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West African Leaders Promise to Combat Piracy Surge

  • Heather Murdock

Suspected pirates are paraded aboard a naval ship after their arrest by the Nigerian Navy at a defense jetty in Lagos, August 20, 2013.

Suspected pirates are paraded aboard a naval ship after their arrest by the Nigerian Navy at a defense jetty in Lagos, August 20, 2013.

A surge in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea this year has prompted West African leaders to establish a new working group intended to combine maritime law enforcement efforts. Analysts in Nigeria say security forces already have the capacity to slow the attacks, but lack the political will.

In the rivers and creeks of Nigeria's Niger Delta, speedboat drivers say piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has frightened some of their customers away, but they continue to carry oil workers to the high seas.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The International Maritime Bureau says West African waters are now among the most dangerous in the world - far more dangerous than the waters off Somalia, where pirates have become less active. A report this month said more than half of the pirate killings and all of the kidnappings worldwide this year have happened in the Gulf of Guinea. Most of the attacks were off the shores of Nigeria.

Edward Oforomeh, a lawyer and former police superintendent, says pirate attacks off Nigeria also hurt Nigerians on shore.

“The increase in piracy is a threat to our economy, a very big threat to our economy," Oforomeh said. "So I want to say that those responsible for checking the hoodlums that are bent on this piracy, they should wake up. They should wake up to their duties.”

Heavily armed pirates ransack ships and steal the cargo - usually oil products - while sometimes killing or abducting crew members.

Last week, an American ship captain and chief engineer of an oil supply vessel were kidnapped off the Nigerian coast. U.S. officials accuse pirates of the abduction and Nigerian Navy says it has a search-and-rescue team on the water.

But some analysts say pirates are often better armed than the Nigerian Navy. Nigerian security forces have the manpower and the training, but not the resources they need to fight pirates, said Oforomeh.

“That is why we appear not to be able to cope. But if we were able to equip them as overseas…countries equip their people, we will be able to contain them.”

The International Maritime Bureau says all Nigerian waters “remain risky,” but West African leaders say the danger is to the entire region. At a meeting in Dakar last weekend, leaders from the West African economic bloc, ECOWAS, announced they will establish a maritime safety coordination center in Cameroon to combat “piracy, terrorism, extremism and banditry at sea.”

But here in Nigeria, some analysts say beefed up security alone will not make the waters safer. Abubakar Kari, a political science lecturer at the University of Abuja, says criminals - even when they are caught - are often not punished in Nigeria. Corruption, he adds, makes it harder to catch them.

“By corruption I mean those whose duty it is to stop the piracy - I’m talking of the security agents - sometimes are actually participants in it," Kari said. "They collect money and gratification from the pirates and allow them to perpetrate their acts.”

The International Maritime Bureau says the Nigeria is currently developing a new legal framework to combat piracy.

In mid-October, Nigeria hosted Spain, Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands in a joint training operation because maritime security, they said, is a “common global heritage to mankind.”

Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from the Niger Delta region.

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