The Rise in Piracy Off Nigeria - Is There Worse to Come?

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William Hogg

The Rise in Piracy Off Nigeria - Is Worse to Come?

For more than a decade, piracy has been a prevalent issue in the maritime sector. It is perhaps infamous for the well-known hijackings of pirates operating off the Horn of Africa. Following significant multinational efforts and measures undertaken by shipping companies, hijacking attacks off the Horn of Africa have now reached a 22-year low. 

Despite this, piracy has seen a rise in other areas of the world, particularly in the waters off Nigeria where crew kidnapping has become a significant problem. Here, we briefly look at how this came to be and what steps are being taken to control the situation.


Conflict in the Niger Delta

The rise in attacks off Nigeria are understood to be largely attributed to unemployment in the Niger Delta region (an area which extends almost 27,000 square miles). This region continues to suffer conflict which reached a peak in the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War). It has retained a high profile since the early 1990s, due to conflict between a number of the Niger Delta’s minority ethnic groups, who felt they were being exploited, and government/industrial interests.

A significant number of militant groups remain active in the region to this day, frequently attacking oil and gas facilities. Statements threatening to carry out attacks against multinational oil companies have been made as recently as November 2018. The instability of the region has contributed towards unemployment; approximately two-thirds of Nigeria’s population lives below the poverty line, and to many without livelihoods, the possible gains from piracy outweigh the risks.


Piracy attacks have increased 29% year-on-year

The ICC International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has stated that there was a total of 156 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships reported to them for the first nine months of 2018 (compared to 121 for the same period in 2017). Over 25% of these incidents took place in waters off Nigeria, and the majority of events related to crew kidnapping and ransom attacks. It should be noted that the true number of incidents in the region is believed to be significantly higher than what is reported.

The most significant of these attacks was the kidnapping of 12 crew members from the MV Glarus off Bonny Island, Nigeria, in September 2018. The vessel was underway, loaded with a cargo of wheat, approximately 45 miles southwest of Bonny Island when it was boarded by pirates. The seafarers were released after four weeks, although the terms of their release have not been disclosed. A Peter Dohle-managed containership also saw crew taken ashore by pirates a month later.  

According to sources in the security sector, large-scale kidnappings from vessels off Nigeria have risen, with pirates said to increasingly have the capability and infrastructure to conceal large numbers of crew onshore for several weeks. One source expects such attacks to worsen in the lead-up to the upcoming Nigerian general election in February 2019, when tribal tensions are expected to flare up and add to the instability in the region.


Vessel owners are avoiding the area

Unlike the Horn of Africa, where vessel owners can employ members of private maritime security companies for protection, the Federal Government of Nigeria has declared that the Nigerian Constitution forbids the use of armed private guards on board vessels. Private maritime security companies are thus forced to provide escort boats, and pay for manpower to be provided by the Nigerian Navy to protect their clients. This may not be sustainable and, we have seen recent reports that there is growing dialogue internally amongst members of the Federal Government of Nigeria about whether the law should be changed.

The rise in attacks has also led to the Nigerian Navy stating that it is changing its strategy and working with international partners. However, full details of these measures have not been publicly announced. In the meantime, it appears that vessel owners are deliberately avoiding the area — or taking very cautious steps to trading in the area. One such owner told us that they will avoid the most southern part of Nigeria (i.e. Niger Delta, Port Harcourt and Calabar), while another said that they currently avoid Nigerian waters altogether.

Despite the different contexts between the attacks off Nigeria and those which occurred off the Horn of Africa, the root cause remains instability and poverty. Efforts to control piracy off the Horn of Africa took several years and required substantial multinational efforts. Much will depend on the efforts of the Federal Government of Nigeria and, potentially, international cooperation at a time of great political uncertainty. Going forward, we would expect piracy off the waters of Nigeria to continue to represent a significant risk to ships and their crew.

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Published on 18 Dec 2018

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