Remember the British yachting couple held in the Somali desert for over a year, and the German-American writer who travelled there to document their ordeal only to be kidnapped himself for twice that time?
Well, the good news is that the spate of pirate attacks off East Africa that peaked six years ago, with over 200 hijack attempts, has been largely contained by a 25-nation naval task force. Now, however, it’s the other side of continent that urgently needs international attention.
At least 32 commercial vessels were attacked off the Nigerian coast in the first quarter of this year. With no sign of abatement, that number will top the 47 vessels seized in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden at the height of the Somali crisis in 2010.
The problem stems from the Niger Delta. A myriad of militant networks in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern region have stepped up crippling attacks on the infrastructure of major oil conglomerates since the election last year of northern leader, President Muhammadu Buhari.
With the attacks halving the nation’s oil output and costing Nigeria its crown as Africa’s top oil producer, Buhari has responded with heightened military presence around oil installations. That’s prompted some illicit networks to abandon oil theft for kidnapping instead.
It’s another lucrative area for these gangs, with paid ransoms averaging in excess of $2 million per ship. Piracy, armed robbery at sea, smuggling and fuel supply fraud is reportedly costing Nigeria about $1.5 billion in revenue every month.
Piracy adds to the enormous challenges confronting a government whose initial focus after its election last year was on fighting Boko Haram in the north and deep-rooted corruption.
The President replaced the chiefs of the army, navy, air force and defense a year ago, with a view to stemming corruption and enhancing operational efficiency. One effect of the newly galvanised Department of Security Services (DSS) and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) has been increased land-based operations in the Niger Delta. The US-trained Nigerian Navy has also stepped up counter-piracy patrols off the coast, known as Operation ‘Exercise Projector.’
The government purchased 30 inshore patrol boats for the Navy in December to bolster regional security. Its fleet of gunboats, war ships and other vessels went on display on the waterways of the Delta during a three-day operation in March aimed at showcasing its strength and dominance.
Increased patrols across the myriad of rivers, streams, canals and creeks running across 70,000 square kilometres, have made it harder for criminals to store and transport stolen crude. More than a hundred illegal refineries have been suppressed from operating.
The effect has been to make the process and re-sale of stolen oil an increasingly precarious enterprise. The time consuming process of hijacking and draining a tanker of its hydrocarbons cargo is too slow given the naval presence.
Illicit networks have scrambled for alternative revenue sources, and piracy operations are a lucrative sideline.
Fourteen commercial vessels were attacked off Rivers and Bayelsa states alone in the first quarter of this year, with 23 crewmembers kidnapped for ransom. That’s a jump from a total of three ships overall off Nigeria’s coast in the last quarter of 2015.
Operations are targeting a wider range of vessels than solely oil tankers. Pirates boarded a ship carrying chemicals from Gabon to Côte d’Ivoire as it sailed close to the Nigeria Delta in April. While the cargo was left intact, six of the Turkish crewmembers were kidnapped, including the captain and chief engineer.
Such an attack involves considerable planning, not to mention a working knowledge of the ‘victim’ ship, and a real-time log of the location and route. That such information is restricted points to complicity from security forces and shipping industry employees.
A number of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency officials have been dismissed in connection with corruption charges. The highest profile was former NIMASA Director General Patrick Akpobolokem, who faces 40 counts of fraud and money laundering to the tune of $173 million.
Even before this year’s surge in attacks, piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea cost $720 million in ransom payments, increased insurance rates and compensated labor costs. Any threat to maritime stability has global economic repercussions given that about 90% of world commerce travels by sea.
Given most kidnap-for-ransom victims are employees of multinationals operating in the region, continued attacks are liable to have a detrimental impact on Nigeria’s status as an investment destination. Companies unwilling to risk the safety of their employees, ships or investments may end up boycotting the area if maritime security continues to deteriorate.
War Risk Added Premiums, kidnap and ransom insurance and cargo risk insurance have all increased. The liability of employers for hazardous duty and captivity pay – as well as the deployment of various ship protection measures – all act as further deterrents.
But the economic toll weighs heaviest on Nigeria itself. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency spent about $218 million to counter piracy and at least a further $128 million operating 32 privately run patrol vessels last year. That cost is bound to surge.
There are lessons to be learned from the containment in the Horn of Africa. What’s needed is greater regional cooperation and information sharing. A comprehensive regional framework should be devised to counter the uptick in piracy, while addressing the root cause of the issue and strengthening legal systems and judicial cooperation.
Without these steps, the Gulf of Guinea risks becoming as notorious for piracy as the coast off Somalia six years ago.
The author is Luke Doogan, Africa Analyst at West Sands Advisory Limited. After working in the energy industry in Ghana, Luke has focused on investigating the intricacies of how informal networks exert influence over political and commercial decision-making throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. West Sands is a business intelligence, investigations and political advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets.