Is Ghana becoming a piracy hot spot?

Two recent attacks have raised concerns that Ghana could be turning into a hot spot for piracy and armed robbery at sea. On Friday, 26 July, the oil tanker Hai Soon 6 was reported missing off Ghana’s coast. This followed after an attack on the oil tanker Fair Artemis, which had taken place on 4 June 2014. Given that this area is not known to be a piracy hot spot, these attacks should sound an alert to West African authorities to take quick action and prioritise cooperation in maritime security.

This latest incident demonstrates that no West African country can claim to be immune from piracy, despite assurances to the contrary from Ghanaian leaders. This also highlights, more broadly, that there is a prevailing lack of cooperation among the operational personnel who are responsible for maritime security in West Africa; something which pirates are exploiting.

The Ghanaian authorities have expressed confidence in the security of their coasts, and say that this is being achieved through a number of developments. These include the acquisition of patrol boats operated by the navy and maritime police; setting up of a vessel traffic management system; and security cooperation with neighbouring countries. Following the Fair Artemis hijacking, Paul Asare Ansah, Head of Public Relations for the Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority, stated that ‘Ghana regularly maintains the security of its anchorage, having obtained boats that constantly maintain vigilance over its waters together with the navy and the maritime police.’

The situation in Ghana is reminiscent of what happened in Côte d’Ivoire in 2012 and 2013

Adding to this statement, James Agalga, Ghana’s Deputy Minister of the Interior, said that security measures make the coasts of Ghana ‘too dangerous for pirates to operate.’ Ghanaian authorities unanimously say that the Fair Artemis was hijacked in the maritime space belonging to Togo. It remains to be seen whether they will allege that the latest attack also took place in the waters of neighbouring Togo.

The situation that Ghana is experiencing is reminiscent of what happened in Côte d’Ivoire in 2012 and 2013. Côte d’Ivoire, under the illusion that it was safe from piracy, experienced four successive pirate attacks within four months: the Orfeas on 8 October 2012; the Madonna I on 23 December 2012, the Itri on 16 January 2013 and the Gascogne on 2 February 2013.

As a result, Côte d’Ivoire port authorities have since conceded that there is no secure maritime route, as the pirates have continued to be unpredictable and strike where least expected.

It is important to note that the pirates released the Hai Soon 6 on Sunday 3 August – after stealing part of the cargo – around 60 nautical miles east of Lagos, Nigeria, leaving the crew unharmed. For this hijacking, the Gulf of Guinea pirates followed their usual modus operandi. The pirates took control of the ship late at night (around 11:40pm) while the tanker was engaged in a trans-shipment operation with another vessel. They disconnected the ship’s communication and automatic identification systems, steered her towards an isolated area to sell the cargo and then abandoned the ship, without harming the crew members.

An effective response to counter maritime security threats requires human resources, technical resources and a coordination system. In West Africa, the human resources exist in terms of the number of staff and their qualifications; and technical resources are being acquired – as shown by recent statements regarding the procurement of patrol boats.

For this hijacking, the Gulf of Guinea pirates followed their usual modus operandi

The most important issue in combating piracy is therefore not necessarily the issue of resources, but rather the lack of effective cooperation and coordination between maritime security bodies.

This regional problem is also relevant to Ghana where, despite political assurances to the contrary, there is scant evidence of any significant cooperation between the navy and the maritime police.

This cooperation, which is crucial for managing the maritime domain, is also lacking in other West African countries.

In Nigeria, for instance, the navy and the maritime police need to coordinate their activities and increase collaboration – as demonstrated by the incident of the Histria Coral.

On 23 October 2013, a Nigerian maritime police unit mistook a small boat transporting Nigerian navy personnel for a pirate boat and opened fire on the vessel. Fearing the anger of the navy, the policemen locked themselves into the Histria Coral’s citadel (a safe room designed for crew members to seek protection in the event of an attack) for days before they were arrested.

In Côte d’Ivoire, while a maritime strategy is being established, the navy and the General Directorate of Maritime and Port Affairs are involved in a tug-of-war around a decree (decree 2014-181 signed on 10 April 2014). The Directorate believes that the decree deprives it of its operational missions.

Senegal is no exception either. In 2006, the High Authority for the coordination of maritime security, maritime safety and marine environment protection was created. Despite this, the country has yet to resolve the challenges created by the often-acrimonious relationship between the navy and the National Agency of Maritime Affairs.

It is encouraging that attention is being focused on maritime security in West Africa through the acquisition of technical resources such as patrol boats. However, the threat of escalated piracy will remain as long as there is lack of cooperation and coordination between maritime security forces.

Barthelemy Blede, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Dakar