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Oil is treasure as African piracy shifts west

Pirates surrender to a NATO counter-piracy task force (Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page via Flickr).

Pirates surrender to a NATO counter-piracy task force (Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page via Flickr).

The Kerala cargo vessel loaded with 60,000 tons of diesel on January 18 was an easy target for pirates lurking in the waters off West Africa.

After maritime security firms warned of a tugboat stalking the Kerala off the coast of Angola, the tanker’s communication systems were turned off and the ship went missing for eight days. On January 26, the Kerala was back on the map and headed for safety at a port near Accra, Ghana. The crew said pirates stabbed one crew member, beat others, and unloaded close to 13,000 tons of diesel in three separate transfers.

The Kerala is one example of a dramatic upswing in attacks on high-value oil tankers on Africa’s west coast, replacing Somali waters as the world’s new piracy hotspot.

In its annual global piracy report, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported piracy is on the decline with 264 attacks in 2013, an 11 percent decrease from 2012. Though the waters in Southeast Asia experienced the most incidents, these were low-profile events. West African rebels commandeering oil tankers are proving much more costly and attracting increased international attention.

An armed Somali pirate (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe via Flickr).

An armed Somali pirate (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe via Flickr).

The waters off Somalia’s coast were once infamous for rebels seeking unsecured ships to take hostage. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and around Somalia grew so rampant it was having a negative effect on global commerce, with shipping lanes being avoided entirely. A blockbuster film starring Tom Hanks highlighting piracy in East Africa made waves at the 2014 Academy Awards.  But an international collaboration of navies and heightened onboard security finally corralled the high seas to Africa’s east. Since this effort, there were just 15 incidents of Somali piracy in 2013, down from 75 in 2012, and 237 in 2011.

“The single biggest reason for the drop in worldwide piracy is the decrease in Somali piracy off the coast of East Africa,” IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan said.

Rebels from another corruption-riddled country in Africa are quickly replacing Somalia’s numbers in pirate attacks.

Around one-fifth of global pirate attacks come from Nigeria, ranked by Transparency International as 144 in corruption out of 177 nations (Somalia was 175). Of 51 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, Nigerian rebels were responsible for 31. In some ways, the upswing in Nigerian oil pirates is an extension of the Niger Delta conflict, where rebels have sought to sabotage the oil industry through theft and disruption for years.

Like Somalia, many Nigerian youth are believed to turn to piracy as a result of their country’s corruption and bleak economic opportunity. An amnesty program launched to aid Niger Delta rebels has not recorded much success thus far. Legal jobs are still hard to come by, forcing some to find other means to provide for their community.

Nigeria’s culture of corruption has disadvantaged large portions of its population, leading to an increase in crime onshore and off, but, ironically, the country’s soft approach to punishing these criminals is what allows them to thrive. Rumors exist that Nigeria’s Joint Task Force, assigned to crack down on militants, has “created a culture of impunity for successful thieves” by receiving payments for allowing their lucrative actions to slide.

The causes for piracy may be similar on Africa’s east and west coasts, but the way they conduct business differs.

Somali pirates looked for profit in the ransom game. Charles Nolfo, a longtime shipping executive, told Vice, “In the early years, the ransom was dropped by the ship owner on the deck of the ship and taken ashore to be divided among the tribes. Later on, the Somali pirates had London lawyers involved. They had bank accounts in Geneva. It was sophisticated.”

Nolfo went on to say rebel attacks in West Africa resembles “more piracy and thievery.” Here, pirates are looking for petroleum tankers to hijack, steal its cargo and sell on the black market. A U.N. report estimates that pirates could make as much as $30 million a year from stolen oil, and the attacks are robbing African nations dependent on oil export revenue. It’s because of oil’s high value in a blooming black market, experts say, that West Africa is becoming notorious for sea-born robberies.

The New York Times detailed a report from three leading maritime organizations that hostages in West Africa were held captive for an average of four days, and Somali pirates held their hostages on average for 11 months; some hostages had been in captivity for more than two years.

The threat of piracy spreading from the Gulf of Guinea further down Africa’s west coast, with the Kerala as example, is a growing fear for African countries and the international community.

An international fleet of shipping lane protectors has not been organized yet like what happened with Somalia, but several world powers, including the U.S., took part in a sea exercise with several African nations off the coast of Nigeria to help prepare for how to deal with west coast piracy.

At the exercise, recently appointed Africa’s rear admiral for the Western Naval Command, Samuel Alade, acknowledged the importance of securing the region’s “huge resources and potential in the Gulf of Guinea” and vowed to tackle the “security challenges of piracy, poaching, smuggling, oil theft.”



Jordan Stutts

Jordan Stutts is a finance reporter for business journal PEI Media covering global infrastructure transactions, private investments in energy and transportation funding. He previously worked as an associate producer for FPA’s Great Decisions television series and covered local news in Charlotte, NC. You can follow him on Twitter @jwstuttered or check out his portfolio at