August 24, 2011 / 5:06 PM / 8 years ago

West Africa regional force mooted to fight pirates

LONDON (Reuters) - West African countries are discussing the creation of a regional force to tackle growing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, a senior Nigerian government official said on Wednesday.

Suspected Somali pirates captured by British Navy officials in the Gulf of Aden stand in a cell at the court in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa April 28, 2010. REUTERS/Joseph Okanga

Piracy is a growing threat to shipping in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea — a major source of oil, metals and agricultural products to world markets — with a spate of attacks off Benin this year marking an expansion in the area pirates operate.

Oyewole Olugbenga Leke, senior special assistant to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on maritime services, said West African countries were looking at a regional initiative to combat the growing threat.

“What they are trying to do is coastal states will provide from their military forces men and platforms to man the Gulf of Guinea,” he told Reuters.

“Talks and discussions are on,” he said on the sidelines of a Hanson Wade West African piracy conference in London.

Oyewole said under plans being discussed, any arrangement would work “without jeopardising the territorial integrity of any nation.”

“We are hoping it is going to come out to be a real force in the sub region to combat piracy,” he said.

“It is being handled in Nigeria at the level of the national security adviser, which is directly under the president to tell the seriousness which Nigeria handles it,” he said.

Oyewole said Nigeria and Benin were already tackling piracy jointly.

Stretching from Guinea on Africa’s northwestern tip down to Angola in the south, the Gulf spans a dozen countries.

Separately, a U.S. government official said last week that Benin was thinking of asking the United Nations to help set up an international naval force to tackle security issues in the Gulf of Guinea. There was no confirmation from either Benin’s government or the U.N. but a U.N. source told Reuters the request had already been made.

SURVEILLANCE EQUIPMENT

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is not on the scale of that off Somalia, but analysts say an increase in scope and number of attacks in a region ill-equipped to counter the threat could affect shipping and investment.

“Most of the states do not even have enough money to provide the required equipment for surveillance,” Oyewole said.

“We need enough satellite coverage of the coast. We need to know where ships are — smugglers switch off their AIS facilities,” he said, referring to tracking systems on board vessels.

Oyewole, who was appointed by Jonathan earlier this year to coordinate maritime activities in Nigeria, said the government had stepped up efforts this year to combat attacks on merchant shipping as well as bringing in the private sector to ensure offshore oil platforms were properly maintained.

Sabotage attacks and gangs stealing crude oil, known as bunkering, has been a serious problem in the Niger Delta oil heartland for years, although an amnesty for militants in 2009 brought a halt to major attacks.

Jonathan is the first Nigerian president from the Niger Delta and his government aims to boost development in the impoverished area, which provides the bulk of the country’s income but has long been neglected.

Oyewole said retraining programmes for former militants had helped stem attacks.

“Most of the militant heads are now very responsible people assisting the government in various ways,” he said.

“Our (crude oil) production at the peak of the militancy was around 700,000 barrels per day. Now it has gone to 2.3 million barrels a day that is to tell you that attacks on Shell facilities currently have not increased rather they have reduced,” he said, referring to oil major Royal Dutch Shell’s operations Nigeria.

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