While sea piracy is decreasing worldwide, the International Maritime Bureau says it is increasing at an alarming rate in Gulf of Guinea West Africa. The picture is a screenshot of IMB’s Piracy & Armed Robbery map 2016. There has been at least 32 attacks so far this year, sea piracy in Nigeria ranking top, with most of these attacks taking place in Nigerian territorial waters. Compared with 54 attacks in the same waters all through last year.
Attacks from sea piracy in Nigeria has affected the Nigerian economy in more devastating ways than we know. Aside from being a major source of oil, the Gulf of Guinea represents a significant transit hub for cocoa and metals destined for world markets. London think-tank Chatham House reported that up to 400,000 barrels of crude oil are stolen every day in the Gulf of Guinea. Some other statistics say Nigeria is losing about $1.5 billion a month as a result of sea piracy, sea armed robbery, smuggling and so on.
Incidents that occur in our territorial waters affects the global economy as there are more interconnected shipping supply networks. For example, on the 11 April 2016, two ships were attacked along the Gulf of Guinea, one of which was MT Puli which confirmed that six Turkish seamen had been kidnapped by pirates. Britain’s deputy UN Ambassador Peter Wilson pointed out that between those two pirate attacks, seven different countries were affected. Malta and Liberia whose flags were on the ships, Turkey, Greece and Nigeria where the cargo originated from, Egypt, Philippines and Turkey where the missing crew men came from.
Pirates Adjust their Tactics
In addition to increasing the frequency of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, the West African pirates have also altered their mode of operation. In the past, the pirates had always preferred hijacking vessels with oil cargo which they would steal along with equipment and other items.
For instance, one of many sea piracy in Nigeria happened In March 2004, armed pirates in six boats surrounded a tanker in Warri and ordered the vessel to anchor. The pirates then pumped the gasoline cargo on board the vessel into a barge that brought along. These lootings took a considerable amount of time and could even last up to several days. The pirates took their time because they felt no immediate threat to hasten as there wasn’t heavy security presence in the area anyway.
But now, regional Navies have increased their coordinated responses to piracy attacks. One particular high profile successful response occurred on 11 February 2016, when the MT Maximus a Dubai owned vessel leased to a South Korean company, carrying 4,700 tons of diesel was hijacked by pirates along Ivory Coast. (A Nigerian by the name of Mr Charles Ekpemefumor was later discovered to have been the mastermind behind this attack).
Unfortunately for the pirates they attacked that ship on a day when Navies from the U.S, Ghana, Togo and Nigeria were conducting a live training exercise. Their exercise simulation soon turned into a real life rescue mission. What occurred next has been hailed as what needs to be the standard in tackling the Gulf of Guinea piracy issue.
The various Navies began tracking the hijacked Maximus as the pirates steered the ship from Ivorian waters to Ghanaian waters, into Togo and were heading towards Sao Tome when the Nigerian Navy was contacted for help. MT Maximus had sailed for about nine days, covering a distance of 1,280 kilometers before the Nigerian Navy Special Forces stormed the vessel leading to the capture of six pirates and the rescue of 18 crew members.
Picture: Arrested pirates that hijacked the Panama-flagged Maximus vessel are shown to the media in Lagos, Nigeria, Feb. 22.(AP/Sunday Alamba)
Pirates Adapting and Getting More Violent
Although recent actions show that there is increasing international maritime security collaboration, pirates are fluid and are able to constantly adapt and circumvent countermeasures. The recent actions of the Navy have made the Gulf of Guinea pirates realize that it’s not going to be as easy to hijack a vessel and hold it for days while they steal the cargo. Besides, the low oil prices have made any stolen crude harder to sell and less profitable. When the Malta flagged MT Kalamos, a super oil tanker, was attacked in February 2015. The tankers’ crew were kidnapped by pirates and were freed after $400,000 ransom was paid according to the Maritime piracy 2015 report.
The pirates have decided that it would be safer and more lucrative for them to focus more on kidnapping ship crew, and holding them till ransom has been paid. According to an Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) report, the pirates board the attacked vessel, isolate the ranking officers and engineers who they figure would net higher ransoms. If time permits, they loot the vessel as well. If not, they quickly escape with their selected crew members and hold them onshore until negotiations are concluded and ransom has been paid.
Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea also tend to be a lot more violent than in other parts of the world. According to the OBP report, 23 people were killed by pirates in 2015 and the kidnapped sailors were beaten and subject to mock executions. Most sailors are only released after ransom is paid. It is clear that money is the primary motive for the West African pirates who have made it clear to international stakeholders that they are not bluffing and would not hesitate to take away lives if their demands are not met.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea as in everywhere else in the world is going to require strong collaboration among the various Navies of the coastal region. Single state solutions achieve short term results and cannot compete with the flexible strategies of the pirates. Effective security patrols on one side of the coast simply resulted in the pirates carrying out attacks in another section of the water. For example, when Nigeria and Benin Republic carried out effective joint patrols, attacks shifted to the Togo coast.
More needs to be done on Land
Increased activity along Nigeria’s coast is indicative of fewer security resources available to protect vessels. Although patrols have increased, most incidents tend to occur outside the main patrol areas. Earlier in May, the Chief of Naval Staff stated that the current strategy of the Nigerian Navy to deal with the increase in piracy involved the deployment of boat houses at the entry points of the creeks. In addition to this, the Office of the NSA was in the process of inaugurating a surveillance system in the area.
The troubling part of this sea piracy in Nigeria issue is that, most of the victims are said to be held on small islands in the Niger Delta. Maritime security analysts believe that the same gangs responsible for sea piracy are more than likely the same groups responsible for the kidnapping and violence that continues to plague the Niger Delta.
The ease at which sea pirates maneuver on land, highlights poor intelligence and surveillance around the coastal areas. It also highlights the need for better community policing in the region, although the continuous use of military force which we all know comes with its share of brutalization of innocent civilians will make cooperating with law enforcement in the area more difficult.
What is happening out in the ocean is really an extension of the insecurity and weak law enforcement also taking place on land. Focusing on sea-based solutions alone to deal with maritime piracy along the Nigerian coast will not be enough. The government needs to take more concrete steps in dealing with on-shore issues such as stronger law enforcement, better community-law enforcement relations, better counter-narratives and improved socio-economic conditions in the region. Until then, expect high threat of sea piracy in Nigeria.