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WEST AFRICA: Joint Action Against Piracy

Noël Kokou Tadégnon

LOME, Sep 26 2011 (IPS) - There have already been more than thirty pirate attacks on ships along the West African coast so far this year. Regional governments will meet in Cotonou, Benin in October to discuss coordinating efforts to stem piracy.

Congolese sailors participate in a boarding team operations course hosted by High Speed Vessel Swift in July. Credit: Ian Carver/U.S. Navy

Congolese sailors participate in a boarding team operations course hosted by High Speed Vessel Swift in July. Credit: Ian Carver/U.S. Navy

The figures for attacks come from incidents reported by ships’ masters to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre and underline the growing threat to shipping in this oil-rich region.

Among the most recent attacks was the Sep. 15 seizure of the oil tanker Mattheos I and its 23-person crew off the coast of Togo. Ten days later, the ship’s Spanish owners told media that tanker and crew had been released; no ransom was paid, but the company said the pirates stole some of the vessel’s cargo of diesel fuel.

Governments along the length of the West African coastline have expressed concern about a surge in the number of attacks on cargo ships, and are seeking to combine limited resources to take concerted actions, such as recent joint patrols in the Gulf of Guinea.

“But we don’t want to limit ourselves to joint patrols between Benin and Nigeria; we will very shortly extend this to include the Togolese and Ghanaian navies,” Commandant Maxime Ahoyo, Benin’s Naval Chief of Staff, told IPS.

“If we take care of problems with piracy in Benin’s territorial waters but, for example, Togo doesn’t take necessary security precautions, and we don’t collaborate with Togo and other countries, this phenomenon – which has such long tentacles – will only spread.”

Economic consequences

The president of the Economic Community of West African States Commission, James Victor Gbeho, has called for action against piracy to be widened to include all the states along the coast.

“The navies of all our coastal states should permanently combine their operations,” Gbeho told IPS, underlining his belief that the problem of piracy must be addressed comprehensively. “The phenomenon is becoming worrying and could have serious economic consequences for our countries. That is why we will act firmly against it.”

Piracy has already led maritime insurers in London to put Benin on a list of high-risk zones for shipping. Maritime insurers represented by the Lloyd’s Market Association are demanding higher fees to cover ships which pass through the region.

According to Bénetti Gagalo, Assistant Secretary General of the Togolese Association of Consumers, the situation will certainly have repercussions on income in regional ports as well as on the cost of consumer goods.

External assistance

The urgency of the situation has pushed regional governments to ask for support from France and the United States, who have both deployed naval vessels to the area.

A French frigate, the Germinal, is already carrying out surveillance along the coasts of Benin, Togo and Ghana to try and neutralise the pirates, as well as training naval personnel from all three countries.

“We have hosted these sailors, and they’ve taken part in all the security exercises and patrols that we have carried out to prevent acts of piracy. And they have helped us with their intimate knowledge of the area of operations,” Sébastien Chatelin, captain of the French vessel, told IPS.

A U.S. Navy vessel, the HSV Swift, is also in the Gulf of Guinea, supporting the fight against piracy with training for Beninois, Togolese and Ghanaian sailors as part of U.S. military cooperation programme called Africa Partnership Station.

“Our mission is to try and train African partners on safety and security,” said the captain of the U.S. vessel, Rhett S. Mann.

“The APS programme will allow us to work together to face the problems which affect our coastal waters,” added Sam Nkruma, a Ghanaian naval officer.

His Beninois colleague, Christian Oussa, welcomed the training received on board the two naval ships. “This will allow us to face pirates and various traffickers on the sea. We have learned how to board suspect vessels to inspect them; the training was really appropriate,” he told IPS.

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