While piracy attacks seem to be on the decline off the coast of Somalia, pirates may be warming up in West Africa. As I and others have blogged about before, the Gulf of Guinea, as well the Nigerian Delta, have recently turned into hotbeds of piracy. The Nigerian Delta in particular, because of vast amounts of oil production which takes place there annually, has attracted potential pirates interested in seizing oil and selling it for profit on the black market. Recently, such piratical activity has expanded farther south, to the coast of Angola, signaling the rise of a new kind of piracy, focused on stealing oil as opposed to kidnapping crews for ransom. Regardless of its goals, this new model of piracy could severely threaten the security of West African waters and could negatively impact economic stability of the region, dependent on oil and safe transportation.
On January 18th, a Greek-owned and Liberian-flagged oil tanker, Kerala, disappeared in Angolan waters. Nobody knows for certain what happened to the ship, but a piracy incident was suspected because just before Kerala’s disappearance, maritime security firms had began warning of a suspicious, 200-ton tugboat sailing in Angolan waters off the Angolan coast. Kerala’s Greek owners re-established contact with the vessel on January 26th, when they announced that the vessel had indeed been hijacked, that a crew member had been hurt, and that the vessel was on its way to a Ghana port. Moreover, it was announced that Kerala‘s cargo – more than 60,000 tons of diesel – had been stolen. In a surprising twist of unfolding events, the Angolan Navy denied that a hijacking had taken place. Instead, Angolan officials contended that the Kerala crew had faked the hijacking, and had decided to sail toward Nigerian waters voluntarily. Maritime security experts doubt the accuracy of the Angolan version, and believe that a piracy incident did in fact take place, because the theft of oil, which disappeared from the Kerala, closely resembles the new piracy model developing off the coast of West Africa.
The West African piracy model is different from its Somali counter-part. In Somalia, pirates most often attacked vessels in order to hijack the ship and kidnap its crew, and then demand a multi-million dollar ransom. In West Africa, pirates engage in sharp and often violent attacks on oil tankers, in order to seize the oil and sell it on the local black market. West African pirates are generally not interested in kidnapping the crew, because they cannot easily dock hijacked ships in West African coastal states, where law enforcement and coast guard officials would most likely arrest them. To the contrary, because of the rampant lawlessness which has plagued Somalia for over two decades, pirates were able to dock ships with impunity in Somali ports and to hold kidnapped crewmembers for months without fearing arrest. In Somalia, most attacks occurred on the high seas, enabling piracy-combatting nations which had been patrolling the Indian Ocean to act against the pirates: international treaty law specifically authorizes countries to arrest pirates on the high seas. Moreover, in the Somali context, the United Nations Security Council had passed numerous resolutions authorizing patrolling nations to enter Somali territorial waters, and even Somali land, when going after pirates. The situation is starkly different in West Africa. First, some “piracy” attacks in West Africa have taken place in the territorial waters of countries like Nigeria, Angola, or Benin: these incidents would not qualify as “piracy” under international law because they were not committed on the high seas (an element present in the definition of piracy found in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). If a piracy-like incident occurs in the territorial waters of a West African nation, other piracy-combatting nations do not have authority to act, cannot chase the suspected pirates, cannot apprehend them, and cannot defend the victim vessel. Second, in most incidents, West African pirates’ modus operandi is as follows: pirates offload relatively small amounts of captured product (typically oil) onto costal vessels once the hijacked ship is the pirates’ home country’s territorial waters. International patrols are generally unable to follow suspected pirates into West African nations’ territorial waters, because doing so would breach such countries’ sovereignty. This enables pirates in West Africa to seek refuge in their own waters. In the Kerala incident, where the hijacked vessel was likely hauled to Nigerian waters, where the stolen oil was most likely offloaded, the theft amounted to about 4 million gallons. According to United Nations reports, pirates could net as much $30 million per year by selling stolen oil on the local black markets. Many experts believe that West African piracy, and especially attacks which occur in the Nigerian Delta, are simply an extension of domestic oil theft. This piracy model may be even more dangerous than the Somali one, and the international community may need to shift focus from East to West Africa.
Somali pirates, notwithstanding violent incidents and Captain Phillips, generally avoided harming crewmembers, because they needed to extract ransom money in exchange for releasing alive and well kidnapped seafarers. West African pirates, because they are after the oil and not crewmembers, do not care about not harming anybody, as long as they can get their hands on the ship cargo. Moreover, because of the lawlessness of Somalia and its failed statehood, the international community had authorization, through Security Council resolutions, to breach Somali territorial sovereignty and to engage in law enforcement-type operations geared toward neutralizing piracy in Somali waters and on Somali land. Many experts agree that the sharp decline in Somali piracy incidents is due in part to the ability of piracy-fighting nations to engage in this type of widespread maritime operations. In other words, Somali pirates were unable to hide in Somali waters or on Somali land. This scenario is unlikely to happen in West Africa, where nations enjoy full sovereignty, and where anti-piracy operations will likely be limited to the high seas. In addition, off the coast of Somalia, many ship owner started employing private armed guards, which also contributed significantly to the decline in the number of piracy attacks. West African states are unlikely to allow the use of private armed guards on board vessels sailing in their waters, and vessels may only be allowed to use such guards on the high seas. In sum, West African pirates may be more dangerous, and combatting them may represent a more complex issue than the one which originally presented itself off the coast of Somalia.
Some anti-piracy efforts have been taking place in West Africa. Nigeria has pledged to combat oil theft and piracy, and many European Union nations, which routinely import oil from the region, have engaged in limited anti-piracy programs. However, it seems that two major super-powers, the United States and China, are not likely to dispatch their navies, the same way they did in the Indian Ocean. For these reasons, it appears that while Somali pirates have buried their grappling hooks and ladders, West African pirates “may just be getting going.” Unfortunately.