Swim Together Or Sink Alone: African States Unite To Confront Pirate Threat

The dense mangroves of Nigeria’s Niger Delta region are known for their rich flora and fauna, as well as vast crude oil reserves.

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In recent years, though, the region has earned a more shadowy reputation, highlighted by the Suez canal blockage that has forced more cargo vessels to sail along the West African coast. Gun-toting gangs have made the complex network of creeks their home, waiting to pounce on ships sailing through West African waters.

Some 2,500 vessels pass through the Gulf of Guinea every day, ferrying petroleum products or other cargo. The area is a major route for global trade.

Piracy is soaring on the high seas off the coast of West Africa. Regional states are seeking to forestall outside intervention by stepping up local cooperation efforts.

It’s also the most dangerous.

Whereas sea piracy is declining globally, attacks are soaring in the gulf, whose waters wash the shores of more than a dozen countries from Senegal to Angola. Of 195 attacks that occurred on the world’s high seas last year, 82 were recorded here, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), including almost all crew kidnappings. Last month, 15 Turkish sailors were freed, after being captured in January. One engineer died.

Between 2015 and 2017, West African economies lost $2.3 billion to high seas crime, according to the United Nations. Beyond the value of stolen goods, piracy costs countries security personnel, equipment, and insurance.

Combating problems at sea is so challenging, analysts say, partly because of the region’s terrestrial problems.

In some countries, like Nigeria, counter-piracy efforts are overshadowed by conflicts at home, as well as the poverty that helps drive piracy in the first place.

“Many Gulf of Guinea countries suffer vulnerabilities [because] of their [limited] capabilities,” says Kamal-Deen Ali, director of the Center for Maritime Law and Security Africa. “It’s even more difficult policing waters than land – once criminals get on water, they have the opportunity to go in any direction.”

International coordination is key – but fraught in a region where Western interventions are often perceived as overreaching.

High seas, high crime

To sea watchers, the methods are familiar. A ship sails too close to the coast, and heavily armed men in speedboats corner it. The crew may make it to the ship’s citadel – a fortified room – but once the pirates are in control of the vessel, they can expect the ship owner to pay a ransom for the ship and its crew.

Attackers come mostly from Nigeria’s restive Niger Delta, the hottest spot in the gulf, where many feel exploited by government and oil companies alike. Today’s pirates emerged in the aftermath of a militant uprising in the mid-2000s, when youth picked up arms against outsiders they accused of plundering resources and degrading the environment while leaving the delta poverty-stricken.

Second Capt. Boris Oyebanji got a good look at some in May 2019. Pirates attacked his tugboat off the waters of Equatorial Guinea and captured him. Equatorial Guinean and Spanish forces responded to his distress call, and the pirates fled. But Mr. Oyebanji’s ordeal didn’t end there. Equatorial Guinea’s navy locked him up for two weeks until it was convinced he wasn’t a pirate himself.

The whole episode was so terrifying that he considered quitting seafaring.

“I haven’t returned [to the area] since then,” says Mr. Oyebanji, who now works in the Persian Gulf. “Sailing on its own is risky, and fearing for my life every day I’m offshore is not something I want to do.”

His vessel had been escorted by the Nigerian navy to Equatorial Guinea’s waters – one of several routine precautions ship owners take. Others include human dummies mounted on vessels like scarecrows and wires of spiked steel wrapped tightly around decks. Some vessels stay hundreds of miles off the coast of Nigeria, where they can’t easily be reached by the lurking speedboats, but more attacks are being recorded farther out at sea.

Coastal communities say they too, suffer. Villagers are sometimes caught in the middle when pirates and security forces face off, according to Princewill Solebo, a businessman in the bustling city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Fishermen have stopped venturing deep offshore to avoid run-ins, and villagers who travel on canoes are wary.

Mr. Solebo is holding town hall meetings to encourage villagers to expose gang leaders. But it’s a lonely mission. Members of the gangs – groups with forbidding names like Vikings or Icelanders – are often well known in the villages they hail from, he says, but most villagers are too scared to speak up or have been bribed to look away.

“I realized the reason [the pirates] have been consistent is that communities have not come together to confront this issue,” Mr. Solebo says. “Some people know these actors but they won’t talk, and you can’t do anything alone.”

For several years, governments in the region have cooperated on joint missions to make the gulf safer – but with mixed results.