Piracy attacks are escalating in the Gulf of Guinea, endangering the future of one of the world's emerging shipping hubs and highlighting the weak state of maritime security in West Africa.
The Gulf of Guinea stretches along a dozen West and Central African countries, including Nigeria and Angola, the continent's top oil producers.
Though waters off the coast of Somalia remain the uncontested epicenter of global piracy, the Gulf of Guinea has reported an alarming spike in attacks this year, particularly off the coast of Benin.
Raymond Gilpin, the director of the Center for Sustainable Economies at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said, "It's clear that the gang or gangs involved in this know exactly what they are looking for - oil tankers that are either anchored or moored in some form. The intent is to take over the vessel, direct it to a safe location and offload its cargo."
Armed robbery at sea is not new to the Gulf of Guinea, nor is the illegal sale of oil stolen from its waters in West African and European ports. Over the past six months, however, analysts say the attacks have become more systematic and the criminals, more organized.
Naval authorities say evidence suggests the pirates are from Nigeria.
Gilpin said their method of attack, particularly their use of violence, resembles that of criminals in the Niger Delta. Ships that are taken over, he said, also are often diverted to waters near the Nigerian border.
The International Maritime Bureau said 15 attacks were reported off the coast of Benin in the first half of this year, up from zero last year.
Gilpin said increased security in Nigerian waters could be behind the spike.
"The Nigerian navy in collaboration with a number of international partners have done a lot to shore up security in and around the Delta region. Crime looks for the soft underbelly, the weak link," he said. "Here in neighboring Benin, much thought had not been given to systematic maritime security and so anchored vessels are a lot more vulnerable off the coast of Benin than they would be in Nigeria."
Gilpin said most of the attacks are happening between 10 kilometers and 30 kilometers off the coast, meaning you could watch some of them happening with a good pair of binoculars.
While the U.S. and other Western nations actively patrol the waters off Somalia in search of pirates, West African navies are left to mind the Gulf of Guinea on their own. Analysts say many lack even the most basic tools to confront criminal activity, like radar equipment and patrol boats.
Economists say attacks in the region could have serious financial implications, including a spike in global oil prices. International shipping companies could face higher insurance premiums or might simply avoid the trade route altogether. West African consumers would then see increased costs for imported goods like rice and electronics.
Attacks on ships in the Gulf of Guinea are consistently underreported, particularly off the coast of Nigeria.
Kwesi Aning, head of research for the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center in Ghana, said every country has been hit.
"It is a much more widespread set of activities. They are trying to make us all think that piracy is about oil in the Gulf of Guinea," said Aning. "That is not true. It is also about narcotics. It's about small arms. It's about human trafficking. So some of us are looking it through our own lenses, what do we think as Africans that maritime security does for us."
Navies are all but nonexistent, he said, leaving overlapping criminal networks free to rob ships and move illicit goods through the gulf.
Analysts say piracy is a regional problem in need of a regional response, but so far there has been little progress. West African navies, they say, must become as proactive and transnational as the criminals they face.