The Oil and the Glory

With pirates, it’s one step forward, two steps back

Some three centuries ago, a Welshman named Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts captured hundreds of vessels in a record run of piracy off the West African coast. Roberts was a star of what historians call the Golden Age of Piracy, when brigands seriously terrorized the movement of seaborne commerce. He comes to mind because, for him, ...

Tony Karumba  AFP/Getty Images
Tony Karumba AFP/Getty Images

Some three centuries ago, a Welshman named Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts captured hundreds of vessels in a record run of piracy off the West African coast. Roberts was a star of what historians call the Golden Age of Piracy, when brigands seriously terrorized the movement of seaborne commerce. He comes to mind because, for him, it all began off the coast of Ghana, which today is seriously worried about a new flourishing of piracy. The oil-soaked Gulf of Guinea, of which Ghana is part, risks becoming one of the world’s riskiest zones of piracy if security is not enforced rapidly, reports the Ghanaian Times.

The newspaper was quoting Joseph Nunoo-Mensah, a brigadier general and national security advisor to the Ghanaian government. Currently, the biggest haunt for pirates is East Africa, the haven for Somali pirates (such as the jailed man pictured above), but risk analysts and insurance carriers say that West Africa is now just as troubled. Oil supertankers plying far off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea are the targets of über-confident pirates from Nigeria, and Nunoo-Mensah is urging his neighbors to band together and choke them off before a new profligate kidnap-and-random zone emerges.

There is some exaggeration to the comparisons to Somalia, as is immediately clear from this excellent live piracy map maintained by the International Maritime Bureau. The waters off Somalia and far off into the Indian Ocean are thicker with pirates. Yet there is something to Nunoo-Mensah’s worries. About 10 days ago, a gang of pirates released 23 crew members of a Spanish oil tanker after stealing its diesel cargo; the pirates seized the Mattheos I off the coast of Benin, part of a wave of attacks by gangs run out of the Niger Delta by a government crackdown there.

There is reason for optimism in the strategy of coordination and beefing up security. Around Somalia, for example, the absolute number of pirate attacks are up this year to 192 (compared with 127 last year), but in just 24 of those did the pirates manage actually to hijack their targeted ship (compared with 30 in 2010), writes Robert Wright at the Financial Times. The rest were chased away or averted.

Yet the pirates are better and better skilled, managing to ply waters far from their bases, using some of the very ships and crews they previously hijacked, Wright reports. Which is what makes Nunoo-Mensah so worried.

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