West African piracy and Nigeria
Nigeria is the default country when it comes to piracy in West Africa. Or is it?
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea: Is Nigeria always to blame?
By Cassie Blombaum, Guardian Global Resources – West Africa.
The Gulf of Guinea has become almost synonymous with piracy. On a monthly basis, features materialise in the international press painting an image of a region saturated with maritime criminals, who, bolstered by an array of heavy weaponry and eager to board ships, end up assaulting crew members (and occasionally taking hostages in the process), before stealing cargo – most of which is of the oil-related variety. Then, there are the reports of accommodations being damaged as a result of sporadic gunfire, tug boats and fishing vessels being captured and used as motherships, and vessels seized and repainted over to appear legitimate to the untrained eye. It is almost predictable, too, that within every piece on pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, the writers will point to Nigeria as its source. To be fair, most incidents in the region have been linked to Nigeria. Many Nigerian pirates manage to traverse waters as far south as Angola where they have conducted assaults with impunity. In 2012, pirates from Nigeria’s Delta region even migrated as far west as Côte d’Ivoire – some 630 nautical miles (nm) away – where they hijacked the ORFEAS, a Bahamas-flagged tanker laden with 32,000 metric tonnes of gasoline. Nigeria’s role in Gulf of Guinea piracy cannot be denied, but to focus squarely on the continent’s largest economy as the region’s “pirate headquarters” is to discount the responsibility of other West African nations entirely. Three of year’s most high-profile attacks, for example, took place within Ghanaian waters. This is not to say that Ghanaian assailants were responsible for the capture of the MT HAI SOON 6, the MARINE 711 or the MT FAIR ARTEMIS, but it does illustrate the shared obligation of all countries in the Gulf of Guinea to coordinate their naval response in order to mitigate maritime threats. These attacks could also illustrate something deeper. The range of the Nigeria-based perpetrators suggests these attackers may have outside help, or are using other countries as ‘pirate enclaves’. So the question remains: which other countries in West Africa host these pirate encampments?
THE GULF’S OTHER PIRATE ENCLAVES
Reports of additional countries being used as forward operating bases of sorts for Nigerian pirates is nothing new. Indeed, Cameroon has previously been highlighted as a possible regional pirate enclave, particularly after it emerged that, upon hijacking the MV SAN MIGUEL on 03 January 2014, the assailants took the ship back to the Cameroonian coastal town of Kribi. Cameroon’s Bakassi peninsula has also often been described as a hotbed of maritime criminal activity. Pirates, for example, have been accused of “committing largely low-level robberies along the Bakassi waterways”. Whilst many incidents have been attributed to Nigerian criminals, the historic disagreements between Cameroon and Nigeria over the demarcation of the country’s shared borders has muddled efforts to investigate the perpetrators’ nationalities. In other words, Nigerian raiders may have orchestrated some attacks in the area, including the infamous assault of a vessel that had been carrying a “Cameroon prince”, but they likely did it with on-the-ground help.
Guinea, too, has been named as a possible enclave. According to Ghana Naval Commander Ali Kamal-Deen, attacks recorded near Guinea since 2009 are so frequent and similar that they suggest “the existence of a piracy base in Guinea and its environs”. Benin has additionally been posited as a raider base, after Abuja authorities increased their counter-piracy measures in 2011, thus forcing Niger Delta-area pirates to ‘expand’ their operations westward. Certainly in the years following 2011, maritime crime in West Africa has changed. Benin, which suffered 22 attacks in 2011, has since seen its security situation improve, with just 2 cases recorded in 2012 thanks to the joint Nigerian / Béninoise-led OPERATION PROSPERITY. But in what can only be described as the ‘balloon effect’, whereby military pressure applied toward pirates in one location may push assailants toward separate, less resistant areas, incidents have only increased in other countries. Indeed, Benin may have seen its fortunes rise, but as aforementioned, Ghana, a country once described as a “beacon of stability”, experienced an escalation in assaults conducted by Nigerian perpetrators in mid-2014, before going quiet in September. So where, then, is the next pirate enclave?
