Piracy on the West Africa Seas

Piracy apparently accounts for almost 7% of all global trade!

The most notorious episodes in recent years have been the hijacking of massive container ships (amongst other craft), and the subsequent kidnapping of their crews by pirates based out of Somalia.  In 2008 Somalian pirates attacked 111 vessels off the Horn of Africa, hijacking 42 of them and receiving tens of millions of dollars in ransom.  One real worry was the threat that this model would be repeated in other parts of Africa.

However, it’s believed there is a fundamental difference between the situation in Somalia and that existing in West Africa.  The pirate infrastructure in Somalia was made possible by the lawlessness and lack of an effective Somalian government, which nurtured a situation that allowed Somalian pirates to keep vessels on the coast for months.

This is not the problem in West Africa.  Most pirates operations in West African waters are believed to be Nigerian, where the illegal sale of oil has created “a culture of lawlessness” Antony Goldman, the West African analyst at PM Consulting states.  He continues

“In Somalia, you’ve got no government.  In Nigeria there is a maritime capacity, but there’s an issue of the extent to which the security forces are working with armed groups.”

He is not alone in this belief.  Since the oil delta insurgency grew more violent in 2006, there’s been a permanent military presence in the area.  However, thefts have gotten worse, leading to analysts saying that senior military activity is taking part in, and profits from, oil thefts.

The Somalian piracy threat became so damaging that the United States and other Western nations decided to provide an anti-piracy armada, which now patrols the waters of East Africa.  It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the Horn of Africa piracy threat has declined, even though the pirate infrastructure remains in place.  However, the drop in attacks in this area is due to the proactive naval activity against suspected pirate groups.  There is a strong belief that the attacks will start to rise again if the naval presence is reduced or vessels in the area relax their vigilance.

However, there is no West Africa armada.  But with the increasing threats to Benin and Nigeria, Western countries have increased their own patrols in the area.  The United States has several vessels passing through continuously, and last year a French navel vessel helped a hijacked ship.  The British warship HMS Argyle is also operating in the area.

Yet it may not be enough.  In the first quarter of 2013 global piracy attacks fell sharply.  The National Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre announced 66 reported incidents in January to March compared to 102 reported incidents in the same quarter in 2012.  However, 50% of these attacks were from locations in Nigeria and Indonesia (the 25 incidents in Indonesia were all low level thefts), with tankers (28) bearing the brunt of the attacks.  There are two worrying factors about this situation.  The first is that the incidents in Nigeria are increasingly violent, with physical attacks common and even two deaths reported.  The other is that analysts believe that the number of attacks off Nigerian waters is actually under-reported, because some vessels carry illegal oil cargo and others fear their insurance rates will rise, so they don’t report any pirate incidents.

The African Insurance Organisation (AIO) recently designated Nigeria as the global capital for kidnap for ransom due to the high numbers of such cases.  It was estimated that kidnappings in Nigeria accounted for 25% of all globally reported cases in the first quarter of 2011 and the figures continue to rise.

Quite a lot of these kidnappings come from pirate activity, which, in Nigeria has grown steadily since 2009.  Whether or not this is a political statement by The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), who argue they are fighting for a bigger share of Nigeria’s oil’s wealth, or purely an ever-expanding criminal enterprise is an interesting question.  Accusations that many of the criminal gangs in pirate networks appear to be offshoots from militant groups that used to operate in the Delta region before they agreed an amnesty in 2009, are not without foundation.  Since 2009 there has been a change in the tactics used by the pirates, escalating from low-level armed robberies, to much more violent and serious organised criminal activities such as hijackings, cargo thefts and large scale robberies.

There are lots of recent examples, unfortunately.

In August 2012, pirates attacked a Greek-operated oil tanker and its crew of 20 off the coast of Togo in the Gulf of Guinea.  Crew and vessel were released after a few weeks but the pirates stole some 3000 tonnes of fuel (worth about US$ 2 million).

In October 2012, 6 Russians and an Estonian were kidnapped from a French ship owned by the Bourbon company when the vessel was off Onne Port.  This was not the first time this company, which provides specialist boats for the oil and gas industry, had been targeted.  On 6th January 2009, after one of their vessels left Bonny Island, it was attacked off the coast of Akwa-Ibam State and the crew kidnapped and held for ransom.

On March 11th 2013, 2 Russians and a Romanian National were released after 31 days in captivity.  They had originally been kidnapped from the British operated cargo ship the Esther C, 80 miles off the south coast of Nigeria by heavily armed pirates, who boarded and ransacked the vessel before making off with their 3 captives.

The increasingly violent attacks seem to be presently concentrated on the Gulf of Guinea, which follows a southerly course from Liberia to Gabon.  The result is that insurers have now listed Nigeria, neighbouring Benin and the nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia.  This is not the only area of grievance.  Oil companies, Exxon Mobil and Shell, both reported at the beginning of 2013, that security was a major factor in making Nigeria one of the most expensive oil producing countries to operate in.

Pirates are now seen as posing a threat to shipping sailing to Apapa Port in Lagos, as well as the busy car market port based in Benin’s capital, Cotonou.  In fact, shipping into Benin has recently dropped by 70% and insurance rates in the region have increased dramatically.

The attacks continue.  The International Maritime Bureau (IMO) reported that on Thursday 25th April 2013, that 5 more sailors were kidnapped off a container ship, 45 nautical miles off the coast of Brass.

On 16th May 2013, Danish company Risk Intelligent Chief Analyst Nis Leerskar Mathieson stated that the current development of kidnap/ransom tactics of Nigerians is of particular interest for companies operating multi-purpose vessels, as these are disproportionately represented in the area and are actively targeted.

The present picture for Nigerian shipping is not good and with the growing internal tensions in the country, especially in places such as Kano, the future does not look particularly rosy either.  Perhaps the real worry is that one day the the Somalian piracy model may be relevant in Nigeria, if politically Nigeria goes the same way as Somalia.

Maria Narancic from Point to Point Export Services is an independent international trade adviser who assists organisations world wide with their international trade projects, documentation, Documentary Credits and import/export training.  She is based in the United Kingdom.  If you require any further assistance with the matters mentioned above, please do contact us by e-mail on info@point-point.com or check out some of our other International Trade articles on the Point to Point Export Services website at www.point-point.com

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