The Gulf of Guinea’s Blue Economy: from Oil through Fish to People.

The Gulf of Guinea embraces the most economically dynamic and populous countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as evidenced by their average 3% annual GDP growth. While hydrocarbon resources contribute account for the main share of national revenues in Nigeria and Angola, the impact of oil extraction on GDP has been steadily declining over the years, reflecting the diversification of these countries’ internal markets. This has stimulated an increasing interest in non-energy-related maritime trade. Coastal countries in West Africa have indeed committed to the creation of a “Blue Economy,” where the abundance of fish is capitalized on to satisfy European needs. This has made the region one of the main supply basins and markets of sea products worldwide but has also generated heavy economic and social repercussions.

Hostilities can be linked back to the extraction of oil, which has enriched the elite at the price of deteriorating farming areas and polluting waters, devastating the sources of livelihood for local communities. Coupled with the careless building of enormous port infrastructures, the situation has been exacerbated by lax regulations permitting foreign companies to fish in territorial waters and EEZs, meeting small local fishermen with the unsustainable competition of European and Asian vessels. Economic marginalization has then fomented political resentment and ethnic hostility, giving birth to protest movements across the region, from the Niger Delta through the enclave of Cabinda to Cameroon’s anglophone provinces.

The political charge of the insurgency has thenceforth faded. Even the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has weakened in the years after 2009 following the Pact of reconciliation and National Reintegration. However, it did not succumb entirely. A rift manifested, a generational conflict between the old militias who had abandoned the armed struggle and the younger ones, jealous of the advantages gained by those preceding them. It was then that MEND started realizing criminal activities were far more lucrative than political insurrection and an ideological framework was needed solely for legitimacy.

This understanding pushed the Igbo and Ijaw ethnic militancy to be more akin to organized crime than mobilization. So, within a few years, the most dangerous and consistent threat to Abuja’s interests turned into an organization of oil smugglers first, and into an association of pirates next. Most of the hostile acts took place within the limit of territorial waters, evidencing the limited operational capacity of local pirates, who use fast but run-down boats and rely on mainland refuges to escape detection systems and coast guards. They have also started supporting drug traffickers with logistics, acting as a distraction at sensitive times of transshipment.

With crude oil prices starting to falter and numbers of transiting ships rising, the most convenient business has become the abduction of foreign crews. In the context of globally increasing piracy, with 162 attacks in 2019 compared to 195 in 2020, the waters between Senegal and Angola have registered the fastest growth, with 64 crimes in 2019, representing 39% of the world total and 90% within Africa, and 78 in 2020, equivalent to 40% of the world total and 90% within Africa. The vast majority of the attacks occurred in Nigerian waters, with 35 attacks in both 2019 and 2020, but numerous attacks were also registered in Benin and Ghana (3 and 3 in 2019, compared to 9 and 11 in 2020).

This shows that piracy is an industry in strong expansion, that is becoming progressively more attractive for a lot of newly-marginalized communities. Between 2018 and 2020, ransom payments, insurance premiums, and losses caused by delays and damages have costed the countries in the Gulf of Guinea more than 2.5 billion dollars. This proliferation of piracy is facilitated by corruption, which makes it possible for militiamen and pirates to undermine investigative and judicial efforts and escape prosecution. After all, letting an illegal refinery work, supporting an oil pipeline saboteur, or simply ignoring a ship’s request for help can earn a policeman, a port security officer, or a coast guard far more than their monthly salary.

Luca Giulini