1 March 2012

West Africa: Piracy On the Rise

Photo: Daniel Hayduck/IRIN
Crew members.

The violent hijack of a Dutch cargo ship off the Nigerian coast has highlighted the increase in piracy in the area. The captain and chief engineer were kidnapped and one crew member injured in Tuesday's attack.

Somalia may have the reputation as the world's centre for maritime piracy, but an umbrella group of insurers have designated the coastal waters of Nigeria and Benin as a danger zone - the same category as Somali waters.

Thirty nations have vessels participating in an anti-piracy fleet in and around the coastal waters of Somalia. While this intervention is having some effect with the number of attacks decreasing slightly last year, a similar problem is emerging at the other side of the continent.

There is a difference though: in East Africa ships and their crews are only released after the pirates have been paid paying millions of dollars in ransom, while in West Africa ships are not high jacked but attacked and robbed.

Lack of authority

Crime at sea is a result of a lack of authority on land. In Somalia there is no functioning state structure and piracy has developed into a highly organised criminal economy. On the West coast, Nigeria and Benin have recently started to coordinate efforts to combat the increasing piracy but although Nigeria has a sizeable marine force, generally speaking the West African countries do not have the naval capacity to deal effectively with the menace.

Oil fueled crime

The most notoriously criminal region has been Nigeria's Niger Delta. In the 1990's, rebels there began agitating for a bigger share of the oil income. This struggle has deteriorated into semi-organised criminal activity. Oil is now being stolen on a large scale, by ex-rebels, by government soldiers and by other criminals. An estimated 100,000 barrels of oil per day are being siphoned off and transferred to tankers on the high seas.

Amnesty deal for militants

In a speech last month at an oil and gas conference in Nigeria's capital Abuja, Shell executive vice president Ian Craig said that as much as 150,000 barrels of crude a day is being stolen by oil thieves in the Niger Delta despite an amnesty deal for militants there. "The militancy which crippled onshore production from 2005 to 2009 has abated, but staggering levels of theft and criminality prevail," Craig said.

Dangerous brew

While it is the huge oil income that attracts many ships to the West African region, oil is not the only commodity fuelling crime and corruption. The United Nations last year talked of growing concern in the West African and Sahel regions about organised crime, contraband and piracy. According to a recent UN report, the transit of cocaine through West Africa generated 900 million dollars last year.

Drugs, weapons and even humans are being traded in coastal waters and transported further north via the Sahel. And that is where an explosively dangerous situation is brewing: money from piracy and other crimes channelled into terrorist groups who are also increasingly active in the region.

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