Maritime Piracy in West Africa – A Big Problem, Poorly Reported

 By Lisa Otto

Visiting Researcher – Greenwich Maritime Institute

D.Phil Candidate – University of Johannesburg

african pirates

The problem of maritime piracy in West Africa has grown significantly in recent years such that it has come to constitute the world’s most troubling piratical hotspot, with incidents occurring across the Gulf of Guinea region. According to the UK Chamber of Shipping, incidents climbed to 62 in 2012 while coming in at 51 in 2013, and this as the European Union Institute for Security Studies estimates that only a third of pirate attacks were reported, suggesting that the breadth of the problem may be far greater than we imagine.

The word piracy, however, is a bit of a misnomer in the West African case as the model of piracy at play targets vessels within territorial waters rather than on the high seas, revolving around the sub-region’s oil industry, but has all the same gained the moniker of ‘petro-piracy’.  As such, this model is glaringly distinguishable from its more famous Somali counterpart, which is perhaps one of the reasons that legal expert Douglas Guilfoyle, for one, has preferred to refer to ‘piracies’ rather than the more generalist ‘piracy’.

Indeed, the Gulf of Guinea model of piracy is unique in its focus on oil, with kidnap-for-ransom being conducted as more of a side-business than being the main slant of operations. The vast majority of attacks have emanated from Nigeria, where small and opportunistic gangs initially robbed berthed vessels of personal effects and money, which were then resold at local markets, but since then, incidents have become more frequent, have been perpetrated by larger groups and shifted to be directed specifically toward the oil industry.

The legacy of oil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta in particular has had an important role to play in the rise of petro-piracy as environmental degradation further marginalised communities already bereft of economic opportunities, in the context of a social development landscape where oil rents have not made their way back to the populace in the form of political goods. This has driven locals to organised criminal groups and sent them to sea for the theft of oil products, contributed to by large-scale onshore oil bunkering operations that thieve approximately 200,000 barrels of oil per day. In fact, the Nigerian economy loses around US$12 billion in oil annually as a result, with the illicit product, sometimes crudely refined, making its way into sub-regional and international markets.

Despite the sheer scale of these activities, West African piracy does not enjoy nearly as much media coverage or academic attention as its erstwhile Somali counterpart. Perhaps oil theft and petro-piracy is not as ‘sexy’ to report on than Hollywood-worthy Captain Phillips-esque hostage sagas, but the phenomenon nonetheless presents a sizeable economic and security challenge whose impacts reach far beyond Nigerian shores.

This, of course, has consequences for the application of solutions to the problem, as poor reportage may impact upon the will of potential partners to act. Having said this however, several instruments for the combat of piracy are in place at a sub-regional level, assisted by the likes of the International Maritime Ogranisation, but need greater impetus for their application.

This is not helped by the alarming prevalence of corruption in Nigeria, with political and military officials, as well as even oil companies being implicated and involved in these crimes, effectively benefiting from competing interests on either side of formal – informal and legal – illegal divides. Whilst these issues speak to more complex and deeply entrenched maladies of the country’s political fabric which need solving in their right, greater awareness of the problem of maritime piracy in West African can play a crucial role in mounting public pressure to fight against the tide of petro-piracy there, and spur a greater sense of willingness for action amongst actors locally, those in the sub-region as well as their partners in the international community.


incident map


2 thoughts on “Maritime Piracy in West Africa – A Big Problem, Poorly Reported”

  1. Interesting article. In your accompanying picture – the pirates depicted are flying the red flag, the traditional flag of piracy which the French called Joli Rouge and is the believed route of the latter Jolly Roger.

    On another note, what do you see as the best solution to help counter the above mentioned?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Jack. The prevailing consensus is that a regional approach is needed to combat maritime insecurity, given that maritime crimes are often enmeshed with organised crime, which has tentacles reaching deep into the sub-region. While there are a number of established instruments in place, these require resources, primarily in skills and finances. The Yaounde Declaration of 2013 has been a step in the right direction, but I believe that counter-piracy efforts in the region could benefit from a streamlined legal framework, domesticated within each country, and which could be implemented through the establishment of a special court in the region. This would be a practical measure that provide a coherent regional effort in attaching greater risk to the conduct of these activites. Having said this, however, piracy and oil bunkering (given their concentration within Nigeria) have very much been linked to the appaling conditions of governance in Nigeria and how this has interfaced with poverty and inequality against the backdrop of resource wealth. These are the underlying issues that would ulitmately need to be addressed, which would require a shift in political culture, a strong will to curb corruption, and sincere and sustained efforts to improve conditions of socio-economic development in the country.
    Lisa Otto

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *