A surge in petro-piracy in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea must be understood in the context of deep-rooted problems in the Niger Delta, as Dayo Aiyetan explains.

On 5 October 2012, men armed with AK-47s attacked Orfeas, a gasoline tanker, off Côte d’Ivoire. The pirates boarded the ship and roughed up her 24-person crew, before destroying the communications equipment. They then sailed 650 nautical miles to the Nigerian coast where they siphoned off their loot – the tanker’s oily cargo.

It was a successful raid. After just four days, the thieves returned home up to $1.6 million richer.

These ‘petro-pirates’ are part of an international criminal enterprise. What began as local-level oil sabotage now threatens the economy of several countries in West Africa.  The Gulf of Guinea is listed as the newest hotbed for piracy, comfortably taking the lead over Somalia. The latest report from the International Maritime Bureau states that pirate attacks have nearly doubled in two years,  hitting 59 in 2012, with the highest number witnessed in Nigerian waters or off its coast.

Niger Delta connection

Piracy today has its roots in the militant agitation by youths in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, in the south of the country.

In the mid-2000s, youths rebelled against decades of environmental pollution and degradation. While international firms have reaped vast profits since exploration began in the late 1950s, oil extraction has blighted the local environment. Spills have forced farmers from their farms and fishers from polluted rivers.

To make matters worse, the Nigerian government used its oil wealth to develop parts of the country outside the Niger Delta, including Lagos, the former capital, and Abuja, the new federal capital, which is even now hoovering up the nation’s petro-dollars for its development.

Politicians were accustomed to securing elections by recruiting and arming Delta youths, whom they quickly dumped after victory. Using the guns bought for them by politicians, the youths started a seemingly genuine, altruistic campaign for resource control and development of the Niger Delta, while also condemning the environmental damage wrought by oil exploration.

The militant youths soon morphed into criminal gangs. They declared war, not only on the Nigerian state but also on all oil transnationals in the region. A season of terror involving the kidnapping of expatriate oil workers, vandalizing pipelines and illegal oil bunkering ensued.

These activities reduced oil production in Nigeria from over two billion barrels of crude per day to as low as 750 million, devastating an economy that is largely dependent on oil.

A 2009 amnesty programme by the government of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua saw 26,000 former militants denounce violence and down arms. However, many were loath to give up the lucrative returns of oil theft for ‘rehabilitation’ and a shot at acquiring skills for employment.

Today these militants, emboldened by the ineptitude of security agencies, have graduated from on-shore oil theft to sea piracy. They include the Niger Delta Vigilantes, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, and leftovers from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), as well as a sprinkling of smaller groups. Operating first in Nigerian waters, they now spread their tentacles as far as Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea.

Thorn in the side

With the discovery of oil in Ghana and off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire, the ever-increasing reach of Nigerian petro-pirates has become a big worry for the international community.

Pirates are getting more ferocious and sophisticated. Equipped with heavy weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades, they are increasingly adopting the Somali crew-for-ransom model.

Unsafe waters bode ill for the regional economy.  Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is estimated to cost the region more than $2 billion annually. Benin’s defence minister, Issifou Kogui N’Douro, told the UN Security Council that the port of Cotonou port saw a 70-per-cent drop in traffic after the hike in insurance premiums that followed a spate of pirate attacks off his country’s coast in 2011.

But dealing with piracy is easier said than done. Nigeria, for instance, makes all the right noises, but is already struggling to contain onshore oil theft, which costs it an estimated $6.8 billion every year.

Nigeria is not the only country that lacks capacity. Its neighbours face pirates with rag-tag navies and woefully inadequate communications and military equipment.

The maritime surveillance brigade in Côte d’Ivoire sends out gendarmes on leaky wooden canoes, without weapons – or even life vests, who are expected to fight ruthless, heavily armed pirates on fast boats.

‘It would be a slaughter… what can we do against that?’ Captain Augustin Dago, head of the brigade, told Reuters in May, adding, ‘We’re just hoping it doesn’t get any worse.’

Strength in numbers
At a recent G8 meeting, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan urged the international community to stigmatize stolen oil as ‘blood oil’, much as it did with stolen diamonds.

‘Stolen Nigerian crude oil is transported on internationally registered vessels,’ pointed out advocacy group Stop the Theft last June, ‘sold to international buyers, processed by international oil refineries and paid for using international banks.’

International military support has already been stepped up. For a number of years, the US and Britain have helped to train and kit out the Nigerian navy so as to boost patrols; the European Union is currently training coastguards.



    But it is clear that regional action will be the key to wiping out piracy. In 2011, after pirate attacks increased off the coast of Benin, that country’s President, Boni Yayi, sought help from Nigeria and the resulting naval patrols brought down attacks dramatically.

    More recently, in June 2013, African leaders at the Gulf of Guinea Commission meeting in Yaoundé, Cameroon, committed to sharing intelligence and undertaking joint military patrols.

    But the Nigerian government must also deal with other ills at home – corruption, insecurity and environmental devastation – if it is to find long-lasting solutions to piracy on the high seas.


    This article first appeared in the September edition of The New Internationalist.


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