Troubled waters

Military force will not be enough to fix the Gulf of Guinea's piracy problem. The roots of the crime lie on-shore, deep in the politics of oil and statehood.

Benin's anti piracy task force on patrol in the Gulf of Guinea.
Benin's anti-piracy task force on patrol in the Gulf of Guinea. Credit: Jason Florio / Orbis / Getty Images.

Maritime crime has been a problem for shipping in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa for decades. The International Chamber of Commerce issues a long-standing warning to shipowners and ships’ Masters in charge of the vessels’ navigation that ‘all waters in [and] off Nigeria remain highly risky’ and urges extreme vigilance in a vast sea area stretching a distance of up to two hundred nautical miles off Nigeria’s coast.  Merchant ships are told that ‘Pirates [and] robbers are often well armed, violent and have attacked and hijacked [and] robbed ships… kidnapped crews along [and] far from the coast, rivers, anchorages, ports and surrounding waters… Kidnapping for ransom remains the biggest risk for crews… In the past, tankers were also hijacked and part cargo stolen…’

Yet, unlike the scourge of Somali piracy that had the world’s media on tenterhooks from 2008-2012, reporting of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea was mostly confined to the trade press. Mainstream media started to take note in 2020 when pirate attacks escalated in sophistication, range and audacity. Once again, news bulletins and the papers regularly feature reports of violent mass kidnappings on the high seas. What explains this sea-change in pirate tactics?

Maritime crime is relatively common around bustling ports, crowded anchorages, and so-called choke points where major trade routes narrow, and ships must slow down to take their turn. The greater the contrast between legitimate career opportunities on land and the potential riches that can be tapped in the shipping lanes, the greater the temptation to engage in maritime crime. Piracy can also acquire political overtones, with pirates casting themselves as avengers of foreign exploitation or government oppression, informal coastguards, or even jihadis.

Indeed, most piracy in the Gulf of Guinea emanates from the oil-rich Niger Delta and is deeply entwined with a long-running political struggle over how the country’s oil revenues are generated and shared among its people. Sabotage and attacks on pipelines, extortion, kidnapping of oil workers, oil theft, and piracy all have some legitimacy in local communities as responses to perceived injustices – just as many Somalis cited the depletion and degradation of Somalia’s territorial waters through illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste as justification for hijacking foreign ships and holding them for ransom. As any piracy or counter-piracy expert will tell you: piracy is a land-based problem that manifests itself at sea. 

An important thing to understand about piracy is that illegally boarding a ship is neither difficult nor particularly dangerous – at least for experienced seafarers. Traditionally, merchant ships are unarmed, so the risks of shimmying up an anchor cable or using a carelessly lowered pilot ladder for an exploratory snoop are relatively low. Boarding a moving ship is technically more difficult. Indeed, a vigilant Master’s first line of defence is to resist hostile boarding by raising vessel speed or driving a zig-zag course to prevent ladders or grappling hooks from being attached.

But once armed pirates are on board, their risk of being chased off is low. Few sailors are sufficiently well-paid and foolhardy enough to emulate Captain Phillips and challenge violence-trained men (especially those with guns) over possession of a far-way owner’s chattels. Groups of just half a dozen men brandishing long knives have operated successful piracy ventures in the South China Sea for years, easily overpowering and robbing sleepy crews and their ships of cash and valuables. This kind of piracy – however distressing for the sailors involved – barely registers beyond the narrow confines of the shipping community and their insurers who can easily absorb the associated losses. If pirates want to carry out anything more sophisticated than (armed) robbery at sea, they need safe havens on land. Stealing and reselling cargo or ships requires access to harbours and markets, while keeping multiple sailors hostage for extended periods requires secure hide-outs with dependable food supplies.

Many people will remember piracy in the Malacca Straights in the early 2000s. During the separatist conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh pirates conducted spectacular crew hijackings, cargo thefts, and even managed to steal entire ships and resell them with fake identities. Although not formally allied to the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) rebels, the breakdown of law and order on land gave pirate gangs the opportunity to gain access to harbour infrastructure and hiding places. This completely transformed the scope of the maritime crimes they could carry out.

Similarly, state-building efforts and skirmishes between rival clans in Somalia transformed the prospects of its pirates from 2008-2012. Keen to raise funds for political manoeuvring or territorial conflict, local elites offered safe anchorages and created an infrastructure to support pirates during extended ransom negotiations. Reliable access to land allowed the pirates to hold hijacked ships over months or even years. The extra time gave them the upper hand in negotiations, and they pushed despairing ship-owners from paying low six-figure to eight-figure ransoms over a period of four years. Even though the low quality of the local infrastructure prevented the theft of cargo or ships (other than small fishing or local trade vessels), piracy became so profitable that it threatened to choke a major international trade route and disrupt the world’s oil supplies.

