By Major Bryan Abell, USMCR, – Stanford University, International Policy Studies and Six Maritime LLC Fellow,
In the realm of maritime piracy, 2013 may be remembered as the year of the paradigm shift from East to West Africa. In stark contrast to the multinational naval presence in the Gulf of Aden that has put a damper on Somali piracy, Nigeria’s coastal waters saw a surge in attacks – the highest since 2008. The resurgence of piracy in the region was more than a testament to the void of adequate security in the Gulf of Guinea. The return to violence demonstrated the fragile and reversible state of peace in the Niger Delta.
The mismanagement of amnesty funds, absence of socioeconomic reforms and thriving criminal enterprises put an abrupt end to region’s short-lived stability in 2013. These growing social and economic tensions coupled with the looming 2015 elections paint an ominous picture for the prospects of on and offshore peace and security in the year to come.
Nigerian piracy in 2013, by the numbers.
The aggregate of piracy incidents collected by the IMB Piracy Reporting Center and the US Office of Naval Intelligence in 2013 indicates a resurgence of maritime piracy off the coast of Nigeria. In waters south of Brass, east of Port Harcourt and in the vicinity of the Lagos anchorage, there were a total of (36) reported pirate attacks last year, compared to (27) incidents in 2012 and (10) in 2011. The surge in attacks is the highest since 2008, when a total of (40) incidents were reported. The attack success rate has fallen to 55%, due to vigilant mariners and effective countermeasures like evasive maneuvering and ship board security.
As adequate onshore revenue streams grow increasingly scarce, offshore attacks have become more brazen and abductions more frequent. Offshore kidnap-for-ransom incidents reached an all time high of (12) documented episodes in 2013. The figure equates to a 60% abduction rate for all ships boarded off the coast of Nigeria. This figure is up from 53% in 2012 and 28% in 2011. For the first time, abductions surpassed robberies by a fairly wide margin, with (12) abductions to (5) robberies in 2013. The shift from robberies to abductions can be attributed to simple cost-benefit analysis. Kidnapping success rates remain high, the odds of being brought to justice are slim and western companies are willing to pay hefty sums for the safe return of crew members.
Tankers continue to be the target of choice with (14) attacks in 2013, up from (10) in 2012 and (5) in 2011. The high volume of tankers in the region, their relative ease of accessibility, lack of shipboard security and high-payoff cargo and personnel make them the most consistently victimized vessels in West Africa. Supply ships and containers were also popular targets last year with (5) and (6) attacks respectively. However, Nigerian pirates were not exclusive in their target selection. Other targets of opportunity such as bulk carriers, tugs, cargo and even passenger and Nigerian security vessels fell victim to attack in the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger Delta’s inland waterways.
Attacks in Nigeria’s western waters remained steady. In the vicinity of Lagos, there were (5) reported attacks compared to (7) in both 2012 and 2011. All five reported attacks took place in close proximity to the Lagos anchorage and consisted of both robberies and abductions. Maritime piracy in Lagos remains largely unrelated to the Niger Delta insurgency and the faltering amnesty agreement. Lagos, however, continues to be plagued by similar socioeconomic problems that are conducive to pervasive criminality, such as youth unemployment, corruption and poor security.
Attacks in the vicinity of Lagos appear to be growing more sophisticated, systematic and violent. For well over a decade, local crime syndicates have profited from the heavy merchant traffic off of the country’s western coastline. Vessels are commonly hijacked in the Lagos outer anchorage and taken out to sea, where refined petroleum products are offloaded in awaiting containers. The apparent inability of the Nigerian Navy and Coast Guard to secure the waters off of Lagos has emboldened pirates and oil thieves to extended operations west to waters near Conotou, Benin and Lome, Togo, where ships carrying petroleum products are also prime targets.
Delta State (Warri and the western Niger Delta)
The absence of pirate activity in the vicinity of Warri/Delta State since 2010 suggests that Delta State may be the silver lining of the Niger Delta’s amnesty arrangement.
