A rise in pirate attacks off Nigeria's coast

Turmoil in the oil-rich Niger Delta region is spreading out to sea as gangs in speedboats attack trading ships.

Rich Clabaugh
Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images/File
Plunder by speedboat: Militants have long attacked oil facilities in Nigeria. Now, piracy off the country's oil-rich coast is increasing.

The pirates attacked at night, firing AK-47s at the fishing trawler then clambering aboard from their speedboats.

One bullet hit the chef, who lay wounded in his bunk as the pirates casually ate and slept before stripping the ship of its valuables.

"He was in agony, dying silently like that," Captain Johnson says of the chef, shot during one of many January attacks in southern Nigeria's oil-rich waters.

Nigeria has seen a massive rise in pirate attacks in recent weeks, with officials linking the upsurge to a general decline in security throughout the country's oil-rich Niger Delta region. While piracy has long been a problem off the coast of Somalia in East Africa, the recent attacks here in West Africa mark a new trend that could further cripple the economy of one of the world's poorest regions.

"Before, it was maybe one death every two months or once in a fortnight, but five deaths in five different locations and five different companies?" says Paul Kirubakaran, managing director of the Seabless fishing company, whose boats are among the 200 shrimp and fishing vessels docked in Nigeria's commercial capital since a strike began in January. "When people are killed like this how can we ask them to go back [to sea]?"

Trawler fishermen in the area suffered more than 100 pirate attacks in 2007, and a spike of 50 attacks in the first month of 2008 that culminated in five crew deaths in one day, maritime officials say.

Nigerian trawler workers, some paid less than $40 a month, went on strike at the end of January saying they refuse to put themselves at further risk. Costs for international companies are rising, prices have quadrupled, and the fishing industry that employs tens of thousands of Nigerians is wriggling on the hook.

A volatile region

Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta is awash with guns. There, militant groups kidnap foreign workers for ransom, blow up pipelines, and invade offshore oilrigs. Their activities helped push oil prices to record highs of more than $100 a barrel.

Now, a crackdown on criminal activity in the delta is behind an upsurge of piracy in the southern waters, industry officials say.

Though trawlers have been attacked throughout Nigerian waters, freight ships and oil-industry vessels are most likely to be attacked in the waters near the Niger Delta where a series of pirate strikes prompted commercial operators to halt use of one major port for a full 24 hours in January.

Around the world, piracy is a longstanding problem. After years of decline, 2007 saw a 10 percent increase in piracy incidents, according to latest figures from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a nonprofit organization set up to tackle all types of maritime crime and malpractice.

That's a result of increased pirate activity in two African countries – war-torn Somalia, which has no effective central government, and Nigeria.

What is the solution?

Here in Nigeria, improved security and more naval patrols are the solution, say maritime representatives.

"We do know that Nigeria has a strong Navy and we're quite confident that if the Navy increased the number of patrols and responded to calls for help faster and made their presence felt more than they do now, then there definitely will be a fall in the number of attacks," says Cyrus Mody, manager of the IMB.

In February, the US Navy ran a maritime surveillance exercise for members of the Nigerian Navy and Air Force to tackle illegal operations, including piracy, in Nigerian waters. The US receives about one-fifth of its oil imports from the Gulf of Guinea, which includes Nigerian territorial waters, and the US Navy has been increasing its presence in the region for several years, according to the US State Department.

The Nigerian government has set up a special subcommittee to find a solution to the pirate problem and says it will add 15 patrol boats. "The government has put additional security in place but has not detailed some of those measures," says Yemi Nelson, the assistant director of press in the Ministry of Agriculture, which covers fisheries.

However, many Nigerian pirates are frequently better equipped than some Naval patrols. The pirates use machine-gun mounted speedboats and carry semi-automatic machine guns. They use hand-held radios so several boats can stage coordinated attacks. They pride themselves on having something of a military flair, often wearing military camouflage or giving their leaders titles like "General."

As well as their AK-47s, the pirates that attacked Captain Johnson carried machetes. They explained to Johnson that they had no fear of being caught as they had backing from top Nigerian officials, or "Big Men."

After taking the ship, the nine pirates slept in rotation. They warned the injured chef that if he made a noise, they'd shoot him again.

Later, they stripped the boat of navigational and communication equipment, air-conditioning units, and personal possessions of the crew – including the captain's shoes and socks.

They used Johnson's boat as a decoy, pulling right alongside their second target before springing aboard. By the time the pirates left Johnson and his crew, they were fourteen hours from Lagos harbor and a hospital. The cook died before they reached the wharf.

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