West African Piracy: 7 Trends You Need to Know

gulf of guinea west africa global map
Image (c) Shutterstock/Gabrel

By Major Bryan Abell, USMCR

I am not an expert on maritime piracy, nor am I an expert on West Africa. So seven months ago when our Stanford team (in partnership with Six Maritime LLC) began our graduate research on the Niger Delta and the nefarious activities that plague Nigeria’s littoral regions, it was easy to become lost in shoddy media reports, confused by poor analysis and distracted by the Hollywood hype that surrounded the Maersk Alabama. I assumed that the highly publicized Somali model of maritime piracy was universal: bands of brazen youths man a skiff, motor out to sea, hijack a passing vessel, hold the crew hostage and secure a ransom payment. End of story.

But the West African experts will tell you that the Gulf of Guinea is not the Gulf of Aden. Likewise, the salty mariners who have gone toe-to-toe with armed boarding parties will tell you that not all pirates are created equal. Maritime piracy – and piracy in West Africa in particular – is the consequence of an assortment of social, economic and political dysfunctions. The depth of the problem makes it difficult to understand and its fluidity makes it problematic to solve.

So, after months of the not-so-sexy nerd work of data mining, interviews and statistical analysis, we have pared down the Gulf of Guinea’s piracy problem into seven trends that you need to know:

1. West African piracy is persistent. 

Though the Gulf of Guinea has seen its share of outrageous ransom demands, the region has yet to experience the explosion of long-range attacks or prolonged hostage crises that are common to East Africa. Rather, piracy on the west side of the continent has remained relatively slow, yet incredibly persistent.

To give credit where credit is due, the region’s coalition navies have effectively disrupted nearshore maritime crime thanks to increased presence and improved coordination. However, in a perennial bid to protect its sovereignty, Nigeria has effectively barred intervention by foreign naval forces and reputable private security firms. The country’s tight regulatory control over its maritime environment has both obscured the magnitude of the problem and provided the cover necessary for piracy to endure. Underneath the security façade, collusion between criminal rackets, corrupt maritime industry employees and even naval officers are common practice. Current estimates indicate that, as a result, more than half of the piracy incidents in the gulf are never reported to bodies like the International Maritime Bureau.

For mariners operating in the gulf, the climate presents a slippery slope: poor reporting leads to inaccurate perceptions of the threat environment, which leads to inadequate security measures. This amalgamation of insecurity, collusion and misinformation qualify West Africa’s waters as the world’s most dangerous.

2. Piracy begins and ends onshore.

Whether motivated by politics or profit, the groups that hunt West Africa’s shipping lanes are agents of Nigeria’s onshore dysfunction. Following the rise of organized militancy in the Niger Delta in 2003, armed groups turned their grievances toward Nigeria’s lucrative energy market, setting their sights on the region’s offshore oil and gas infrastructure and its affiliated logistics networks. Since 2009, however, the Delta’s amnesty agreement has yielded a temporary lull in organized insurgency and a recession in militant activity in the Gulf of Guinea. The contemporary offshore violence is instead a consequence of Nigeria’s organized crime syndicates, small-time opportunists and unemployed youth militants and their perpetual search for revenue sources.

Nigeria’s malcontents change with the socioeconomic atmospherics and political landscape, but their preferred method of making a political statement or securing a big payday does not. Given the enormity of the country’s onshore troubles and the availability of maritime targets, there is no quick fix or foreseeable expiration to the region’s piracy predicament.

3. Maritime crime is transnational.

Like most criminal organizations intent on generating income, Nigeria’s pirates are rational economists that will seek opportunities to maximize profits. The result is that the Niger Delta’s seafaring malefactors don’t seem to discriminate between their home waters and those of their neighbors.

Prior to 2011, attacks were largely confined to Nigeria’s territorial waters. The limited reach was not out of courtesy for their neighbors, but rather an outcome of domestic political upheaval.  The ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ approach of the Niger Delta’s militants sought to undermine the security environment for international oil companies and the Nigerian government.

The good news is that the combination of an increased naval presence, improved countermeasures, and amnesty payments has pacified (at least temporarily) some of Nigeria’s nearshore pirate activity. The bad news is that overall attacks in the region haven’t skipped a beat. Instead, criminals have demonstrated the willingness and ability to go as far west as Ivory Coast and as far south and east as Angola to find bountiful hunting grounds. When it comes to maximizing profits, Nigeria’s rational economists will go at great lengths to find vulnerable and high-payoff targets.