Historically, Delta has been one of the most volatile states in the region, experiencing peaks and troughs of on and offshore violence in the years leading up to the amnesty agreement. Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan has continued to beef-up security in Delta State since 2009, providing armored personnel carriers, hundreds of security vans, street lights and a ban on commercial motorcycles. The measures have reduced crime in urban regions, while the state’s waterway security committee and vigilante groups allow citizens to move freely and conduct legitimate business outside of the city. Delta State is the only region in Nigeria’s south where notable progress has been made on infrastructure and development projects. These efforts to reduce crime and address socioeconomic grievances appear to be contributing to an overall decrease in violence, including piracy in the waters off of Delta State.
Increased security measures and the residual effects of the amnesty agreement may, however, only be buying time before a resurgence of violence in Delta State. The region maintains a thriving illicit economy that relies on oil bunkering, while benefits from the state’s vast natural resource wealth remain slow to trickle down to the wider population. The proposed termination of amnesty stipends and upcoming national elections in 2015 are potential flashpoints for a resurgence of maritime piracy off the coast of Delta State.
Bayelsa State (Brass and the central Niger Delta)
Waters in the vicinity of Brass hosted (16) attacks last year, up from (12) in 2012 and only (2) in 2011. The (16) attacks off the coast of Bayelsa made waters off of Brass the Niger Delta’s most dangerous in 2013. Attack locations in the Bayelsa region were evenly distributed, averaging 45NM offshore and ranging from inland waterways up to 96NM offshore.
Despite early optimism in 2013, continued political instability and the fracturing of ex-militant groups – formerly under the command of Bayelsa militant leaders Ateke Tom and Boyloaf – have further undermined the efficacy of the amnesty program in Bayelsa. Concurrent with the state-run amnesty and rehabilitation program for “cultists” (youth members of confraternities that operate as criminal gangs) and the implementation of tougher penalties for militant-related crimes, Governor Seriake Dickson has pushed an investment agenda that includes infrastructure development and economic and institutional reforms aimed at creating jobs for Bayelsa youth. However, such reforms have thus far failed to gain traction.
In the continued absence of alternative livelihoods, old habits die hard, and many have rejected amnesty financing in favor of more reliable revenue streams like bunkering and organized crime. Bayelsa militant leader Jackson Fabouwei (aka Jasper Junior) was arrested in July after the ambush and murder of 11 policemen in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area in retaliation for being short-changed on amnesty funds. The incident is indicative of the widespread dissatisfaction amongst mid and lower-level ex-militants.
The mismanaged allocation of amnesty funds is a likely driver behind Bayelsa’s significant rebound in maritime piracy since 2011. Residual MEND affiliates with access to weapons and equipment have demonstrated the ability to access shipping lanes in order to procure alternative revenue streams through robbery, oil theft and kidnapping.
Rivers and State (Port Harcourt and Bonny)
Nigeria’s eastern waters south of Rivers State in the vicinity of Bonny and Port Harcourt experienced a surge in attacks in 2013. The region experienced (7) reported attacks, up from a total of (4) incidents in the region in 2012 and only (1) in 2011. Event locations were evenly distributed, ranging from the inland waterways of Rivers State to 174NM offshore.
In 2013, Rivers State Governor Chibuike Amaechi cut a deal with Shell for the construction of a water treatment plant. Additional development and social welfare plans for the region include an industrial zone, new schools and programs to train and supply local farmers. But Amaechi’s planned infrastructure upgrades and his hardline rhetoric against militancy have been overshadowed by allegations of corruption, whereby the governor has been accused of amassing a personal fortune of nearly $150 million while speaker of the state senate.
