Rise of Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

UN has recently issued a report on the Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Piracy in the region has become a growing concern. Much of the piracy that affects West Africa is a product of the disorder that surrounds the regional oil industry.

2014.03.19 - Rise of Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea Figure 1

A large share of the recent piracy attacks targeted vessels carrying  petroleum products. These vessels are attacked because there is a booming black market for fuel in West Africa. Without this ready market, there would be little point in attacking these vessels. There are indications that oil may also be smuggled outside the region.

Piracy itself is not new to the region. Maritime trade is a key source of income for the coastal states of West Africa and, like oil, it is subject to predation. In the past, most of the incidents have been nothing more than maritime robbery.

Looking at the profile of these crimes in West Africa, very few kidnappings for ransom have been reported in recent years, and those that have been reported all occurred in Nigerian waters. Kidnapping oil company employees was one of the many activities of the Niger Delta militants, and these kidnappings occasionally occurred at sea. But even in Nigeria, these attacks have declined in recent years. Almost everything that remains falls under one of two headings: attacks aimed at hijacking petroleum product tankers and opportunistic robberies.

2014.03.19 - Rise of Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea Figure 2

Where information on the attackers is available, almost all of the piracy attacks along the Bight of Benin have been linked to Nigerian pirates. In the Benin attacks, many of the participants were from along the Nigeria-Benin border. Victims in the Benin attacks report that both English and French have been spoken by the pirates. For example, William Locky, a Nigerian arrested in Cotonou on suspicion of piracy, speaks basic French and has parents who come from the border area. On 4 August 2012, five men were arrested in Nigeria and several others in Benin in connection with a pirate attack. Two of these men were brothers – one arrested in Benin and one arrested in Nigeria.

2014.03.19 - Rise of Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea Figure 3

Fuel thieves must have links to the cross-border black market, and so often have links to the Niger Delta. At least one Beninois was recently arrested in Nigeria in connection with bunkering where the destination of the cargo was Benin. The players in the oil bunkering industry are diverse, including corrupt officials, the armed groups they sponsor, corrupt elements of the military, corrupt oil industry officials, militants, and professional thieves.

The biggest concern for the countries of the region is not the direct losses to the pirates, but the way these losses impact international insurance rates. In Benin, a country whose lifeblood flows through a 121-kilometer sliver of coastline, taxes on trade account for half of Benin’s government revenues, and 80% of these are derived from the port of Cotonou.131 The wave of attacks in 2011 led international maritime insurance adjustors to place Benin’s waters in the same category as Nigeria’s, greatly increasing the costs of shipping to the country.

The greatest risk is that piracy will become broadly popular. The hijackings to date are few enough in number that they could be the work of a single syndicate. If the black market for fuel is sufficiently open, there are many dissidents, out of work fishermen, and marginalized youth who could be attracted to the trade. The potential for a million-dollar payoff could well attract participants from outside Nigeria as well.

Source: UNODC

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