Turbulent Times in West African Waters: 5 killed, 19 rescued.
On Wednesday 17 November, gunmen opened fire on a vessel transporting security personnel to an oil platform in Cameroon waters and killed five people, – ‘Gunmen off Cameroon in Deadly Boat Raid’ in the same day the Nigerian military professed to have rescued nineteen oil-workers that had been kept hostage by militant groups operating off the Nigerian coast – ‘Nigerian Military Free 19 Oil Delta Hostages’.
Piracy off the coast of Nigeria and Cameroon is a combination of armed militant groups, insurgents and organised and opportunistic criminals conducting armed robbery, kidnapping and goods and human trafficking. Around Port Harcourt, Lagos and Douala organised and opportunistic crime is more prevalent whilst further offshore and along the coast attacks are largely attributed to militant groups. Aside from political instability and a lack of law enforcement, the defining factor that all of these types of attacks share are a comparatively high level of violence and resultant crew harm that is largely unseen with piracy elsewhere.
As Steve Phelps explained in his October article ‘Nigeria – Maritime Security, the Reality’ systematically underreported attacks belie the scale of the problem. For example in 2009 the IMB were able to officially record that 28 attacks occurred in Nigerian waters, whilst intelligence groups put the figure closer to 100. Officially reported pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia had an 11% success rate in 2009 yet pirate attacks off the Nigerian coast had a 73% success rate. In reality, with the inclusion of the numerous attacks that go unreported this success rate is reduced, but the high degree of organised violence and threat of violence to crews, the quantity of vessel traffic, the lack of security forces and the vulnerability of the vessels transiting or moored in the area ensure that success rates remain high.
As the Reuters article illuminates, there are divisions within the militant groups that permit openings for Nigerian initiatives like the freeing of these hostages, but the number of attacks are likely to rise as militant groups attempt to undermine President Jonathan’s administration with the forthcoming elections in April 2011.
In Cameroon, armed robberies on vessels off Douala have not been uncommon for several years; however the expansion of pirate activity further offshore has been relatively recent. The kidnappings and killings off Cameroon’s coast that have increased in number since 2008 can be largely attributed to the seceding of the Bakassi region to Cameroon and the subsequent citizen upheaval in the same year. Nevertheless, whilst frequently affecting the movement of civilians, lines drawn on a map are rarely boundaries for militant activity, especially in the maritime sphere. The porous Cameroon-Nigerian border is unlikely to prohibit the political instability and prolific militant activity off the south-eastern coast of Nigeria from having an effect in Cameroon’s waters, especially without effective governance in the border regions.
Outside the waters of Nigeria and Cameroon, West African piracy largely consists of pirates armed with knives and or small arms boarding vessels at anchor or slow speeds with the intention of the theft of valuable goods, cash and ship stores. Over the last three years successful pirate attacks have been reported in the waters of Angola, Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Morocco, Sierra Leone and Togo and attacks have even occurred on vessels underway 60NM off the coast of Guinea and Guinea Bissau, with armed pirates using skiffs to chase and board vessels.