth and prosperity during the next few decades. On the edge of the Eastern Atlantic the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by eight West African nations, and is an extremely important economic driver. More than 450 million Africans derive commercial benefit from this body of water. The region contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves and has produced up to 5.5 million barrels of oil per day. Additionally, over 90 percent of foreign imports and exports cross the Gulf of Guinea making it the region’s key connector to the global economy.

Favorable demographics and industrious populations put coastal Africans in a position to prosper, but an increase in illegal fishing activities and piracy since the early 2000s has severely impeded this potential. The growth in acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea from 2000 onward points to the challenges faced by West African states.

According to Quartz Africa, illegal fishing activities in the region have a negative economic impact of $2-3 billion annually. “Fish stocks are not restricted to national boundaries, and that is why the solutions to end the overfishing of West Africa’s waters can only come from joint efforts between the countries of the region,” Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace’s Africa Oceans campaigner, said in a statement. Marine pollution, human, and narcotics trafficking are also major issues facing the region.

Due to the economic impact of illicit activities in and around West Africa a Summit of the Gulf of Guinea heads of state and government was held in 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This resulted in the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration on Gulf of Guinea Security. Two key resolutions contained in the Declaration were the creation of an inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa, headquartered in Yaoundé, and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa. Adoption of this agreement has laid the foundation for critical information sharing and resource cooperation that can be used to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

Though the Code of Conduct established an architecture for maritime security in the region, without enforcement on the water, diplomatic efforts are largely impotent. Key to enforcement is the ability to identify, track, and prosecute nefarious actors on the high seas and in coastal areas. So-called maritime domain awareness is gradually improving in the area, but current options for maritime surveillance are limited. The largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels capable of multi-day over-the-horizon operations, but even these vessels have limited enforcement capacity. Patrol vessels face maintenance issues and fuel scarcity. Shore-based radar systems at best reach out 30 or 40 nautical miles, but are plagued by power and maintenance issues. Moreover, a shore-based radar, even with signals correlated from vessels transmitting on the Automatic Identification System, only provides knowledge that a contact is afloat, not necessarily any evidence to illicit actions.

Latin American navies face similar maritime challenges to those in Africa and have learned that airborne surveillance is simply the best way to locate, track, identify, and classify surface maritime targets involved in illicit or illegal activity. A retired senior naval officer from the region related a study in the Caribbean narcotics transit zone to one of the authors that compared different surveillance mechanisms for the 11,000 square nautical mile area. The probability of detecting a surface target within six hours rose from only five percent with a surface asset to 95 percent when maritime patrol aircraft were included. Only a handful of coastal African countries have fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, but these aircraft face similar issues to surface assets with fuel costs and mechanical readiness resulting in limited flight time on station.

Drone Solutions to African Maritime Insecurity

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are known colloquially, provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance maritime security in a relatively inexpensive manner, similar to the ways mobile telephony revolutionized communications on the continent. Similar to the evolution of computing power outlined by Moore’s law tactical UAS are rapidly growing in capabilities while decreasing in cost. Improvements in sensors, endurance, and payload are advancing quickly. For any solution, acquisition cost, maintainability, and infrastructure required are key factors to be considered. The cost per flying hour of most UAS is negligible compared to their manned counterparts. Today’s fixed and rotary-wing systems, whether specifically designed for military use or for commercial applications, can be adapted for surveillance in a maritime environment without much additional cost.

A Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft is bungee launched in a midday demonstration flight. (© Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)

Because each country has unique requirements and budgets no single UAS solution is appropriate. Maritime drones can be based ashore or on coastal patrol vessels. One viable option for countries with limited resources involves services contracted by Western Partners, a model which has already been proven in the region for other applications. Alternatively, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct provides a framework for a possible shared model. This agreement can provide the timely sharing of critical information ascertained by maritime surveillance and reconnaissance systems to aid in the enforcement of the maritime laws and agreements in the region. Contractor-operated drones could be allocated across countries by leadership in the five Zones delineated by the Code. Multinational cooperation on maritime security has already been tested in the annual Obangame Express exercise and during real-world counterpiracy operations. Understanding that not all countries have the investment capability to purchase their own stand-alone systems, consideration could be given to sharing the initial investment costs between countries. The logistics of system placement and asset availability would have to be determined by the participating countries themselves but the benefit of such a program would positively impact the entire region economically, enhance interoperability, and assist in regional stability.