4. Nigerians have a new business model.

Until 2010, robbery was the preferred crime in West African waters. Criminals would board an anchored or berthed vessel, steal ship’s stores, cash or personal effects and make a quick exit. Things changed, however, in December of 2010, when an Italian tanker was hijacked 120 nautical miles off the coast of Togo. Six pirates transferred 5,000 metric tons of refined oil into an awaiting container then sold the stolen product on Nigeria’s black market for a profit of nearly $5 million (USD). The colossal and almost immediate payoff all but put an end to nearshore robberies and triggered an explosion of deepwater oil theft.

For the Gulf of Guinea’s coastal states, high oil prices and the lack of a refining capacity put refined petrol products at a premium. To meet the demand, organized criminal rackets have developed both the logistical capacity to steal thousands of tons of oil at sea and the means to deliver it to black market buyers. From Ivory Coast to Angola, tankers are hijacked and taken out to sea, where the cargo is offloaded into awaiting containers. Once a buyer is found, a substantial payday is in order. The new low-risk, high-payoff business model signals a costly and potentially long-term paradigm shift in West African maritime crime.

5. Standoff does not equal safety. 

Simply steering clear of West Africa’s coastline is not an adequate security measure. Armed criminals with access to the right equipment have demonstrated the ability to reach deeper into the region’s shipping lanes in order to steal petroleum.

Pilfering 5,000 metric tons of oil at sea is no simple task. The time and logistical demands needed to pull off such operations require security and standoff from intervening naval and coast guard patrols. Fortunately for oil thieves, the region’s naval presence is largely limited to state territorial seas that extend 12 nautical miles from the low water mark. By operating beyond the reach of maritime interdiction forces, thieves have virtually unrestricted access to passing tankers and their prized cargo.

6. Kidnappings occur close to home. 

As the Niger Delta amnesty deal closes in on its fifth year, thousands of militant youths have found themselves either short-changed on amnesty stipends or left out of the arrangement all together. In the wake of the faltering peace agreement between the government and the Delta’s residual insurgent groups, Nigeria’s waters have hosted a considerable spike in kidnap-for-ransom events.

Like the country’s crime syndicates and their inclination for oil theft, the profit-seeking motives of Nigeria’s militant youths are behind the surge in abductions. While the larger and more organized criminal rackets have the cash and equipment needed to carryout large-scale oil theft, the Delta’s youth militants are limited in reach and resources. However, the bustle of small support vessels that operate near the coastline and service the region’s offshore oil fields provide a target-rich environment for kidnap-for-ransom extortions.

Further Reading: Kidnapped off Nigeria – An American Ship Captain Unveils the Truth

Despite having to carryout abductions close to shore and within range of security forces, the cost-benefit calculus for kidnapping operations is favorable: targets are easily identified – often times with the assistance of corrupt maritime employees; collusion ensures that security measures will be reduced; Western companies are consistently willing to pay hefty sums for the safe return of their employees; and the odds of being arrested or punished are slim.

As sustained instability and growing regulatory burdens force international oil companies to sell their onshore oil fields and move toward deepwater exploration, an increase in offshore infrastructure and maritime traffic is imminent. If security measures cannot keep up with the surge in offshore operations, the waters off of Nigeria’s south could become the continent’s epicenter for abduction and extortion.

7. Ballots, bullets and boardings.

The customarily raucous run up to the US presidential elections pales in comparison to the maelstrom of Nigeria’s election season. Arming supporters to intimidate opponents and protect economic interests is a tradition in Nigerian politics. Long-standing grievances, ongoing dissatisfaction with the federal amnesty policy, and the uneasy political climate could spark a widespread return to on and offshore militancy ahead of the country’s 2015 elections.

Tensions between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) will become further aggravated as the election cycle gets into full swing. However, the greater danger lies in that the election season rearmament may not be a temporary condition. With next year’s proposed termination of the amnesty program, there is no plan for reigning in the violence post-elections. Nor is there a new strategy to promote disarmament, or any safeguard against the rise of a second full-scale insurgency in southern Nigeria.

Should federal and state leaders fail to control election-related unrest, the violence could yield a widespread resurgence in organized militancy – to include offshore attacks on both international oil companies and government interests. These menacing conditions could signal a relapse of politically-inspired piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and scuttle prospects for lasting security in West Africa’s sea lanes.

*My sincere gratitude to the rest of the Stanford IPS A-Team: Jessica Knight, Rafael Burde and Deirdre Hegarty; thanks also to the management team at Six Maritime for their dedication to objective research that made this project possible; and a special thanks to Dirk Steffen at Risk Intelligence for the guidance and analytic insights. 

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 is partnered with the maritime security firm Six Maritime to provide research and analysis on instability in the Niger Delta.