The stunning reports of oil tankers hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have helped shift attention from the dramatic rise of Somali piracy to West Africa. The figures are not quite as eye-popping as in East Africa. The effects are. Lloyd’s of London designated the Gulf, like Somalia, a “war risk” zone in August 2011, boosting insurance rates. The pirates’ inclination to violence has helped persuade some oil super-majors that investing in exploration in the region is too risky (This Day [Lagos], July 3). With a quarter of U.S. imports projected to come from the Gulf of Guinea by 2015, the dynamics driving West African piracy are too important to ignore.
As of October 26, there were 49 acts of piracy or armed robbery reported to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) this year. However, this number understates the prevalence of maritime crime in the Gulf as attacks often go unreported. Indeed, a comprehensive look at the reported incidents reinforces this assertion. Despite reports of attacks on local fishing trawlers, as well as previous piracy-induced fishing industry work stoppages, the IMB has not reported a single attack on a trawler this year (al-Jazeera, June 12). Whether this is indicative of locals’ fear of reprisals for reporting or due to a lack of resources to connect to the proper reporting channels, it certainly skews figures and makes it more difficult for regional officials to find solutions.
Of the attacks reported to date this year, there is a clear dichotomy in levels of complexity. Many of the attacks against vessels docked or close to shore are simply thieves looking for an easy target. The lack of security in local ports and inadequate maritime security forces throughout the region make ships an easy target. Such unsophisticated attacks have been seen from Guinea-Conakry to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (https://www.icc-ccs.org/piracy-reporting-centre/live-piracy-map). Violence as intimidation is frequent in these attacks, especially if the crew offers resistance.
While this type of piracy is certainly a threat to trade in the region, it is less virulent than its more sophisticated cousin, a more dangerous brand of piracy that has focused attacks on oil and gas industry vessels, including product tankers. These pirate gangs, unlike their smash-and-grab brethren, are resourceful, flexible and show a willingness to adapt new tactics. When Nigeria and Benin launched Operation Prosperity in 2011, Nigerian pirates demonstrated dangerous tactical agility. As Nigerian and Beninese waters have become better patrolled, pirates have expanded their operations down the coast, into Togolese, Ghanaian and Ivorian Coast waters. Pirate gangs in the Gulf have also adopted the “mother-ship” tactic used by Somali pirates (Breakbulk.com, April 13). By hijacking local fishing vessels and developing blue water capabilities, pirates decreased the likelihood of being spotted by national naval forces. After finishing with the hijacked ships, pirate gangs often take the opportunity to ransack them, snatching equipment such as radar, echo sounder, SSB and VHF radios (This Day [Lagos], Aug 9, 2011).
Once a tanker is hijacked, pirates coordinate a rendezvous with a second ship to transfer a portion of the oil. From here, the oil returns to port, where it can either be refined locally and sold within the region or internationally (News24 Nigeria, October 23). Selling the oil requires connections to international criminal networks to be able to find a buyer. This, as well as the intelligence it takes to coordinate such hijackings—ship names, courses, cargo value, etc.—lead analysts to believe that such operations are actually being financed by international criminal enterprises (REDFour Security Group, March 4). The recent closure of a crude storage facility in the Lagos port of Apapa, alleged to have housed the stolen product from the August 19 MT Anuket Emerald hijacking confirms the depth of these connections (Vanguard [Lagos], September 30).
Fortunately, Nigerian military forces have shown a willingness to confront sea piracy. In September, a tanker was hijacked over 90 miles off the coast of Benin. Previously sailing into the waters of a neighboring country has proven an effective means of escape. In this instance, thanks to the call to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre and a renewed sense of purpose in the Nigerian Navy, the tanker was intercepted with the crew unharmed (https://www.icc-ccs.org/piracy). In a land operation, the Joint Task Force (JTF – a military/police group created specifically to combat illegal oil bunkering) spearheaded a multi-agency raid in Ondo State, in the northern Delta region (PM News [Lagos], September 26). Fourteen piracy suspects connected to a large “syndicate” were arrested.
Unfortunately, even if the Nigerian military is making strides in combating piracy (though the JTF has been accused of sponsoring illegal oil theft, or “bunkering”), the criminal justice system has not been as effective. From the details released about the piracy gangs as well as previous statements from the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), it becomes clear that pirates are enjoying a degree of cover from government officials. NIMASA’s mission to curb piracy is frustrated by the continual early release of piracy suspects from prison prior to full investigation, according to NIMASA Director General, Ziakede Akpobolokemi (This Day [Lagos], October 19). Analysts surmise oil bunkering and arms trafficking networks, with well-known ties to state governors and federal officers, are behind the complicity (Africa Confidential, October 21, 2011).
While regional naval coordination is being stepped up, there are no near-term solutions to stop piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. In the short-term, operators are mostly on their own. It will take time for adequate security forces to be developed. Adhering to the Best Management Practices created for protecting vessels traversing the Somali Basin could help protect against high seas piracy in the Gulf. In reality, though, sustainable solutions to curb piracy and armed robbery will only come through the economic development of the region. Until that happens, piracy will continue to appear to some as an attractive occupation.
William van der Veen previously worked for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Counter-Piracy Program in Nairobi, Kenya. He obtained his masters at the American University in Cairo and currently resides in Arlington, VA.