Nigerian piracy: fact and fiction

Insecurity, under reporting, lack of information sharing all confuse the issues.

Nigerian piracy ‘overhyped’ or not reported enough?


This has not been a good month for Nigeria. To begin with, there lies the constant torment of Boko Haram. On 13 July 2014, the northern-based extremist group took its viciousness to a new level by publically unveiling a video that showcased the militants declaring their undying support for Iraq terror supergroup, ISIS. Adding insult to injury, the footage also depicted the extremists mocking the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, by ridiculing any and all attempts to rescue the 200-some girls held in their captivity. It is these brazen activities, combined with Boko Haram’s intermittent bombing attacks, which could afford the Nigerian government some level of absolution for its tendency to forgo the country’s other major security considerations, such as piracy, in favour of fending off the northern scourge. Doing so, however, would be problematic.

Indeed, whilst Boko Haram is undoubtedly wreaking havoc in the North, in the South, another complex security picture has developed. In addition to threats of further assaults by Boko Haram splinter cells – the extremist group recently claimed responsibility for the June 2014 bombings in Lagos – the South clearly has been inundated by pirate attacks. This is, of course, according to the international media and global think tanks. To be sure, week after week, studies circulate regarding just how critical Nigeria’s piracy crisis has become. The reports from the Western media, in particular, portray Nigeria as something of a buccaneer hub, where seafarers must constantly brave impending boardings from wayward pirates looking to cash in on lucrative oil-related cargo. The stories have become so prevalent, that some have been quick to falsely declare Nigeria – as well as piracy-prone Indonesia – as the next “Somalia”. This extreme comparison aside, are the constant Nigerian piracy reports – as some local officials complain – truly misleading? Or do they pale in comparison to the actual number of piracy cases near the Nigerian coast?


Gauging the rate of piracy in Nigeria is difficult. Whilst the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) presents arguably the most reliable and up-to-date reports on piracy-related incidents, many attacks in Nigeria, which could be described as piracy-related, go under the radar. Case in point: local communities in the Mbo local government area in Akwa Ibom State frequently grumble about the strengthening of pirate groups near Effiat, Ibaka, Mbughu and Unyenge, but these concerns receive little press outside of West Africa. Over the past two months, fishermen in these areas have told Nigerian news reporters of the harrowing attacks orchestrated by pirates against ports, or the small-scale theft of assailants targeting small fishing boats, nets and other equipment. Meanwhile, in Bayelsa State, there has been an influx of incidents involving assailants opening fire on unsuspecting boat passengers. More recently on 20 July 2014, a group of armed men killed 2 people after looting a small vessel moving along the Ogbia-Nembe waterways. All of these cases may seem ‘insignificant’ when compared to the more Western ‘media-worthy’ commercial vessel hijacking. Indeed, some analysts question whether they should fall under the legal umbrella of piracy at all, as they could be classified as armed robberies that merely happen to take place along inlets. At the very least, however, these assaults do incredible damage to the local villagers attempting to eke out a living in a country where some 70% of the country lives on less than US$1.25 a day. Despite the real pain inflicted on Nigerian communities, these attacks often proceed without acknowledgement from general piracy reporting centres. To be sure, aside from reports of a suspicious vessel sighting near the Akpo deep water oil and gas field on 15 July 2014, no major maritime incidents along the Nigerian coastline have been publicised over the past week. The lack of reporting as of late, however, does not imply that Nigerian pirate attacks involving merchant vessels are in decline. On the contrary, since January 2014, more than half of all incidents recorded along the western coast of Africa – between Angola in the south, to Senegal in the north west – have taken place in Nigeria. More specifically, at least 16 cases have been confirmed so far this year. This figure may appear minute, especially considering Nigeria’s 853 kilometre-long coastline. However, as previously suggested, most incidents are not made public, suggesting that the security situation could be far more precarious than what is being depicted.


