YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) -- Heads of state and government leaders from 25 West and Central African countries along the Gulf of Guinea are meeting in Cameroon's capital Monday to address escalating piracy, trafficking and other illicit activities in the strategic region.
The United Nations Security Council and various United States think tanks have warned that left unchecked, the expanding insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea risks significantly endangering global trade, regional development and stability as the region becomes more sought after for oil and its strategic location.
Cameroon's Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said that numerous attacks are perpetuated offshore and on land. "This alarming insecurity could ... become a source of instability and an obstacle to development," he said.
In recent years, pirates have successfully raided banks, killed government officials and soldiers in Cameroon, and hijacked oil vessels, sometimes killing crew members. Nigeria has reported an oil production slowdown, while Benin has declared a slump in ship anchorage revenue.
A report this month said that piracy affected more ships and sailors off West Africa than off Somalia's coast last year, and cost West Africa up to $950 million last year.
Nearly 1,000 seafarers and fishermen were attacked by pirates armed with guns or knives in the Gulf of Guinea. More than 200 people were taken hostage, said the report, drawing on data from the International Maritime Bureau.
Attacks on commercial ships in West Africa have become more frequent and are now occurring across a broader geographic area. Pirates in the region are aided by weak navies and coast guards, as well as a lack of awareness about the threats they pose.
West Africa has also become a passageway for illicit drugs from South America.
"Since the U.S. administration got tough on traffickers from Latin America, Africa is increasingly becoming a transit hub for Latin American drugs destined for Europe and the U.S. with the Gulf of Guinea playing a key role," said Tchrioma.
Eighteen tons of Latin American cocaine worth an estimated $1.25 billion transited through the Gulf of Guinea and South Africa in 2010 for Central Europe, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes. West African countries report rising numbers of seizures.
"Cameroon is increasingly becoming a transit for drugs because in reality our countries pay very little attention to the sea where the transactions are done," said one-time Cameroonian minister and economist, Patrick Mandeng Ambassa.
The insecurities grow as strategic interests increase in the Gulf of Guinea.
Michael Kounou, a Law and Political Science professor at the University of Yaounde II, said that Western industrial and commercial powers are interested in the Gulf of Guinea for two major reasons. "The U.S. is interested because it wants to curb its oil dependence in the Persian Gulf. Also for Europeans and Americans, the geographic location of the Gulf of Guinea provides a direct maritime route for the exploitation and exportation of its resources."
The region is said to hold oil reserves estimated at 24 billion barrels. "And then there's natural gas and vast mineral deposits which remain largely unexploited, to which should be added fisheries reserves estimated today at over 1 million tons with a yearly production of about 600,000 tons," Tchiroma said.
Gradually, the emerging Asian powers — China and India — are also showing heightened interest in the region's resources and securing oil and gas exploration deals. However the swelling presence of foreign powers may present another potential source of danger as locals may start to feel sidelined by their governments, Kounou said.
"There are also internal forces within the Gulf of Guinea countries, including pauperized groups of people and the possibility of their rising against their governments and finding funds for their opposition from illegal maritime activities as in Nigeria," he said.
The governments meeting June 24-25 are expected to adopt regulations on maritime safety and security against piracy, and drug, human and wildlife trafficking among others.