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Piracy Soars in West African Waters

  • Heather Murdock

U.S. sailors and Nigerian special forces during a Feb. 13, 2010 training exercise off the Nigerian coast, where the U.S. offered training to combat piracy along the West African coast.

U.S. sailors and Nigerian special forces during a Feb. 13, 2010 training exercise off the Nigerian coast, where the U.S. offered training to combat piracy along the West African coast.

The pirate business is booming off the coast of Nigeria.

There were 27 attacks in Nigerian waters last year, compared to 10 the year before, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Numbers like that make West African waters among the most dangerous in the world, second only to the coast of Somalia, which recorded nearly 70 attacks last year, despite a drastic reduction in piracy.

Dangerous waters

Attacks in West Africa’s waters are very different from those off the coast of Somalia, according to International Maritime Bureau Director Pottengal Mukundan.

In Somalia, people are held hostage for ransom. In West Africa, it's all about moving product.

“The most serious cases are those in which tankers-product tankers are hijacked in order to steal a part of the cargo," Mukundan says. "And this operation takes about seven to 10 days, after which the ship and the crew are released. And in order to steal the cargo, they will hijack the ship and take it to a pre-determined location where another, smaller tanker is waiting, and the cargo is transferred from the hijacked tanker to the smaller vessel.”

This is not to say piracy is safe in West Africa, where ships are usually boarded at gunpoint. Two people were killed in attacks last year.

Limited resources

Mukundan believes authorities can stop these kind of attacks without endangering the crew.

“The position of these vessels can be determined without too much difficulty with aerial surveillance, for example," he says. "And then the navy or the police forces can go in and catch the pirates after the hijacked vessel has been released so there is no risk to the hostages.”

The Nigerian navy has caught a few gangs of pirates but is the only operational policing force in the Gulf of Guinea.

Other coastal states lack the capacity and the equipment to fight pirates in far offshore attacks, according to Mukundan.

The International Maritime Bureau blames the increased piracy on the lack of naval resources in the gulf.

Big money

However, some Nigerians blame the problem on growing discontent in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

Jackson Timiyan, who heads a national youth group with a large presence in the Niger Delta, says young men turn to piracy because they are poor and out of work.

“The prime cause of maritime piracy is joblessness," Timiyan says. "Most of them that participate in this, they are participating as a means of the only way they can survive.”

Piracy can be big money.

A single haul in the Gulf of Guinea can be worth more than $1 million. Timiyan says impoverished, out-of-work pirates don't stay poor long.

“Some of them, once they got such money, will buy jeep upon jeep, fleets of cars here and there," he says.

Growing anger

However, other locals say piracy is not just about money.

At his welding workshop in the beleaguered Niger Delta oil city, Warri, Cross Ebikosore, says some pirates today were militants like him in the past decade.

At the time, local armed groups attacked foreign and government oil interests, demanding a share of the wealth.

With most of the Niger Delta’s 31 million people living on less than a dollar a day, the uprising gained some popularity. It eventually ended, with the government granting amnesty to tens of thousands of militants.

That amnesty was supposed to come with jobs and poverty alleviation, which has not happened, Ebikosore says, and former militants are growing angry.

Ebikosore says former militants have turned to piracy because they feel they were tricked into turning in their weapons in the first place, according to Ebikosore.

He believes the only way to stop crime off the coast of Nigeria, is to provide other opportunities for coastal Nigerians.

Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from the Niger Delta.