Incessant pirate attacks dim Nigeria’s maritime prospects
Despite sustained efforts by the Nigerian government to check the activities of pirates in its coastal regions in the last two years, the fight against piracy is far from being won. Nigeria’s territorial waters are currently one of the three main regions in Africa where the activities of pirates continue to defy counteractive measures.
On 4 August 2012, pirates attacked a ship belonging to an oil services company slightly off the Nigerian coast, killing two sailors and kidnapping four expatriates. The attack is the latest addition to the escalating incidents in Nigeria’s coastal area in the Gulf of Guinea this year. According to a report from the International Maritime Bureau on Global Piracy released last month, 32 piracy incidents were recorded off the coasts of Benin, Nigeria and Togo in the first half of 2012. In the first two months alone, 11 reports were received from Nigeria, equaling the number reported in the whole of the area last year.
Piracy in Nigeria’s territorial waters is on the increase and also extending in range. Yet, the incidents are more frequent than what is recorded. Six of the earlier reported attacks in Nigeria occurred at distances not further than 70 nautical miles from the country’s coast. Generally, fingers point to Nigeria as the breeding ground for these pirates since laxity in law enforcement allows criminality to thrive. Anthony Goldman, a West African analyst at London-based PM Consulting, posits that the illegal sale of oil encourages a culture of lawlessness in Nigeria’s coastal zone. Pirates have stepped up their activities in Nigeria’s coastal territories, to levels experienced off Somalia’s coast, where it has lately been on the decline. Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea (Nigeria’s territory) increased considerably with the actions of members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, in 2009, coupled with the emergence of several other disgruntled ranks and outright criminal gangs all huddled under the umbrella of Niger Delta militant groups. The amnesty that was eventually offered to the militants by late President Umaru Yar’Adua in June 2009, brought about a measure of peace, but not without the emergence of unsatisfied splinter groups that perceived that the amnesty programme was more to the benefit of the MEND leadership alone. Consequently, these disgruntled elements took to piracy.
The very juicy contract packages thrown at the Chief of militant groups has not helped matters in the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, which obviously considers the arrangement as a strategy to keep a lid on militant activities.
Pirate attacks have flourished, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea off the Nigerian coast, affecting the shipping industry. Since the last quarter of 2011, Nigeria, Benin and nearby waters have been listed in the same risk category as Somalia by the London-based Insurers, Lloyd’s Market Association, with the region considered extremely risky due to sustained pirate attacks. Goldman of PM Consulting reiterates that the activities of pirates are made easy through a measure of cooperation from maritime law enforcement agents.
“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 said.
Attacks by sea gangs in the Gulf of Guinea dropped from 64 in 2003 to 56 in 2004 and 25 in 2005. It rose from 31 attacks in 2006 to 53 in 2007 and 59 in 2008. While it reduced from 48 in 2009 to 39 in 2010, it escalated to 53 incidents on record in 2011. But even as many of the attacks were underreported, 55 per cent of the incidents recorded took place in Nigerian waters. Since a majority of the militants embraced the amnesty granted in 2009, the frequency of attacks thinned that year and in the following year (2010). Another rise in the spate of attacks since last year, is premised on the activities of a MEND faction, which opposes the amnesty.
Analysts have observed that pirates continue to change their tactics. Often, anchored or moored oil tankers are targets of the sea gangs who overpower or even kill the crew, divert the vessel and offload its cargo. They also seize fishing vessels, particularly within Nigerian waters, which they use to attack other ships operating off the coast of neighbouring countries like Benin and Cameroun. It is believed that the pirates record a high success rate courtesy of information gathered through sources in the know concerning the names of ships, the worth of cargoes and the courses they ply. Usually, target oil tankers are those loaded with crude stolen from the Niger Delta, where large scale illegal bunkering thrives on a daily basis. On many occasions, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea, rather than demand ransom, prefer to hijack the fuel, which sells for large sums on the black market. This differentiates them from the Somali seafaring criminals, who demand ransom on their victims and seized goods. Fuel theft has for long been a threat off the coast of Nigeria, which produces 2.2 million barrels of oil daily.
Increased piracy has prompted series of national, bilateral and extra-regional pacts to fight the menace. The Nigerian government was involved in an engagement to that effect in January 2012 when it transformed its Joint Task Force, Operation Restore Hope, which was initially established to combat militancy in the Niger Delta, into a larger maritime security structure tagged Pulo Shield. It was charged with fighting piracy and crude oil theft, among other duties. The Nigerian Navy also sought the cooperation of countries in the West African sub-region last year, to wage total war against criminal activities in the area. To this end, the governments of Benin Republic and Nigeria launched a joint patrol in the Seme and Cotonou territorial waters of Benin Republic, as ordered by President Jonathan.
The bilateral cooperation was in line with the Maritime Organisation of West and Central Africa’s Coastguard Function Network Initiative. The mission against piracy was code-named Operation Prosperity, with the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, backing the move by providing two mother boats and five fast-attack ballistic boats through a public private partnership arrangement with Global West Company to execute the security arrangement.
Economists predict that sustained attacks in the region could translate to serious financial consequences. Nigerians are currently feeling the pinch in terms of increased costs for imported goods like fish, rice, poultry products and electronics. Nigeria is currently the most afflicted by maritime threats pervading the Gulf of Guinea region. It loses about $800 million yearly to poaching, $9 billion per annum to activities of pirates and $15.5 billion annually to oil theft and illegal oil bunkering.
Future investments into the West African oil industry – with Nigeria having the highest stake – is also at risk due to maritime pirates still being able to operate practically unchecked. Investors take a dim view of the prospects into oil explorations in the Niger Delta.
—Funsho Balogun/TheNEWS magazine