Drones are already being operated across Africa by Africans. Zambia recently purchased Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-poaching operations. There are also African unmanned systems flying surveillance missions over areas plagued by violent extremists groups. UAS are even being used to transport blood and medical supplies across the continent’s vast rural landscapes. Shifting these assets over water is a natural progression. One concern about using UAS is airspace deconfliction. However, this problem is minimized because there is little to no civil aviation in most parts of Africa. Additionally, most maritime UAS would be flying primarily at low altitudes over water from coastal bases.

Conclusion

The leap-ahead capabilities that unmanned surveillance aircraft could provide to coastal security around Africa are clearly evident. African navies with adequate resources should make acquisition of unmanned air systems a priority. Likewise, western foreign military assistance programs should focus on providing contracted or organic unmanned aircraft capabilities.

Captain Rawley, a surface warfare officer, and Lieutenant Commander Patmon, a naval aviator, are assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet’s Maritime Partnership Program detachment responsible for helping West African countries enhance their maritime security. The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone and do not officially represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization

Featured Image: GULF OF GUINEA (March 26, 2018) A visit board search and seizure team member from the Ghanaian special boat service communicates with his team during a search aboard a target vessel during exercise Obangame Express 2018, March 26. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)

Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security in 2016

By Dirk Steffen

2016 witnessed a marked increase in maritime security incidents over the previous year, irrespective of the counting standards. Denmark-based Risk Intelligence counted 119 verified attacks by criminals on all kinds of vessels in West Africa (Senegal to Angola) – compared with 82 in 2015. The vast majority of attacks in 2016 were perpetrated by Nigerian criminals, including all of the 84 that were concentrated in and around Nigerian waters.

However, as alarming as such figures may seem, 2016 was neither unusually busy nor were there any significant changes to the patterns of maritime crime in West Africa, specifically the Gulf of Guinea, when assessed in the long term. Over a 9-year period (since 2007), the average number of maritime security incidents for West Africa is 122 – typically ranging between 80 and 140 per year. Of this figure, Nigerian waters alone account for an average of 87 attacks per year.

Annual pirate and piracy-related attacks against shipping in West Africa (Senegal to Angola) 2007-2016. (MaRisk by Risk Intelligence)

Throughout this period, maritime kidnappings steadily increased and focused almost exclusively on Nigerian waters. Since 2013, maritime kidnappings have accounted for around 30 percent of all attacks (including failed attacks) off Nigeria. In 2016, most successful kidnappings were concentrated in two cycles of attacks: the first in January to mid-May 2016 (mirroring almost exactly the development of 2013), the second in the last two months of the year. Hijackings, a common feature during the MEND insurgency in the Niger Delta between 2006-2009, and again during the period of tanker hijackings between late 2010 and 2013, have all but stopped, following the successful intervention of the Nigerian Navy against the hijackers of the tanker MAXIMUS in February 2016.

The real strategic concern for the Nigerian government in 2016 was the resurgent Niger Delta insurgency. It was spearheaded by a group called the “Niger Delta Avengers,” whose campaign of oil and gas infrastructure disruption reduced the Nigerian oil output to a historic low of 1.1m barrels per day (bpd) (vis-à-vis the projected 2.2-2.4m bbpd and the average 1.75m bbpd on average in 2015) during the summer of 2016. One impact on maritime security was the disruption of crude oil loading and an increased demand for petroleum products (due to Nigerian refineries being cut off from their crude oil supplies), thus creating, at least in theory, a more target-rich environment. However, the dynamics of maritime insecurity in Nigeria are historically driven by other factors. As the insurgency went through its customary cycles of issuing threats, militant action, and “cease-fires” to regroup and reiterate demands, the maritime security situation displayed an inverse correlation: the spate of attacks reminiscent of the first 4 months of 2013 swept across the seas off the Niger Delta between March and mid-May 2016, followed by a lull as militant groups were actively engaged in onshore violence throughout the summer. Offshore attacks returned to the waters outside the Niger Delta in November and December 2016 because of calmer weather, cyclical pre-Christmas criminal activity, and lower onshore militancy. This pattern suggests that at the tactical level, the “attackers” ,when not employed in militancy, oil theft, illegal bunkering or gang warfare, engage in piracy to cover some of their funding needs.

The wider Gulf of Guinea was less affected by these developments than it was when the tanker hijackings originating from Nigeria peaked in 2011-12. While the capability to enforce security even in very limited parts of their territorial waters remains constrained for some nations, like Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Liberia or Sierra Leone, organized piracy has not really taken hold in any of those places. In Guinea-Conakry, however, members of the armed forces are engaged in armed robbery at sea and extortion of foreign fishing vessels, even in neighboring Sierra Leone. Ghana experienced a spate of petty thefts at Takoradi anchorage, which gave it some bad press, but no violence against crews was reported. By and large, when speaking of “Gulf of Guinea piracy” as a problem for international shipping, it is Nigerian piracy that we mean. Other forms of maritime crime, on the other hand, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), smuggling of oil, drugs, agricultural products and other goods were – and are – the more pressing day-to-day challenges for coastal nations in the region.

Piracy and maritime security incidents in the Gulf of Guinea (Ivory Coast to Gabon) in 2016. (MaRisk by Risk Intelligence)

It is important to understand that many acts of Nigerian “piracy” also have a hidden context that the uncritical reporting in the international press is unaware of. Locally trading product tankers are often attacked, and crew members kidnapped or cargo stolen, as a part of criminal “turf” wars or other disputes between criminal parties. The kidnapping of crew members from fishing (and refrigerated cargo) vessels is often related to extortion within the criminal business of illegal fishing and transhipment of catch. This may, for example, have been the case on 27 November 2016, when the SARONIC BREEZE was attacked 80 nm off Cotonou. The Panama-flagged vessel, according to the Benin Navy, was in a different place than where it should have been (at the anchorage) when it was attacked and three crew members kidnapped.

Regional Cooperation

Against this slightly disconcerting backdrop, there is the gradual increase of political will and ability by some West African nations to take ownership of maritime security. Following the successful rescue of the MAXIMUS, the Nigerian Navy launched Operation ‘Tsare Teku’ in the face of intense pirate activity, and prolonged the operation throughout summer, while being engaged in counterinsurgency operations at the same time. While the impact of the operation was assessed as modest even by Nigerian planners, it demonstrated that the Nigerians were, for the first time, publicly owning up to the problem of maritime piracy emanating from their country. More recently, the flag officer commanding the Eastern Naval Command, Rear Adm. James Oluwole, quite rightly pointed out that the lack of prosecution reduced any effectiveness the Navy might have in the battle against maritime criminals.

Naval police stand guard as suspected pirates are paraded aboard a naval ship after their arrest by the Nigerian Navy at a defense jetty in Lagos, August 20, 2013. (Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye)

The lack of prosecution, and in many cases the lack of legislation that permits prosecution of pirates, is still one of the shortfalls of the implementation of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct as it came under review in mid-2016, when its initial three-year trial period ended. Information sharing, maritime domain awareness, and maritime law enforcement capacities and capabilities vary sharply throughout the region, and are by and large wholly insufficient, although measurable progress has been made in all fields. Nigeria, as the main country of origin for serious criminals in maritime piracy, is in the process of passing a law that will allow it to prosecute pirates who had hitherto gone unpunished or were indicted for lesser crimes.

The Role of Private Maritime Security

Gulf of Guinea states remain wary of private security solutions, yet various models of private-public security partnerships exist in the region. In Benin and Togo, both navies operate “secured anchorages,” in addition to providing embarked teams of navy troops through agents and local security companies. In Ghana and Cameroon, naval or, in the case of Cameroon’s Battalion d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), army protection can be obtained through direct liaison with those nations’ militaries.

The most unusual arrangement though has evolved in Nigeria. Although various models have been employed by security companies and shipping companies, not always with authorization by the Nigerian government, the pre-eminent security solution is the security vessel or patrol boat. Security vessels have a long history that date back to the early 2000s, when the first armed unrest spread onto the creeks and off the Niger Delta. Typically, the security vessels of that era were ordinary offshore support vessels with four to six embarked soldiers. These vessels were (and still are) predictably ineffective against groups of heavily armed attackers, who engage with two to three large speedboats, often with one or two general purpose machine guns between them.

Converted offshore service vessels with improvised firing positions, like these two fast crew and supply boats at Borokiri (Port Harcourt), form the bulk of Nigeria’s privately contracted “auxiliary” navy. (Dirk Steffen)

The model of choice though, originally conceived at the height of the Niger Delta insurgency between 2006 and 2009, was for private companies to supply and maintain patrol boats, which would be put at the disposal of the then dysfunctional Nigerian Navy. When not on military business, those vessels and their Nigerian Navy gun crews with mounted weapons and ammunition would be available for protection missions for commercial clients. Sixteen Nigerian companies entered such an agreement with the Nigerian Navy in 2016 under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), effectively providing the bulk of offshore oil field security, and increasing the amount of merchant vessel protection in- and outbound from Nigerian ports. A privately operated joint venture also manages the secure anchorage off Lagos, the only such dedicated area in the region officially promulgated on admiralty charts.

