West Africa's ferocious pirates grab two Americans

Nigeria's waters are some of the most dangerous in the world, and have been for some time. So far no solution is in sight.

Jon Gambrell/AP/File
A crew of US sailors and Nigerian special forces fighters prepares to board the NNS Burutu for a training exercise off the Nigerian coast, Feb. 13, 2010.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Forget Somalia: Nigeria on the other side of Africa is home to the continent's most ferocious pirates.

In recent years – as seen today by the abduction of two American sailors – the west African variety of pirate has transformed the Gulf of Guinea into some of the world’s riskiest waters.

The reported abduction of an American captain and chief engineer from an oil platform supply vessel off the coast of Nigeria was just one of many raids and kidnappings that have happened in the country’s waters this year.

Thirty incidences of piracy related to Nigeria have been reported so far this year, compared with 11 Somalia-related incidences in the same period, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

While Somalia’s pirates tend to engage in protracted hostage-takings that could stretch for months or even years, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea prefer smash-and-grab operations to steal cargo. They especially favor refined oil products like gasoline and diesel that can be sold elsewhere.

“It’s bolder, it’s more capacity, more capability, in the sense of the distances at which they’re carrying out the [attacks],” says Cyrus Mody, associate director of the IMB, about piracy in the Gulf.

While the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia remains dangerous, improvements in governance on land and the deployment of an international force to safeguard shipping lanes has cut pirate attacks there.

But there’s little international military presence in west Africa’s waters. Kidnappers from Nigeria have spread all along the gulf, heading as far west as Ivory Coast and as far south as Gabon.

Last December, five Indian sailors were kidnapped off the Nigerian coast before being released the next month. So were four Italians in a separate incident around the same time. In July, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea grabbed an oil tanker and held 24 Indian sailors hostage for a week before letting them go.

“If you just go down a little deeper into the incidences that happen in the [Gulf], most of them have their roots back in Nigeria,” said Mr. Mody.

Nigeria has long struggled with kidnapping by armed militias, particularly in the oil-producing Niger Delta, the coast of which was the site of Thursday’s kidnapping.

The rise of piracy has also put a strain on west Africa’s navies, says Bruno Pozzi, a political counselor with the European Union (EU) in Ivory Coast.

The first known attack off Ivory Coast shores took place last October when pirates took control of a Greek tanker for several days before absconding with the fuel oil it was carrying.

Ivorian authorities have little capabilities when it comes to chasing pirates, Mr. Pozzi said. The military there does not possess planes or boats capable of following a hijacked ship, a situation that is common around the region.

“Most of the armies… are in very bad shape in west Africa, to use very diplomatic words,” Pozzi said.

For shippers, there are few options to protect their vessels. Most countries have rules against having armed guards on boats in their territorial waters, preferring instead to have shippers rely on the local navy, Mody said, adding that there’s little regional interest in having the type of international force that patrols the Red Sea come to the Gulf.

“We might have a situation that will quickly lead to threats very similar to what we see around the coast of Somalia,” Pozzi, the EU counselor, warned.

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