YAOUNDE, CAMEROON — Experts are working to beef up security in the Gulf of Guinea, through which an estimated 40 percent of Europe's oil imports and 29 percent of U.S.-bound petroleum products pass annually.
According to a report from the International Maritime Bureau, the gulf located off the central part of the West African coastline is becoming a new hot spot for piracy, with potential to eclipse the scale of high-seas crime seen off the Horn of Africa. Fifty-eight pirate attacks were recorded in the Gulf last year, including 10 hijackings. Nearly half of the attacks occurred off the coast of Nigeria, with others occurring off Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Benin and nearby countries.
In February 2012 alone, the report indicates, eight oil tankers were attacked.
But industrial petroleum vessels aren't the only targets. Ships carrying cocoa and metals destined for world markets have also come under attack. Pirates have killed Cameroon security officials, and the mayor of Kombo Abedimo, a locality in western Cameroon, was taken captive by pirates while en route to Nigeria.
“We were ambushed with three gunboats armed to the teeth with about 10 persons per boat," said Mayor Patrick Aboko by telephone. "And surprisingly there was [a] gun firing and some of us fell into water and we were picked up by pirates and taken to their camp. In fact we went through serious torture and the government intervened.”
With attacks mounting, the United Nations has appointed Abou Moussa as the special representative to Central Africa with a focus on reducing insecurity in the gulf. Also, West African security experts and defense ministers met this month in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, where they resolved against negotiating with pirates and they agreed to use any force necessary to eliminate threats.
General Carter Ham, former commander of the U.S. military's Africa Command, says regional cooperation is needed to meet growing challenges.
“There is lots of work to be done in the Gulf of Guinea. The president and the leaders in Cameroon understand that this is a responsibility not of one nation, but all the nations in the region," he said. "And so what we try to do is to find opportunities for the many nations to cooperate and coordinate their efforts, because we are convinced that when they will be able to do so, there will be security in the Gulf of Guinea and that is what we all desire.”
According to British security expert John Drick, proliferation of piracy in the Gulf has already led to a rise in oil prices.
"A repeat of instability and pirate attacks off the coast could again lead to a spike in prices and could cause concerns in the international market," he said, referring to attacks in Nigeria's Niger Delta that triggered a price increase.
While countries that border the Gulf of Guinea — Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon — produce more than three million barrels of oil daily for North American and European markets, the Niger Delta region produces the bulk of it.
High crude prices and unrest in the region, particularly in Nigeria, create favorable conditions for piracy. Left unchecked, observers say piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has the potential to reach and surpass the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia in the past decade.