More than 100 such privately contracted security vessels are in operation in Nigerian waters. No one knows the exact number – not even the Nigerian Navy. The quality of these vessels varies – ranging from purpose-built law-enforcement and patrol boats to hastily converted offshore support vessels (or vessels with embarked troops only.) While this contractor fleet provides a welcome relief for the Nigerian Navy, which has only a few assets capable of patrolling the exclusive economic zone, it also presents a major headache for the Nigerian Navy’s operations department to monitor the activities of these contracted patrol boats and supply men, weapons, and ammunition to them and ensure compliance with the terms of the MoU.

NNS GBEDE, a privately contracted patrol boat, returns to Port Harcourt from sea trials on the Bonny River (Nigeria). These boats are examples of the type of vessels envisaged by the Nigerian Navy’s Memorandum of Understanding with private maritime security companies. (Dirk Steffen)

The document envisages a partnership between the Nigerian Navy and the private companies for maintenance, training, welfare, and information sharing, thus leveraging the Navy’s “investment” in terms of hard-to-get trained personnel and weapons into the public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, most companies appear to consider the partnership as an “optional” element of their relationship with the Navy. This is compounded by commercial and contractual pressures that preclude many security vessels from rendering assistance to attacks or incidents other than those involving their clients. Unless the MoU is enforced more rigorously, it is therefore unlikely that anyone except for a handful of commercial clients with sufficiently deep pockets will benefit from this arrangement.

Conclusion

Despite the brief surges of offshore piracy in 2016, the Gulf of Guinea remains “business as usual” in terms of maritime security, with incidents in Nigerian waters or emanating from Nigeria accounting for the lion’s share of incidents. For the other West African countries, with a few exceptions, piracy is persistent, but one of the lesser problems in a region characterized by weak maritime governance.

For Nigeria, 2016 was one of the hardest years since the county’s return to democracy in 1999, politically and economically. While the “Niger Delta Avengers” failed to incite a broad-based insurgency in the Niger Delta, their pinpoint targeting of critical oil and gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta was more effective than MEND ever was in that respect; even the temporary loss of control of considerable territory in the northeast to Boko Haram in 2013-14 was strategically less significant.

The onshore security situation in the Niger Delta had a direct impact on the maritime security situation in Nigerian waters and the wider Gulf of Guinea. The seesaw between onshore violence and surges of offshore piracy underlines that while Buhari and his government have made some inroads against the “godfather” system, the latter is far from defeated. It continues to bind criminal, economic, and political interests in Nigeria together. Nigeria will thus remain the nexus for organized crime in western Africa and any regional efforts can only contain the maritime element of this threat until the problem is solved in Nigeria.

Private maritime security will likely remain the (expensive) sticking plaster to fix the situation for commercial ship operators in the short term. However, few of the models in use, short of purpose-built and suitably armed patrol boats, are likely to provide any meaningful deterrent against Nigerian pirates in particular, who are both capable and willing to overcome armed resistance. Except for Ghana and Cameroon (where the use of naval/army assets for commercial purposes is severely circumscribed), none of the “private” or public-private maritime security solutions is likely to enhance the scarce maritime security assets and capabilities of the West African nations.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in the African Partnership Station exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014, 2015 and 2016 at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Featured Image: A Nigerian Marine Police checkpoint on the Bonny River designed to intercept illegally refined petroleum products from being marketed in Port Harcourt. Endemic corruption in Nigeria’s police force casts some doubt on the effectiveness of such measures. Photo: Dirk Steffen.

Sea Control 117 – Niger Delta Pirates Declare War?

seacontrol2Niger Delta violence returns as oil prices plummet and both the Nigerian government’s ability and willingness to pay off former militants decreases. As the Nigerian Navy moves to counter this new violence, a largely unknown group called the “Niger Delta Avengers” has responded by “declaring war” on the Navy. Dirk Steffen, who recently published a CIMSEC article on this development, joins us to discuss the current situation in the Gulf of Guinea, the militant threats, government capabilities & intentions, as well as the methods and background of these pirate operations. 

This is not the podcast to miss! It won’t make you an expert like Dirk, but he’ll have given us enough information to pretend to be one by the end of the podcast.

DOWNLOAD: Niger Delta Pirates Declare War?

Sea Control 72 – Obangame Express, Gulf of Guinea

seacontrol2We interview CAPT Rinko, USN, and CDR Sune, Cameroon, about Obangame Express, the 23 Nation Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security exercise. We discuss the scope and purpose of the exercise, the challenges of building cross-organizational/ cultural/ national inter-operability, and lessons learned. For context on the ongoing expansion and conduct of Obangame Express,  CIMSEC Africa expert, Dirk Steffen assessed this exercise last year.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 72:
Obangame Express 2015

Remember, subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher Stream Radio. Leave a comment and rate five stars!

Host and Editing: Matthew Hipple
Music: Sam LaGrone