In response, the international community mounted an unprecedented naval counter-piracy effort, as well as licensing on-board private security teams to stop pirate attacks. Nowadays, on the other side of the continent, Nigeria’s pirates seem poised to become a similarly grave threat to trade in the Gulf of Guinea.

Looking at Nigerian piracy in detail – the attack narratives published in the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reports are an excellent and timely resource – we find a mixture of different types of crime. First, there are thefts from ships at anchorages and harbours. This type of acquisitive crime is something we would expect to fluctuate naturally with economic activity. Covid-19 and the social and economic restrictions implemented to control its spread have taken their toll on the Nigerian economy. With employment opportunities on hold or disappearing, stealing is a common coping strategy. Second, and potentially more troubling are oil thefts perpetrated by organised crime. Here, pirates hijack and direct small tankers to hiding places where their cargo is unloaded for resale in illicit local markets. With larger vessels, pirates may take control of a ship for hours or even days and pump the oil to another ship while steaming. Even though these pirates don’t use land during the attack, they still need access to harbour infrastructures to unload their cargo and sell it in local or regional markets. This requires cooperation from public officials, who may have become more susceptible to offers of bribes due to the economic impacts of the Covid pandemic.

Oil thefts tend to be targeted mostly against local shipping interests: the old ‘low and slow’ tankers that make easy targets for pirates and the small coastal vessels that can be steered into and hidden in a shallow backwater tend to be locally owned. Oil thefts and smuggling are a serious drain on public finances. The Nigerian government has therefore responded to increased attacks by upgrading its maritime security capabilities with the help of US and EU aid. Improved maritime domain awareness makes it riskier for pirates to commit time-consuming oil-thefts. This government intervention may therefore have contributed to a shift in pirate tactics towards a ‘safer’ alternative: hit-and-run kidnapping of (foreign) oil workers and sailors.

It is this third type of maritime crime that troubles international commerce most. Kidnapping for ransom has a long history in Nigeria, but the recent increase in the scale and violence of these attacks has caught the shipping community by surprise. In the many international counter-piracy conferences and workshops at the height of the Somali piracy crisis ten years ago policy-makers and naval officers often sought advice from West African piracy specialists. They pointed out that piracy in the Niger Delta was fundamentally different from Somali piracy: the modus operandi of pirates was restrained and curiously stable. Boats and oil installations were raided regularly but relatively infrequently with the objective of abducting one or two member of staff. If the companies and individuals concerned put up minimal resistance it was understood that the hostages would return home safely. It would take four to five days and a ransom of US$10,000 to resolve each incident. As long as criminals operated within these rules, it was not worth implementing a hugely expensive security solution to eliminate the risk of these abductions. Occasional kidnaps could be absorbed into the cost of doing business in this troubled region. One could even view it pragmatically as a local tax providing at least a measure of redistribution to communities unable to claim a share of resource revenues from their central government.

This strange equilibrium was guarded and enforced by professional ransom negotiators. Foreign companies routinely outsourced the resolution of kidnapping incidents to specialist crisis responders, retained for this purpose by the companies’ insurers. Expert negotiators took charge of haggling out the ransoms and facilitated both payments and safe releases. This carefully calibrated ransoming infrastructure prevented inexperienced or nervous company executives from offering premium ransoms for faster than average resolutions or kidnappers from changing their ransom expectations or modus operandi.

Occasionally, the ransom level would be upset by an outsider accidentally agreeing a higher ransom. This would reset expectations for subsequent negotiations. Thus, by 2018, ransoms were creeping upwards, but the most important rules still stood. No unnecessary violence and people kidnapped on Monday to be returned by the weekend – with the ransom money often funding a raucous party for the local community. Kidnapping at this level was tolerable for companies and the Nigerian government and could be profitably insured.

But of course, pirates in the Niger Delta did not have to look far afield to see much more profitable kidnapping businesses. Terrorist groups in the Sahel zone were regularly paid million-dollar ransoms to release their victims. Criminal groups in Northern Nigeria had started to emulate the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, raising the stakes in ransom negotiations by abducting large groups of hostages and hiding them in the bush for weeks – or months if necessary. Clearly it was tempting for Niger Delta pirates to push against the envelope that constrained their profitability. Recent pirate attacks thus look very different from the former pattern of Niger Delta kidnaps.

Consider the attack on the Indian-owned tanker MT Duke on 15 December 2019 off the coast of Benin. Heavily armed pirates boarded and ransacked the ship, looted valuables and left just one low-ranked (Nigerian) sailor aboard the ship to await rescue. They abducted the other twenty crew members, taking them first to a (hijacked) mothership and then on small speedboats into the swamps of the Niger Delta. There they were held guarded round the clock by armed men for more than a month in such abject conditions that one of them died in captivity. The pirates initially demanded US$ five million as a ransom but – to the disappointment of the frightened crew – this was met with fierce resistance from the company. A ransom of US$300,000 ended the sailors’ ordeal on 19 January 2020. While this is clearly a lot of money in an economic backwater, it was intended as a signal that scaling up the intensity of pirate activity does not pay. The uplift on previous ransoms should not have compensated the pirates for the cost of their sophisticated two-stage attack, followed by feeding and guarding nineteen hostages for a month. It was a clear steer for criminals to return to the previous low violence five-day kidnap model.

