Sea Transportation: The Delta Blues

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November 5, 2021: France, Britain and Denmark are sending seagoing patrol ships to provide more protection for international shipping operating in the West African Gulf of Guinea, especially near the Niger River Delta. The piracy problem in the in the Gulf of Guinea has been getting worse for several years and, as of September 2021, international ship owners’ associations declared the Gulf or Guinea a HRA (High Risk Area) which covers about 3.2 million square kilometers (910,000 square miles). Within this HRA the piracy risk is rising and some shipping companies refuse to send their ships into waters near the Niger River Delta, which is controlled by Nigeria that has experienced the most attacks. Some crews are demanding double pay to enter this area. While the Nigerian Navy has established guarded anchorages and purchased coastal patrol UAVs the risk remains. Nigeria will not allow any armed security teams on merchant ships, as has become common in the Somali HRA. This makes the crews feel even more vulnerable.

Nigeria reported that piracy incidents had declined 77 percent in 2021 compared to 2020. There have been sharp drops in piracy before, which did not last and the piracy returned. The joint training with European naval forces to learn new anti-piracy techniques is part of a program to keep the piracy incidents at low levels.

Before 2021 Gulf of Guinea piracy became so frequent that shipping companies warned of increasing maritime ship insurance rates and other piracy related costs that will be passed on to consumers in Nigeria and neighboring countries. Off the Nigerian coast the pirate activity is increasing despite growing Nigerian efforts to curb the threat.

There are no plans for a Gulf of Guinea international piracy patrol that was, and still used off the Somali coast to deter piracy. In the Gulf of Guinea there are no coastal towns where pirates can operate openly and bring hijacked ships and their crews to hold them for multi-million-dollar cash ransoms.

Somalia was the only place in the world where pirates could, for nearly a decade, take a large ship and anchor it off a small coastal town controlled by pirates. With no threats from local authorities, the pirates threatened to murder hostages, especially the ones taken ashore, if the anti-piracy patrol attempted to take back the ship. The lack of any Somali coast guard or government control along the entire coast was why Somalia was the only region seriously enough threatened by pirates that armed guards were allowed on large commercial ships passing through the most dangerous areas. In the other pirate hotspots, like the Gulf of Guinea, the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, and parts of the Caribbean, local police, navies, and coast guard keep the pirates under control and usually forbid armed guards on ships. The main risk outside Somali waters is nighttime raids by local pirates who rob the crew of valuables and the ships of anything portable.

These “robbery” tactics escalated in Nigeria over the last five years because the pirates realized that kidnapping key crew members and holding them for ransom was safer and more lucrative than hauling away portable valuables or some of the cargo. Kidnapping was slow to catch on because initially local security forces could locate the kidnappers’ hideouts and free hostages. That changed in Nigeria because pirates made deals with local political and military officials to share the large ransoms paid for kidnapped foreign sailors. Once these ransom sharing deals were in place it became more difficult to find the pirate hideouts where hostages were held. This corrupt profit-sharing arrangement is nothing new in Nigeria and has been a component of the crippling corruption Nigeria has suffered since independence in the 1960s. Currently about five million dollars in ransoms are being paid each year and that is increasing. This is what is threatening to raise ship insurance rates and the cost of shipping anything in or out of the Gulf of Guinea. Ultimately the customer pays, otherwise shippers could not continue doing business in high-risk areas.

These robberies and kidnappings are common in areas where a lot of large ships must anchor off a busy major port and await their turn to dock for loading or unloading cargo. What enabled the Nigerian pirates to become more of a menace was the entrenched gangster culture in the Niger River Delta. This is where most of Nigeria’s oil is produced. More of the oil is coming from offshore rigs and these became attractive targets for pirates. The seemingly entrenched gangster culture is made possible by the culture of corruption among local politicians and security forces. Many politicians adopt a local gang to provide muscle for ensuring voters select the most corrupt candidates.

Nigeria has been undergoing increasingly vigorous and effective reform efforts since 2000 but the gangster culture is so pervasive and entrenched that progress is slow in the more profitable areas. Nigerian leaders don’t like being compared to Somalia, but there are similarities. One difference is that there is more to steal in Nigeria and that many Nigerians, unlike Somalis, consider the outlaw culture a flaw, not a feature.

The foreign warships must operate at least 22 kilometers from the coast because that is the extent of sovereign coastal waters. Nigeria does not allow foreign merchant ships to carry armed guards, as was the case off Somalia. Because of that the British and Danish patrol ships are visiting Nigeria to help train Nigerian sailors in anti-piracy techniques that were successful off Somalia. This includes training with Nigerian patrol ships. The HMS Trent also brought with it a contingent of Royal Marine Commandos who trained with their Nigerian counterparts on how to board and safely search a ship that might still have armed pirates on board.

Meanwhile the Nigerian pirates are applying many of the techniques that worked for the Somali pirates. The Nigerian pirates are locals who know their way along the many small waterways found in the Niger River Delta. Like the Somali pirates, the Nigerian freebooters depend on a network of middlemen, some of them local politicians, who help broker the ransom deals. Bribes and political influence will often prevent the police and navy from finding pirate hideouts deep in the delta. For a while Nigerian pirates tried to loot cargoes by arranging for another ship to meet with a captured one to transfer a lot of the cargo before daylight and curious police came to check on the ship whose crew was no longer responding to calls from port authorities or the shipping company that managed the ship. The police became more alert to the cargo transfer scam and did radio checks more frequently with large ships anchored off the major ports waiting to unload or take on cargo. The pirates have, so far, adapted more quickly than the shipping companies or local security forces.

The Gulf of Guinea HRA accounts for about a third of piracy incidents worldwide, including those that involve kidnapping senior crew and taking them ashore to hidden camps where they are held until ransom paid. If the piracy problem discourages enough foreign ships from using Gulf of Guinea ports, the nations involved, especially Nigeria, will have to cooperate with the growing number of nations sending patrol ships to operate in international waters to assist ships under attack by giving those ships another source of assistance when they send out a distress call.

 


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