The EU’s Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) claims that only 1/3 of all incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, including Nigeria, are actually reported to the appropriate authorities. Why is this the case? In short, a number of factors are to blame. Chief among these are the comparatively low-level nature of most criminal activity – i.e., petty theft along ports. Moreover, many attacks, including the aforementioned assaults conducted by pirates in Akwa Ibom State, fail to reach headlines, as they do not count major commercial vessels or foreign nationals among their victims. Even these localised incidents are probably more prevalent than the Nigerian news portrays. The fear of retribution by the perpetrators could lead to lower reporting rates, particularly among locals in impoverished areas where pirates have taken on an almost gang-like formation. Adding to these factors is the apparent reluctance of Masters to report incidents out of sheer embarrassment, which is more likely to occur if there are no foreign nationals – as in, no non-Nigerians – on board. In addition, some sources suggest that sometimes crew members are unable to discern if an incident is ‘worthy’ enough to be reported. A mere approach by a small skiff, even if that skiff contains menacing-looking individuals holding a ladder, is often not enough to warrant a call to authorities. Recent studies also suggest the shortage of confirmed incidents could be linked to an ‘insufficient’ reporting organisation. Whilst Nigeria is home to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Lagos, some ship owners and crew members, according to reports, apparently believe that contacting the Centre will actually attract pirates.The veracity of these claims is not clear. However, its mere suggestion illustrates a lack of trust with Nigerian authorities, some of whom have been accused of engaging in shady deals with the very same pirates they should be trying to detain. These allegations have been supported by a dearth of reports regarding the arrest of pirates, who regularly seem to evade capture. In light of all of these concerns, there comes another dilemma. Even if crew members do want to report an incident, is it worth it? Between confusion over jurisdiction, and lengthy delays for commercial vessels in the event of a reported incident, it is perhaps understandable that personnel are hesitant to announce an incident of piracy.

The aforementioned circumstances are at least partially to blame for the seemingly small number of reported maritime criminal acts in Nigeria. But what if the low level of activity actually reflects the situation on the ground? To be sure, Guardian sources in country note that often piracy cases are found to have been “misreported”, with personnel ‘pushing the panic button’ after witnessing approaches by small vessels operated largely by fishermen with honest intentions. Even some Nigerian security higher-ups agree this is the case. For his part, Ziakede Patrick Akpobolokemi, the Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), claimed that many incidents of “hijackings, piracy and robbery” are false, and are merely “hyped to undermine us and shore up insurance premiums”. Akpobolokemi, however, did admit that piracy is a major problem for Nigeria; but, he countered, NIMASA is “working tirelessly to reduce piracy and illicit crimes on our waterways”.


As can be seen, obtaining accurate data on Nigeria’s piracy problem is cumbersome. Between the fear of publicising cases, to the aggressive reporting of innocent approaches by local fishermen, the picture, at first glance, appears rather mixed. What can be ascertained, however, is that piracy exists – if only because the sheer value of the goods transiting in area are simply too good to pass up for some nefarious individuals. Indeed, the latest reports suggest that Nigeria-based pirates can make as much as US$7,000 per day stealing fuel-related products aboard vessels and then reselling them on the black market. Worryingly, the security situation in Nigeria does not only have domestic implications.According to the UK Chamber of Shipping, the failure of Nigerian security forces to adequately control piracy has had a profound effect on international commerce, with incidents in the Gulf of Guinea exposing the UK’s 6.3 billion £ (US$10.7 billion) a year in regional trade, alone, to substantial risks. Moreover, the inability to stop Nigerian pirates from carrying out operations at home is believed to have aided in their expansion westward into Ghana and Togo, and even south into Angola. But one question remains, will the situation get worse? This largely depends on political will. Nigerian budgetary concerns may preclude greater investment in maritime security. However, Nigerian leaders need to view additional security expenditures as more than just additional money spent on naval vessels; they must see it as a long-term investment in the economy. As the UK Chamber of Shipping points outs, poor maritime security can disrupt the export of goods along Nigeria’s major shipping areas, thereby hitting the pockets of ordinary citizens. This only exacerbates the great cycle of Nigerian insecurity by encouraging more individuals to seek out piracy in order to obtain what they believe is a steady source of income. In short, the Nigerian government must act now to prevent the piracy problem from degenerating further, or face even further – and sometimes unfair – criticism from across the globe.


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