Piracy on the rise off West Africa's coast

West Africa has seen a sharp increase in the number of pirate attacks off its coast. The goal is not lucrative ransom payments, but fuel, which sells for a large sum on the black market.

Pirate attacks, previously a back-burner issue in the waters off of West Africa, have spiked in recent months, fueling fears that the illicit activity could threaten oil exports and ultimately hamper growth in the region.

Already this year, there have been 15 reported pirate attacks off the coast of the tiny nation of Benin, an area that saw just one attack between 2006 and 2010, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau. The most recent incident came last weekend, when armed men boarded two Panamanian-registered ships in Benin’s waters. Italian- and Greek-owned diesel tankers were also targeted there last month and one Filipino seaman was killed.

The recent spate of attacks represents “a change of both scale and ferocity” of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, says Steven Jones, the director of Maritime Security Review, a London-based firm.

“Gangs have boarded vessels in order to transfer oil from the tanker into their own small tanker vessels,” Mr. Jones says, adding that in the past, attacks were largely motivated by “petty theft and pilferage.”

“The pirates are believed to be Nigerian, perhaps from just one gang – and their push outwards [toward Benin] is believed to be a direct response to the successes of the Nigerian Navy in their own territorial sea,” Jones added.

Unlike Somalia, where seafaring criminals demand ransoms for the people and goods they hold hostage, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea focus on stealing fuel, which they then sell for hefty sums on the black market.

Fuel theft has long been a threat off the coast of Nigeria, which pumps out 2.2 million barrels of oil per day and is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of the commodity. With the problem spreading further west, insurers have started raising the premiums they charge for ships that pass through Benin’s waters, Jones says.

But piracy is also hurting other parts the economy, not just the oil sector.

Nigeria’s fisheries industry – a significant source of employment, especially among the country’s poor – “has been devastated by piracy and other violence” at sea, wrote J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, in a report earlier this year. Nigerian fishermen suffered nearly 300 attacks between 2003 and 2008, Pham said, citing statistics from the Nigerian government.

Some degree of low-level piracy seems to be a fact of life in a region where few governments can afford to buy speedboats or hire well-trained police officers to patrol their waters. Nigeria, by far the wealthiest economy in the region, has had some success in clamping down on piracy off its shores, but that may be to the detriment of its poorer neighbors.

Natasha Brown, a spokeswoman for the International Maritime Organization, said that the IMO is working with countries in the region to create an integrated coast guard network to tackle piracy in West African waters.

“We are very concerned about the increase in piracy and armed robbery against ships in the Gulf of Guinea,” Ms. Brown said. “The attacks represent a threat to the security of the energy supply as well as to seafarers.”

Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.