While almost all the attention and resources for combating piracy in African waters have of late been focused almost exclusively on the Somali coastline, a bloody attack last month is a reminder that the Gulf of Guinea on the opposite side of Africa can be equally dangerous — if not more so — even if it does not grab headlines.
On November 24, pirates in a speed boat approached the German-owned, Liberian-flagged oil tanker MT Cancale Star some 18 nautical miles off the coast of the West African country of Benin in the eponymous bight.
The 230-metre vessel was weighed down with 500,000 barrels of diesel bound for the Beninois port of Cotonou.
Storming on board the vessel, they killed the Ukrainian first officer and wounded four other seamen before putting a gun to the head of one of the crew members and forcing the captain to open the safe, which they then emptied.
With the exception of one pirate who was overpowered by the crew, all the marauders managed to escape before naval forces could respond to the tanker’s distress signal.
It was subsequently learned that the pirates came from the Nigerian town of Badagry, on the border with Benin, 70 kilometres west of Lagos, Nigeria.
The attack was the first such incident recorded for Benin, a poor but peaceful democracy, and represented a new expansion of the reach of Nigerian pirates.
While piracy is not new to the area its ubiquity is.
According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), during the first three quarters of this year, the waters off Nigeria ranked as the second most dangerous in the world in terms of attacks, with twenty reported.
As a whole, thirty two incidents were reported for West Africa during that period.
However, as the head of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO) cautioned earlier this year in a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO), “the number of officially reported incidents may be doubled to give a more realistic picture of what is happening in this area.”
Managing Director Peter Swift also wrote that his industry was “very seriously concerned by the ongoing violent attacks in the Gulf of Guinea against innocent merchant ships by armed pirates operating out of a network of more than 3,000 creeks in Nigeria alone, and also by the apparent inability of the national and regional governments to protect shipping,” which he noted are “well planned and coordinated and frequently violent” and carried out by pirates who are “usually heavily armed.”
While “political” attacks since 2006 by militants, aimed at Nigeria’s oil sector have received considerable attention, especially since their net effect has been to cut the country’s oil exports by nearly one-third from 2.2 million barrels per day to about 1.6 million or today, the incidents of piracy for criminal motives are a relatively under-appreciated phenomenon.
Of course distinguishing the motives of many of the attackers can be a singularly unrewarding exercise.
While there is no denying the legitimacy of many of the grievances cited by various groups in justifying their assaults, there are also unmistakable signs that it is organised criminality, rather than political activism, at work.
On August 27, robbers boarded the Dutch chemical tanker MT Venezia D as it was berthed in Lagos and managed to escape with part of the cargo.
On September 6, in Koki, Nigeria, more than fifty armed assailants stormed the MT Erria Anne. As the crew took shelter, the robbers made off with the ship’s stores.
On October 10, Cameroonian military forces repelled an attack on the FV Rose Three, owned by Atlantic Shrimper Limited, Nigeria’s largest fisheries company.
Four attackers were killed, while three others were injured.
While most analysis of these maritime predations have focused on the costs which they impose on the global economy in terms of delays in ports and increases in insurance rates, costs which are passed on to consumers, less attention is paid to their effect on the very countries in the region whose weakness gave rise to the piracy in the first place.
In fact, such reports of Gulf of Guinea piracy as make it into Western media largely ignores the fact that the majority of attacks are carried out against local vessels and mariners.
In Nigeria, for example, piracy and other outlaw behaviour have not only negatively impacted the oil industry, but local fisheries and regional trade as well.
By most estimates, until recently fishing constituted Nigeria’s second-most significant non-hydrocarbon export industry after cocoa.
Yet the sector has been devastated by piracy and other violence.
The country’s Maritime Security Task Force on Acts of Illegality in Nigerian Waters (IAMSTAF) reported last December that Nigerian fishing boats suffered no fewer than 293 attacks between 2003 and 2008.
The attacks on shipping have also driven up shipping costs, not just for Nigeria, but for most of its neighbours in the West African sub-region, as the higher insurance premiums are factored in and, ultimately, passed on to consumers.
Consequently, regional trade and integration which are critical for economic development is further retarded.
In short, piracy and other criminal activities on the waters are not only the result of social, economic, and political marginalisation, but also a cause of the same.
Like its counterpart off the Somali coast, maritime criminality off the littorals of West Africa is the result of opportunity and incentive.
Until such time as the states of the region acquire the capacity to confront this disorder, it will not only continue, but likely increase.
*Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City.
*Courtesy, Business Daily