Sea Transportation: The Pirates of the Guinea Gulf


March 5, 2021: In the Gulf of Guinea, off the Nigerian coast, piracy is becoming a major problem and shipping companies warn that this will increase maritime ship insurance and other piracy related costs that will be passed on to consumers in Nigeria and neighboring countries if something is not done. Off the Nigerian coast the pirate activity is increasing despite Nigerian efforts to curb the practice. This is not as bad as what Somalia once was but it is becoming enough of a problem to cause serious problems for shipping companies and their customers in the Gulf of Guinea.

Nigeria will not get as bad as Somalia, which was the only place in the world where pirates could, for nearly a decade, take a large ship and anchor it off a small coastal town controlled by pirates. With no threats from local authorities, the pirates threatened to murder hostages, especially the ones taken ashore, if the anti-piracy patrol attempts to take back the ship. This lack of any Somali coast guard or government control of the entire coast was why Somalia was the only region seriously enough threatened by pirates that armed guards were allowed on large commercial ships passing through the danger zone. In the other pirate hotspots, like Nigeria/Gulf of Guinea, the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, and parts of the Caribbean, local police, navies and coast guard keep the pirates under control and forbid armed guards on ships. The main risk outside Somali waters is nighttime raids by local pirates who rob the crew of valuables and the ships of anything portable.

These “robbery” tactics have gotten worse in Nigeria because the pirates are kidnapping more and more of the crew members and holding them for ransom. This is not common because too often local security forces can usually locate the kidnappers and free their hostages. That has changed in Nigeria because some of the pirates made deals with local political and military officials to share the large ransoms paid for kidnapped foreign sailors. Once these ransom sharing deals were in place it became more difficult to find the pirate hideouts where hostages were held. This corrupt profit-sharing arrangement is nothing new in Nigeria and has been a component of the crippling corruption Nigeria has suffered since independence in the 1960s.

These robberies are possible in areas where a lot of large ships have to anchor off a busy major port and await their turn to dock for loading or unloading cargo. What enabled the Nigerian pirates to become more of a menace was the entrenched gangster culture in the Niger River Delta. This is where most of Nigeria’s oil is produced. More of the oil is coming from offshore rigs and these became attractive targets for the pirates as well. The seemingly entrenched gangster culture is made possible by the culture of corruption among local politicians and local security forces. Many politicians adopt a local gang to provide muscle for ensuring elections select the most corrupt candidates. Nigeria has been undergoing increasingly vigorous and effective reform efforts since 2000 but the gangster culture is so pervasive and entrenched that progress is slow. Nigerian leaders don’t like being compared to Somalia, but there are similarities. One difference is that there is more to steal in Nigeria and that many Nigerians, unlike Somalis, consider the outlaw culture a flaw not a feature.

Piracy still exists off Somalia, but it has been largely suppressed. No large ships linger off the Somali coast. The Somali pirates have not captured any large ships since 2012, when 14 were taken. In 2011 28 were taken, in 2010 there were 47 grabbed and 2009 had 46 hijacked. Each of these ships yielded, on average, several million dollars in ransoms. That kind of money attracted a lot more people to the business and the pirates prospered by sharing the ransoms with powerful people in Somalia and the Persian Gulf that made it possible to arrange and carry out the exchange of large amounts of cash for captives.

The piracy threat off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden still exists and shipping companies were recently warned that while no large ships have been captured since 2013, the threat, and the higher shipping costs, still exist. Some of the criminal gangs and militias in northern Somalia that carried out most of the successful hijackings between 2009 and 2012 are still operational and monitoring this situation. These groups either abandoned the piracy business or cut way back on such activities. The gangs switched to smuggling drugs, guns or people between Somalia and Yemen.

During the years when many ships were being captured, the gangs developed ways to monitor ship activity using information available on the Internet. Some of that knowledge appears to have been picked up by Nigerian pirates. One of the useful items of information the gangs still monitor is the degree to which large vessels still hire armed guards for the 1,500-kilometer passage though offshore Somali pirate territory. Many of these larger ships no longer train and drill the crews on how to spot pirates and then handle them if they get aboard. While insurance companies still provide a discount for ships that hire the armed guards, that does not cover the high cost of these four-man armed security teams. Security companies send out boats with the four-man teams who board large ships and then another boat takes them off at the end of the 7-10 days the guards are needed. This system works but it is expensive and a hassle for the ships.

Fewer nations still contribute ships and aircraft to the Somalia anti-piracy patrol. There are still enough warships to monitor radio traffic and they report that they still occasionally pickup Somali chatter regarding potential pirate targets. These days the only ships taken are fishing trawlers and dhows (small wooden coastal freighters) that have no ransom value but can be looted or taken for use as pirate mother ships. There are a lot of these small ships in the Gulf of Guinea, but also a lot of large tankers and cargo ships because of the oil-fueled economy. Bigger is better as far as pirates are concerned.

One of the more unnerving anti-piracy tactics was monitoring the pirate ports and following ships that left. UAVs or ships would observe these vessels and once they were in international waters (22 kilometers from the Somali coast) board and search any suspected of being pirates. If weapons and boarding equipment was found, the pirates were disarmed, taken back to Somalia and left on a beach. Their boat was sunk at sea, along with their weapons and tools. Documents found on the boat were passed on to intelligence specialists. This degree of scrutiny was more than the pirates could handle. The pirates needed cash to keep operating as each multi-million-dollar ransom quickly disappeared into the pockets of the pirates and their financiers and suppliers. Few of the pirate leaders wanted to invest their newly acquired wealth in keeping the level of activity where it had been until 2012, when it became clear that capturing more ships was frustratingly difficult and eventually nearly impossible. At that point the financing of the pirate gangs disappeared and most of the pirate gangs went back to smuggling people and goods to Yemen or what many of the pirates originally did; fishing.

Life was not difficult just for the pirates, but also for their financial advisors and suppliers of cash, supplies and information. Eventually the pirates found there were few people they could trust or rely on and the once lucrative pirate “industry” in northern Somali collapsed. Currently the pirates are not holding any ships or sailors they can get a ransom for.

Some merchant ships still observe the “2009 rules” to avoid pirate attack. They put on extra lookouts, especially at night, and often transit the 1,500-kilometer-long Gulf of Aden at high speed, even though this costs them thousands of dollars in additional fuel. The pirates seek the slower moving, apparently unwary, ships, and go after them before they can speed up enough to get away. The international anti-piracy patrol offers convoy protection, but many ships don't want to halt and wait for a convoy to form. Ships that decide to proceed on their own take additional precautions. The convoy system is no longer used. As of 2020 more merchant ships are reducing these security precautions, so shipping companies were warned that the pirates are definitely observing all this and waiting for an opportunity for another multi-million-dollar payday.

Meanwhile the Nigerian pirates are applying many of the techniques that worked for the Somali pirates. The Nigerian pirates are locals who know their way along the many small waterways found in the Niger River Delta. Like the Somali pirates, the Nigerians freebooters depend on a network of middlemen, some of them local politicians, who help broker the ransom deals. Bribes and political influence will often prevent the police and navy from finding pirate hideouts deep in the delta. For a while Nigerian pilots tried to loot cargoes by arranging for another ship to meet with a captured one to transfer a lot of the cargo before daylight and curious police came to check on the ship whose crew was no longer responding to calls from port authorities or the shipping company that owned or leased the ship. The police became more alert to the cargo transfer scam and did radio checks more frequently with large ships anchored off the major ports waiting for an opportunity to unload or take on cargo. The pirates have, so far, adapted more quickly than the shipping companies or local security forces.




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