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23rd May 2022

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EU navies to hunt pirates in West Africa

  • EU pilot mission in Gulf of Guinea was partly modelled on Atalanta operation in the Horn of Africa (Photo: eunavfor)
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An EU mission using Danish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish warships is to patrol West African waters in coming years to stymie piracy.

France, Italy, and Spain would lead the way, sending ships for eight months each in 2022, the EU external action service proposed in a recent memo to member states' ambassadors.

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The Gulf of Guinea in West Africa "continues to be particularly dangerous for seafarers", the memo, dated 12 January and seen by EUobserver, noted.

"The region now accounts for just over 95 percent of all kidnappings for ransom at sea," it said.

"The risk of PAG [pirate action group] actions remains high ... from Togo to Gabon, with Nigeria as the centre of gravity," the EU added.

But "none of the coastal navies, with the partial exception of Nigeria, can operate the required high-sea patrol boats to respond to attacks," the EU said.

Danish, French, Italian, Portuguese ships have already been doing "exercises" under a "pilot" EU project called the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) Concept in the region since January 2021.

And the foreign service proposed extending the CMP until 2024.

It wanted to put down legal roots, by exploring "handover agreements" with the 20 or so Gulf of Guinea-region nations.

"If the national appropriate legal framework is in place, pirates will be transferred to the concerned MS [member states] and then prosecuted," the EU memo suggested.

The EU was building an intelligence-sharing platform linking "more than 300 EU and [Gulf of Guinea]-national authorities with responsibilities in maritime surveillance".

And Europe wanted to win hearts and minds, including among the "general public".

EU diplomats were to launch a "strategic communication" campaign, with special events, involving CMP "naval visits" at "ports of call, such as Lagos in Nigeria".

Pirate alley

The EU pilot-mission aside, other Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, and US warships have also done independent patrols in the Gulf of Guinea in recent times.

The oil-rich 2.35 million km2 region, where millions of people lived on less than $1 a day, has been become known as "pirate alley", the Reuters news agency recently reported.

Hostages, hundreds of whom were seized in recent years, were ransomed for up to $300,000, it said.

But prisoners suffered ordeals in "the [Niger] Delta's swampy, snaking creeks, where they face malaria, typhoid, and attacks from rival bands of kidnappers", Reuters' report, from Lagos, said.

"Possible attacks might focus on targets closer to the Niger Delta .... their [many pirates'] place of origin, enabling them to flee if being intercepted" in future, the EU foreign service noted in its threat assessment.

Meanwhile, iIllegal fishing was also doing "serious damage to the environment" and causing "depletion of fish stocks", it added.

The region was a "transit zone, but also a destination, of drug trafficking between South America and Europe," it warned.

And there was "human-trafficking and migrant-smuggling towards other African countries or other regions, especially Europe, via the Canary Islands", the EU said.

Hot pursuit

It remained to be seen how well the EU's ambitions go down in Nigeria, the regional power, however.

Nigeria recently accused Denmark of neocolonialism over an incident, last November, when special-forces soldiers from a Danish frigate shot dead four pirates.

And when the same frigate, the Esbern Snare, sent a helicopter to rescue hostages seized by pirates from a Greek-operated container ship, the Tonsberg, in December, Nigeria ordered Denmark's hot pursuit to halt when the pirate boat entered Nigerian waters.

Zooming out, the EU also has military missions in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, and Somalia, as well naval ones in the Central Mediterranean and Horn of Africa seas.

But Europe is competing for influence against Russian and wider aggression as well as Chinese buy-outs of strategic assets in Africa.

"The purpose of the CMP [the EU's West Africa anti-piracy mission] is to increase the EU's capacity as a reliable maritime security provider," the EU memo said.

Europe's flagship anti-piracy operation, Atalanta in the Horn of Africa, has drastically reduced piracy compared to 10 years ago.

But Atalanta, on which CMP was modelled, risked being ejected from Somalia's waters, in a setback to Western efforts to counter piracy in the area, another EU memo from 5 January revealed.

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