A report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and other seafarers’ groups has revealed that the incidence of piracy off the coast of West Africa has now overtaken Somali piracy. The report states that 966 sailors were attacked in West Africa in 2012 compared with 851 off the coast of Somalia. West African pirates mostly steal fuel cargo and the crews’ possessions, often resorting to extreme violence. The document declares that five of the 206 hostages taken last year during West African piracy attacks have been killed. The report, entitled The Human Cost of maritime Piracy 2012, was released by the IMB, the ‘Oceans beyond Piracy’ project, and the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response programme.
This rising problem on the West African coast is an overwhelmingly Nigerian one. The rise is Nigerian piracy is partly because an international naval force is operating off the coast of Somalia, but is also partly because of the peculiarities of the Nigerian economy and the widespread corruption prevalent in the country.
While the typical modus operandi of a Somali pirate is to hold ships and kidnap their occupants for profit, the Nigerian pirates’ main motives are to steal crude oil or refined petroleum products from oil tankers. The IMB report noted ‘many vessels are attacked while at anchor, drifting, or conducting ship-to-ship transfers of refined cargo… only 33% of vessels were attacked while actively in transit in the Gulf of Guinea. In contrast, attacks off Somalia almost always occur while ships are underway’.
The reasoning behind the success of the West African pirate is the chronic failure by the authorities to build and keep domestic Nigerian oil refineries. Bluntly, there is so much money to be made from exporting crude oil from the region’s biggest oil producer and re-importing refined fuel to the large Nigerian population that developing a productive economy by building refineries has been forgotten. In a good year, Nigeria produces more than two million barrels of oil a day, but only has the capacity to refine a quarter of that; in practice though, poor efficiency and maintenance means that even less than that is produced.
Every day, hundreds of tankers are travelling along the waters of the river Niger; these provide a perfect scenario for pirates to operate. The swamps conceal numerous private jetties and mini-ports as well as a network of pipelines which are often broken into. Coupled with a weak, and sometimes corrupt security force, and until recently, armed rebellion, these conditions have led to the development of a well-organized industry for stealing – or as it is known in Nigeria, ‘bunkering’- oil products.
This illicit import-export industry has become almost institutionalised by a government subsidy on petrol sales that cost the country several billion dollars a year and encourages these illegal activities. This subsidy is paid to well-connected fuel importers to keep prices low and stop unrest amongst the majority of the Nigerian people. Nigerians are by no means ignorant to the amount of money stolen at the top rungs of their society, and have come to demand cheap petrol as their ‘slice of the pie’. However, what actually happens is that the subsidised fuel is sold on the black market at higher prices and this has a profound effect on the Nigerian people in two predominant ways; firstly, the government is cheated by the fuel importers, and secondly, the Nigerians themselves face higher prices.
There have been some attempts to remove the subsidy and introduce a more rational system of fuel selling, however they have been prevented from doing so by the ordinary Nigerians who feel they need the subsidy, and by the ‘evil cabal’ of the importers and pirates making vast sums of money under the current arrangement.