Would a “Transit Corridor” work in countering the piracy threat in the Gulf of Guinea?
James Wilkes, Managing Director of Gray Page: Strategies for Confronting Piracy
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is compared frequently to Somalia-based piracy.
Whatever your thoughts on the merits of making that comparison, it is not unreasonable to look at what measures worked in suppressing Somali-based piracy to see if there are lessons that could be applied in the Gulf of Guinea.
One idea percolating is whether a Transit Corridor (or Corridors) – similar to the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) that was established in the Gulf of Aden in early 2009 – would enhance the protection of shipping trading in the Gulf of Guinea.
To put into context how a corridor might look and work in the Gulf of Guinea, you have to examine the purpose behind the setting up of the IRTC in the Gulf of Aden, and what effect it had.
Before the IRTC was established, a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) had been mapped out in August 2008 by the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150), as the threat from Somalia-based pirates was growing.
The purpose of the MSPA was to give a guide to merchant shipping of where, broadly speaking, naval assets were patrolling (and/or surveilling) in the waters between northern Somalia and the Yemen coast.
Sailing within the notional boundaries of the MSPA was not any guarantee of protection from Somali-based pirates, nor that there would be a navy ship close by in the event a merchant ship was attacked.
But it was a little bit more likely and, therefore, to a certain extent, publicising the MSPA was something of an exercise in reassurance.
The MSPA notwithstanding, many ships were still attacked and hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in 2008.
However, the MSPA was arguably the forerunner to the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), which was established in early 2009.1
With Somalia-based piracy seriously disrupting shipping transiting the Gulf of Aden, the IRTC was established in order to support the implementation of what were called “Group Transits”.
The idea behind Group Transits was, as EU NAVFOR described it, “to put ships intending to transit the GoA into different speed groups in order to exploit the additional protection and assurance of being in a group.” 2
In other words, it was, in part, a “safety in numbers” concept.
Ships would be grouped together and given time slots to transit the IRTC so, as EU NAVFOR explained, they, “pass through the area of statistically greatest danger, between 47E and 49E, at night and ensures that all ships, regardless of speed, are together at first light.”
Crucially, this permitted, “the military forces in the area to best position their assets in the area as to protect ships against piracy and to give assistance in case of attack.”
The IRTC was focused on reducing the vulnerability of transiting ships to attack, rather than specifically targeting and pursuing the threat.3
The IRTC functioned because of a set of unique conditions that prevailed at the time.
First, the Gulf of Aden is a natural geographic a corridor.
Running East/West, through which the preponderance of commercial shipping was transiting, the Gulf of Aden was a natural choke point.4
With two obvious entry/exit points to the Gulf of Aden, it wasn’t too complicated to establish the parameters of the corridor.
It’s length was set at 492 miles between two points: ‘Point A’ at the Western end of the Gulf and ‘Point B’ at the Eastern end.
There were two lanes – one for eastbound traffic and one for westbound traffic – each 5 miles wide, with a 2 mile separation between the lanes.
Second, the Gulf of Aden is international waters. Establishing the IRTC where it was, did not infringe the territorial waters of any country. There were no questions of sovereignty, nor stumbling-blocks about whose oversight and authority the IRTC was going to operate under.
Third, the Gulf of Aden was – and still is – of major strategic geopolitical importance.
CTF-150 was established shortly after Operation Enduring Freedom commenced in late 2001; long before the piracy problem in the region. It was, fundamentally, a maritime security force created to counter terrorism, and the illicit trade in drugs and weapons. Anti-piracy was not part of the Force’s mission.5
It was important for coalition naval forces in the region to know what ships were in the Gulf of Aden. Toward this end, a system of voluntary reporting had already been established by the United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO) in Dubai, for ships sailing through the Gulf.
EU NAVFOR advised, “Without registering a vessel movement with MSCHOA and transmitting regular position, course, speed & ETA at IRTC entrance updates to MSCHOA, EU NAVFOR will be unable to provide warships with information regarding which vessels are in each transit and when/where they should expect to see them.”6
The IRTC was not an altruistic venture: it served to provide coalition naval forces with a richer picture of what ships were transiting, when and how quickly. A practical necessity in the circumstances.
One of its objectives was, “To make warship patrols more effective.”