Unfortunately, that message did not stick. In 2020, the Gulf of Guinea became the primary hotspot of ransom piracy in the world, with 95% of the global kidnap tally of 135 abducted in the vicinity of Nigeria. In addition, several attacks were frustrated by the safety precautions adopted by ship-owners – including hiding the crew in a ‘citadel’. These are strongly fortified rooms intended to prevent pirates from gaining access to hostages or control of the ship’s navigation systems. But frustrated criminals tend to innovate. On 23 January 2021, the Turkish-owned vessel Mozart suffered a brutal attack from 4 heavily armed pirates, who managed to blast open the ship’s citadel with explosives. One crew member died in the altercation, while fifteen were taken hostage – leaving just three sailors to navigate the stricken vessel to safety. This time the negotiator engaged by the ship-owner took just two weeks to agree an undisclosed ransom. It must have been satisfactory or even promising, because on 11 March 2021 pirates struck again: fifteen sailors were abducted form the product tanker Davide B. As before, pirates were able to access a safe haven on land. They kept the ransom negotiation going for just over a month before the release was agreed.

The unacceptably high human cost of these recent attacks finally galvanised the shipping community into demanding increased counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea Declaration on Suppression of Piracy of May 2021. Non-regional governments have responded to the deteriorating security situation by pledging naval assistance to bolster the region’s counter-piracy, monitoring, and information-sharing capabilities. But just as in Somalia, the sea area in which pirates have shown themselves capable of operating is huge. Securing it militarily would be an incredibly costly way to treat the symptoms of a festering landside problem. Nigerian policymakers would be well advised to shift their gaze once again towards the Niger Delta. Poverty and corruption are rife in many areas around the Gulf of Guinea, but pirates invariably seek and find refuge among disaffected communities in the Niger Delta. Their grievances against the Nigerian government are well known: the environmental degradation of their homeland by reckless oil companies, persistent economic underdevelopment, and their lack of control over locally generated oil revenues.

Addressing these underlying political economy problems will be the key to tackling kidnap for ransom piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The complex terrain of the Niger Delta means that Nigerian security forces cannot patrol or secure the region at an acceptable cost. Law enforcement relies on local intelligence to betray the pirates’ lairs and hide-outs. If locals side with the government against pirates, negotiations must be concluded before the police or military arrive. Tight deadlines keep ransoms low. But in the Niger Delta the line between crime and political resistance is blurred. Rebel groups fighting for the emancipation of the Niger Delta have always turned to crime to fund their activities. When criminal groups are perceived as champions of the poor and disadvantaged – and prove it by sharing their criminal gains with them – the police do not easily find informers.

This problem is as old as oil exploration in the Niger Delta. The Nigerian government has oscillated between attempted military interventions, ignoring the problem, and negotiated resolutions. The last peace agreement was signed in 2009 between the government and the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), promising an amnesty, financial benefits for former militants and investment into local economic development. Unfortunately, delivery on the latter was patchy and when the programme’s funding was formally cut in 2015 it did not take long for the next armed uprising to form. Since 2016, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) have waged a violent campaign to disrupt oil production and force the government into negotiations again. In June 2021, they announced a further escalation: Operation Humble resumes the sabotage of oil pipelines. Even if the pirate groups are not directly involved in the rebellion, their activities perfectly suit the NDA’s objectives. Pirates can thus find shelter for extended ransom negotiations wherever the NDA controls territory and considers them an asset to their own political agenda. The solution to the piracy problem thus lies in placating public opinion in the Niger Delta by meaningfully addressing the grievances of the local population.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is in a vicious cycle. Large ransoms beget ever more spectacular attacks, and pirates invest ever-rising pay-outs into larger bribes – facilitating longer negotiations and escalating ransoms. But the cycle can be broken. If pirates have safe havens on land, special risk insurers can only do so much to steer against the natural desire of ship-owners to put a hijacking incident behind them and bring their crews home as fast as possible, whatever the implication for the next victims might be. We know that naval intervention and armed private security guards can stop piracy by lowering the success rate of pirates to the point where other (criminal or legitimate) lines of business deliver higher expected profits – as they did in Somalia.

Yet, naval repression and private security solutions are hugely expensive: the cost of containing Somali piracy was estimated at billions of dollars per annum. Military interventions on the high seas only tackle the symptoms, not the malaise. There is an alternative. Nigerian politicians should seek to address the social, political, and environmental problems leading local communities to offer support to organised crime groups. We know that political compromises have worked well in the past – but dialogue and promised transfers must be sustained to remain effective. The international community would therefore do well to encourage (and financially support) efforts to solve the Gulf of Guinea’s piracy problems on land.


Anja Shortland