Despite Governor Amaechi’s very public split from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 2013 and open opposition to President Jonathan’s militant amnesty policy, the Federal Amnesty and ex-militant welfare programs are still in place in Rivers State. Amaechi’s opposition to the policy, however, has incited threats from Alaye Teme, leader of the MEND splinter faction Coalition of Militant Action for the Niger Delta (COMA), whereby Teme has signaled a return to militancy. Despite threats from emerging factions like COMA, Amaechi is believed to have formed an alliance with the leaders of former militant groups like Ateke Tom of the Niger Delta Vigilantes (NDV) and Soboma George of the Niger Delta People’s Liberation Front (NDPLF) as a hedge against deteriorating relations with mid-level ex-militants and stagnant social welfare conditions.
Historically, violence in Rivers State was a struggle between NDPVF and NDV for control over illegal oil revenues. Current violence in the region is for the most part no longer associated with organized militant groups, but rather is a product of the deep-rooted criminal rackets in the vicinity of Port Harcourt. Exacerbated by organized crime syndicates involved in oil theft, the continued widespread availability of small arms, unaddressed socioeconomic grievances, and youths frustrated by political elites and traditional rulers, Rivers State’s culture of crime appears to be making a gradual return to militancy and maritime piracy.
Akwa Ibom (Bight of Bonny and the southeastern Niger Delta)
Nigeria’s southeastern most region suffered a spike in pirate attacks beginning in June 2013. The (7) attacks ranged from the inland waterways of the Calabar River to the Bight of Bonny and 80NM south of Akwa Ibom. The attacks were the first reported piracy incidents in the region since 2010.
The late 2013 surge in attacks is likely tied to residual militant groups that continue to rely on revenues from maritime piracy. Despite Akwa Ibom’s absence of MEND-affiliated power players, native militant groups such as Lacto Marine had been notorious for harassing the state’s inland waterways and offshore shipping in the Gulf of Guinea. Lacto Marine was formally recognized under the federal amnesty deal in March 2013, whereby only 20 members came forward to lay down arms. In spite of Abuja’s concessions, ex-militants have allegedly been excluded from federal training programs and the peace arrangement appears to be nominal. Governor Godswill Akpabio has echoed the lamentations of his constituents over the alleged exclusion of Akwa Ibom militants from the federal amnesty program.
Early optimism following the surrender of Lacto Marine was supported by a return to fishing activities in Akwa Ibom, which had been largely abandoned due to incessant attacks. However, spikes in piracy in Q3 and Q4 may indicate a growing dissatisfaction with post-amnesty developments and a sense of marginalization amongst that state’s youth population.
Tensions between citizens and the oil industry came to a head in October 2013, when hundreds of youths, angry over environmental damages and hiring practices, blocked the entrance to Exxon-Mobil’s the Qua Iboe Terminal, temporarily grounding operations. As the leading oil producing state in the Niger Delta, Akwa Ibom houses infrastructure from every international and indigenous oil company operating in Nigeria. The surge in instability threatens to disrupt oil industry operations for both international and indigenous firms on and offshore.
Though often considered a periphery state for the Niger Delta’s insurgency, Akwa Ibom has been a historical flashpoint for protest and political violence. As was the case across the Niger Delta in the run up to the 2011 elections, the practice of arming political supporters to intimidate rivals and safeguard interests aggravated the already tenuous political situation in Akwa Ibom. Following the 2011 elections, clashes between members of the then opposition Action Congress of Nigeria and the PDP led to the deaths of 36 civilians. Property belonging to the Akwa Ibom State government was set ablaze by angry mobs insistent that the ruling party manipulated the outcome of the election. Ongoing dissatisfaction with the federal amnesty policy and socioeconomic grievances combined with an uneasy political climate could spark a widespread return to militancy ahead of the 2015 elections.
2014 forecast and the (unlikely) prospects for peace.