Fourth, albeit collaterally, while the IRTC was not established to facilitate “Convoying” – quite the contrary, EU NAVOR was clear to point out that, “Group Transits” are not “Convoys” and “Group Transits may not be closely accompanied by a warship.” – it did to some extent facilitate convoying when navies from India, China and Russia for example, sent warships to accompany ships flying their flags through the Gulf of Aden.
Fifth, the IRTC operated as part of an ecosystem of anti-piracy efforts, not in a vacuum on its own.
There was substantial naval activity, diplomatic attentiveness (The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia was established in January 2009) and hitherto unprecedented shipping industry cooperation.
Also, while in a Group Transit, ships were strenuously implored to employ all possible anti-piracy security measures. And, whether you agreed with the principle of having armed guards on merchant ships, the emergence and success of commercially-supplied armed-guarding played a substantial role in the suppression of Somalia-based piracy.
So, would establishing a Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Guinea work?
The answer to that is, no. The conditions do not exist to underpin a functioning Transit Corridor.
For starters, the Gulf of Guinea is a natural geographic basin, not a corridor.
Ships can enter it from something like 180 different points on the compass.
There is no obvious single transit.
So the most fundamental question, “where would you establish it?” is seriously difficult to answer.
If the answer to that is to establish multiple corridors, you still have the question of where to locate them. But you also have the second order question of how you resource them. For every corridor, you have to have the warships to patrol them.
The Gulf of Guinea is not of strategic geopolitical importance. Or at least not at the level the Gulf of Aden was and still is.
Piracy is a problem in the Gulf of Guinea, but it is not disrupting international trade to the same extent that Somalia-based piracy grew into doing.
Whether it is the witting strategy of the Nigerian pirate gangs, kidnapping crew for ‘modest’ ransoms – rather than hijacking ships and demanding many millions of dollars for the return of the ship, the crew and the cargo – makes sense.
When Somalia-based pirates were hijacking a ship here or there (2004 to early 2008), there was negligible political and – if we’re being honest – industry interest in the problem.
What changed was that the Somalia-pirate gangs got really greedy. On the back of demonstrable success, they overplayed their hand. In so doing, they attracted serious political and media attention, which by extension brought the world’s navies down on them. The situation became so intolerable, it demanded the most robust of responses. It was almost inevitable too that shipowners were going to end up employing privately-contracted armed guards to defend their ships, at significant expense.
The reality is that the international community has little interest in sending their navies into the Gulf of Guinea in any physical strength.
There are other priorities demanding the deployment of naval assets elsewhere in the world.
That is not going to change any time soon.
Importantly too, the IRTC was established in international waters.
Piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have, however, been more frequent in the territorial waters of the countries that comprise the Gulf Littoral.
Even if a Transit Corridor was set up in international waters, it would afford no assistance to ships when they are within the 12 mile limits of the member states of the Gulf Littoral.
You also have to look at the issue of threat attraction and displacement.
The risk is that, on the one hand, you end up corralling vulnerable targets (i.e. ships) into one defined area, which is realistically going to be absent of enough warships to provide a substantive net of protection.
On the other, you inevitably displace the threat to areas where vulnerable targets still have to transit, but there is no warship protection because, whatever its strength, it is all focused on the established transit corridor.
As soon as a ship peels-off out of the Transit Corridor, to head to its intended port of call, or pops out at the end of transiting its full length, it becomes ripe for the picking.
Establishing a Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Guinea has superficial attraction. What’s effective in one place could be effective in another, couldn’t it?
But when you peel back the layers and uncover the reasons for the effectiveness of the IRTC in the Gulf of Aden, you can see quickly that we’re comparing apples and pears.
However seductive the idea is, there is not a single condition that would make a Transit Corridor work in the Gulf of Guinea, especially when you consider the second-order problems establishing one would create.
1 Interestingly, the idea for the IRTC came to a UK navy officer while he was watching a TV documentary on policing a long stretch of the M1 motorway in the UK with only two police vehicles.
2 EU NAVFOR is the acronym for EU Naval Force.
3 Although I gather from a friend close to the heart of the idea that it was hoped that there would be some measure of a ‘honey-pot’ effect too.
4 A choke point that the pirate gangs were manifestly capable of exploiting.
5 Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) was set up in 2009 in response to Somalia-based piracy.
6 MSCHOA is the acronym for the Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa.
This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.