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Piracy Cuts Oil Production in Cameroon, Threatens Future Investment

Cameroon says its oil production is falling, in part, because of piracy. Our correspondent looks at the economic impact of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and how it differs from piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Cameroon's National Hydrocarbons Corporation says crude oil production is averaging just over 73,000 barrels a day. That is down 13 percent from levels just one year ago as spending in the oil sector has dropped by more than one-third.

The state oil firm says that is partly a result of the international financial crisis and partly a result of insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea brought on by increasing piracy.

As much as 95 percent of Cameroon's oil comes from a basin in the Gulf of Guinea, where attacks on commercial shipping and raids on government outposts have made the area increasingly lawless, threatening the region's export of oil, natural gas, and bauxite.

Seven Chinese fishermen were kidnapped last month in international waters off the Bakassi Peninsula which separates Cameroon from Nigeria. The previously-unknown Africa Marine Commando group is thought to have been paid a ransom for their release.

Days later, the group raided a gendarmerie post in Bakassi stealing weapons and ammunition. It then hijacked a Nigerian boat off the coast of Cameroon, demanding more than $1 million for its release.

Raymond Gilpin is an associate vice president for sustainable economies at the US Institute of Peace. He says piracy is partly a result of the breakdown in a deal that resolved a long-running border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over the Bakassi Peninsula.

"The issues have a lot to do with the fall-out from Bakassi and the apparent harassment of Nigerian nationals on the peninsula," said Raymond Gilpin. "There is a lot of disaffectation in the communities. And as they have done in the Delta, the main way that they demonstrate how disaffected they feel and how wronged they feel they have been is by criminal activity."

Gilpin says piracy threatens the profitability of new oil exploration off Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria's Niger Delta. The interest in new sources of oil will always be there, but Gilpin says it is the quality of investment that will suffer.

"You are less likely to see oil majors who have the capacity and the deep-pockets for the sort of exploration that will be required go in first," he said. "You are more likely to see smaller concerns go in and test the waters. And what this does it costs the countries because when the oil majors come in later, the beneficiaries are the smaller companies that took the risk to go in in the first place, not the countries."

Gilpin says very few countries in the Gulf of Guinea have addressed what he calls vast gaps in maritime security from Nigeria to Angola. Pirate groups that withdrew after increased security in 2000 are now reemerging. But unlike the more-publicized piracy off the coast of Somalia, Gulf of Guinea pirates are less organized.

"Somalia is a projection of lawlessness on land out at sea," said Gilpin. "And therefore you have more organization among the clans to support and sustain piracy. You also have more organization out on the high seas with mother ships supplying and sustaining the skiffs. You also have a lot more organization in terms of financial flows with business communities in Yemen and Kenya and some in Somalia financing, supporting and facilitating the whole chain of piracy through to the ransom."

In the Gulf of Guinea, Gilpin says most pirates operate individually or in less organized groups of small boats.

"What they do share in common is a general trend toward non-lethality unless they feel that their lives are in danger because what both sets are after is the ransom," he said.

The U.S. private security firm MPRI last month won a $250-million contract from Equatorial Guinea to provide nationwide coastal surveillance against piracy.

Gilpin says there should be a broader regional approach to maritime security either through the Economic Community of West African States or the Gulf of Guinea Commission established by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.