The 2013 surge in maritime piracy is indicative of Nigeria’s deteriorating situation onshore. Criminal enterprise still reigns supreme in Lagos and the worsening conditions in Bayelsa, Rivers and Akwa Ibom States are a testament to the problems that plague the federal amnesty program. The 2009 peace deal gave approximately 8,200 militants across the Niger Delta an opportunity to take part in a repatriation program that provides a monthly stipend of $400 and training for entry into Nigeria’s workforce. Meanwhile, former insurgent leaders were paid sums in the hundred of millions of dollars to surrender their commands and turnover their arsenal of weapons. Few reforms have been implemented to address the grievances and socioeconomic needs of the Niger Delta’s youth, and the shortsighted nature of the program has created only a temporary peace across the region. Delta State appears to be implementing the reforms and security measures necessary to maintain stability, while the remainder of the Niger Delta’s coastal region is growing ripe for a return to widespread militancy.
Exasperated youth and ex-militants will look to procure post-amnesty revenue streams in Bayelsa, Rivers and Akwa Ibom States. Tankers will continue to be high-payoff targets for oil theft in deep waters. Smaller support vessels that operate near the offshore oil fields and coastlines near Bayelsa, Rivers and Akwa Ibom states without security escorts will remain vulnerable to robbery and kidnap-for-ransom extortions.
As international oil companies sell off onshore fields (as a result of sustained instability and regulatory burdens) and move toward deep-water exploration, there will be an increase in offshore infrastructure and maritime traffic. If security measures cannot keep up with the surge in offshore operations and subsequent logistics support, this will provide convenient targets of opportunity for robbery, kidnapping and industrial bunkering off the coast of Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States.
The continued failure to address the deep-rooted criminal rackets in Lagos will ensure the sustained harassment of merchant shipping in 2014. Lagos anchorage and waters to the south and west will remain some of Nigeria’s most dangerous until adequate offshore security can be provided by Nigerian Naval and Coast Guard elements.
Tensions between the PDP and the All Progressives Congress (APC) parties will become further aggravated as the 2015 election cycle approaches. Politicians will likely resort to old tactics of arming supporters to intimidate opponents and protect economic interests. The practice will likely result in a widespread return to on and offshore militancy across the Niger Delta in late 2014 and into 2015. The greater danger lies in that the election season rearmament may not be temporary condition. With the proposed termination of the amnesty program in 2015, no plan for reining-in the violence post-elections, no new amnesty program to promote disarmament and no way of controlling the newly empowered militants, the rise of a second full-scale insurgency in the Niger Delta is a very real possibility. Should the federal and state governments fail to step-up rehabilitation and reintegration efforts over the next year, election-related unrest could hasten the undoing of the amnesty arrangement and give way to uncontrolled criminal and political violence well into 2015 and beyond.
The region to watch in 2014 will be Delta State. In the run up to the 2015 elections, long-run efficacy of reforms and ability of security forces to suppress a resurgence in onshore militancy and maritime piracy will be tested. The region’s success or failure may be indicative of the life span of the amnesty agreement in other parts of the Niger Delta and the future of insurgency-driven maritime piracy in Nigeria.
- IMB Piracy Reporting Center – ICC Commercial Crime Services. Annual IMB Piracy Reports, 2003 – 2013.
- US Office of Naval Intelligence. Piracy Analysis and Weekly Warning Report. Oct – Dec 2013.
- IGAS Journal of Energy Security. Maritime Violence and Election Violence in the Niger Delta. March 2011.
- Action on Armed Violence. The Violent Road: Nigeria’s South-South. Dec 2013.
- Wanted in Africa. Lagos Menu, Local News. Dec 2012.
- Premium Times, Nigeria. Jan 2014.
- Slate.com, Nigeria. Delta Force. Jan 2014.
- The Nigerian Voice. A New Bayelsa Youth Emerges. Mar 2013.
- AllAfrica.com: Nigeria. Vanguard Media Limited (Lagos, Nigeria).
- The Guardian Global Development Network, The Guardian, Nigeria.
The author generated all graphics used in this article.
Bryan Abell served 10 years in the United States Marine Corps as a Force Reconnaissance Marine and Intelligence Officer. He is a U.S. Naval Academy alumnus and is currently a second-year Master’s student at Stanford University’s Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies. He has been assigned by Stanford University to work with the maritime security firm, Six Maritime, to provide research and analysis on instability in the Niger Delta.