THE CASE FOR GABON
Since the spate of activity near Ghana in mid-2014, vessel assaults have predictably escalated elsewhere, with the usual suspect, Nigeria, incurring most of the pirate onslaught. That was, of course, until late September 2014. Suddenly, sightings of suspicious vessels, believed to be pirate motherships, began to emanate further south of the Niger Delta and toward Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko Island, the Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, as well as Gabon, the latter of which has been listed as the latest in a string of possible pirate “barracks” in the region.
Between September – October 2014, these reports became more prominent. At the time, it had been suggested that the suspect craft, a tug known as “BIBIANA”, had been operated by pirates looking to target – and possibly hijack vessels – transiting the southern-most points of West Africa. This purported pirate ship, however, was allegedly seized by Cameroonian authorities on 08 October 2014. But the sightings of pirate ships deep in the Gulf Guinea did not stop with the supposed Cameroon-led raid. By 11 November 2014, there also emerged news of yet another pirate vessel, first sighted 57 nm west of Libreville, Gabon. Whilst actual attacks continued along the Niger Delta – the boarding of the MT ZUMA on 12 November 2014, to name one – fears over a possible major assault west of Gabon, or even near Congolese waters, began to grow. During the early morning hours of 30 November 2014, a Captain of a commercial vessel claimed to have seen a pirate mothership named “SMOOTH BONDS” south of São Tomé. Amid the sighting, the suspect craft, which allegedly had one skiff on board, was situated roughly 30 hours sailing time – or 235 nm south – from the AKPO, a Floating Production, Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessel. This led to concerns the alleged pirates would soon attack nearby vessels – a fear which would soon prove all too real. Just a few hours later, the Master of a separate product tanker transiting 47 nm south west of São Tomé and Príncipe noted a black-hulled tug lowering a speedboat with 8 men, all of whom were brandishing assault rifles. Moments later, the assailants began opening fire toward the product tanker’s accommodation. However, after several attempts to board the tanker, the assailants ultimately aborted their attack and returned to the tug. This latest assault, and the previous sightings of alleged motherships the month prior, seemed to share a common trait: they were all reported within the relative vicinity of Gabon.
NIGERIA IS NOT ALONE
So why Gabon? To begin with, the border region between Equatorial Guinea and Gabon earned the unfortunate reputation as being the first to have incurred a pirate attack within the Gulf of Guinea in 2014. Amid this assault, 5 pirates boarded the SUPER LEAGUE, a Singapore-flagged gas carrier. Although the alertness of crew members eventually led to the assailants’ departure, the Officer of the Watch (OOW) noted that a “few tugboats” and “unlit fishing vessels” were moving nearby, none of which were registered under the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Whilst unproven, this led to speculation that a handful of pirate ships may have been operating somewhere near Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. In addition to already being subjected to vessel attacks or reports of wayward pirate ships, Gabon also has an extensive coast. With roughly 855 kilometres in length of coastline at their disposal, maritime assailants could easily hide along their shores. And with a limited naval force capable of providing security – Gabon only has 2 landing craft, 7 patrol vessels and 1 missile boat in its security repository – pirates could also plausibly create a new enclave. Like Nigeria, Gabon additionally has a large network of offshore oil platforms, and boasts at up to 2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, meaning that pirates may be tempted to target ships carrying oil-related products, especially near Port Gentil. Moreover, Gabon’s high unemployment rate, combined with its overreliance on oil as the kick-starter of its economy, could potentially create the perfect ‘recipe’ for piracy. To be sure, in a country where 46% live below the poverty line, it would almost be understandable if those residing in the country’s margins suddenly joined in an illegal activity, which, according to some reports, can pay Nigerian assailants as much as US$7,000 per day. Of course, it remains unconfirmed as to whether Gabon is, in fact, the region’s next pirate enclave. A similar hotbed of maritime criminal activity could also be present in São Tomé or neighbouring Equatorial Guinea. What is certain, however, is that Nigeria is not the only West African country facing the piracy menace.
Re-used with the kind permission of the author.