The Gulf of Guinea is now the world’s worst piracy hotspot

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DOCKED IN THE port of Lagos, Nigeria’s industrial capital, floats a colossal oil tanker. Two layers of razor wire snake round its deck. Two life-sized human dummies in orange jumpsuits are perched on the ship’s bridge, posing as crew members maintaining watch. Serving as a reminder that such precautions are prudent in Africa are the mangled metal and concrete stays of a jetty. It was blown up a decade in the past by militants with a sideline in piracy.

The Gulf of Guinea, on west Africa’s southern coast, is the world’s most pirate-infested sea. The Worldwide Maritime Bureau (IMB) studies 72 assaults final 12 months on vessels at sea between Ivory Coast and Cameroon—up from 28 in 2014. This 12 months up to now it has recorded 30. Though among the rise might mirror extra full reporting, Max Williams of Africa Danger Compliance (ARC), a safety consultancy, says piracy stays chronically under-recorded. Ship-owners concern their vessels will probably be held up at port throughout an investigation. His agency estimates the true variety of assaults final 12 months was double the IMB’s determine.

Elsewhere piracy is in decline. Between 2014 and 2018 the variety of incidents every year in South-East Asia fell from 141 to 60, and to simply three off Somalia, which in 2007-12 confronted this century’s worst piracy disaster. Below-reporting can be much less of an issue in these areas. The authorities in South-East Asia are extra trusted; incidents off Somalia are reported to the worldwide navies deployed there since 2009.

Cyrus Mody of the IMB says that South-East Asian navies have curbed piracy by co-operating extra successfully with one another. Mr Williams describes most of what stays as “marine mugging”: a petty thief boards a ship to swipe some rope or a can of paint. At their peak, Somali pirates hijacked complete ships and their crew for seven-figure ransoms. However the overseas navies stay there, and plenty of shipowners have employed personal armed guards to guard their vessels. Transport firms concern that pirates within the Gulf of Guinea have gotten extra like Somalia’s. Consultants fear that neither of the options utilized in these two areas will work in west Africa.

For some time, Somali piracy attracted unprecedented public consideration, displacing pictures of peglegs, eye patches and a dreadlocked Johnny Depp from the favored creativeness. Whereas buccaneers within the Gulf of Guinea and South-East Asia stole cargo, the Somalis seized crews and sometimes the ships themselves, hauling them again to the ungoverned coast of their lawless state. A fifth of the world’s industrial transport passes by way of the Gulf of Aden, a physique of water flanked by failed states—Somalia and Yemen. In 2011 the IMBreported 236 tried assaults. The pirates had been raking in a mean of just about $5m in ransom per ship, based on One Earth Future (OEF), an NGO.

Captain mug watch

The dimensions of the issue compelled shippers and overseas governments to take drastic motion. Somalia’s authorities barely managed its capital and was unable to assist, so worldwide navies started patrolling its waters. Western navies started doing so in 2009. Different international locations, together with India, China, Russia and Iran, quickly joined in. Some international locations started prosecuting Somali pirates arrested by their navies. Corporations, usually run by ex-soldiers, sprang as much as meet the demand for armed guards. Floating arsenals ship weapons to ships by speedboat in worldwide waters, to get round gun controls on the land. On the Somali coast itself, support pays native power-brokers to run sketchy coastguards, corresponding to Puntland’s Maritime Police Pressure.

None of this got here low-cost. OBP estimates that in 2012 the overseas naval presence price $1bn and personal armed guards and safety gear a further $2bn. But it surely labored. By 2013 the variety of assaults had shrivelled to 15.

As the specter of Somali piracy receded, South-East Asia’s waters briefly regained their former standing because the world’s most perilous. Assaults surged in 2014 and 2015, when pirates hijacked 28 ships, principally oil-tankers, to steal their cargo. Like Somalia, the area sits on a busy transport lane: a 3rd of the world’s transport passes by way of the Malacca Strait and South China Sea. However the littoral international locations are all richer and much better-run. Traditionally, piracy had thrived due to their reluctance to work collectively. Joint patrols first began in 2004; after the surge in 2014 Malaysia and Indonesia despatched a joint rapid-response staff to the Malacca Strait. The 2 international locations additionally agreed to joint patrols with the Philippines within the Sulu Sea, the place Philippine separatist teams had made a foray into piracy. In 2015 Indonesia caught a ringleader with Malaysian assist. Two years later it detained 15 different pirates following a tip-off from Singapore. Calm returned.

It’s a plunderful life

Now west Africa’s pirates have the wind of their sails. The variety of assaults has ebbed and flowed this century, reaching an earlier peak in 2014. However the present wave of violence appears deadlier. As in South-East Asia, pirates in west Africa used to restrict themselves to raiding oil-tankers, to promote their cargo on the black market. When the oil value fell in 2015, they started copying their Somali counterparts and targeted on kidnapping crews (although oil theft made a comeback final 12 months).

In contrast to the Somalis, west African pirates by no means hold the vessels, as they’ve nowhere to cover them. As an alternative, armed with AK-47s and knives, they storm a ship, spherical up among the crew and return to land, the place they conceal their hostages. Final 12 months, says Mr Williams, they kidnapped 193 folks. The pirates have struck throughout the area, however are primarily a Nigerian downside. They principally function out of the labyrinthine waterways within the Niger delta, close to which most of west Africa’s assaults happen.

Piracy is intertwined with the oil-rich delta’s myriad different issues. Unemployment is at the very least 20%, and banditry and oil theft on land are widespread. Cormac McGarry of Management Dangers, a consultancy, says many pirates have gained expertise preventing for separatist teams. These teams usually resent how a lot oil cash is stolen by politicians within the far-off capital, and wish to steal it for their very own ethnic group, or themselves. Cult-like gangs additionally abound within the delta, with names just like the Icelanders and the Vikings. Members moonlight as pirates to make additional money. Piracy additionally rises throughout election years, notes the IMB’s Mr Mody. Native politicians are mentioned to pay and arm the gangs to assault rivals.

West African governments wrestle to stifle piracy. To their credit score, they’ve been attempting to co-ordinate higher. A number of now change details about piracy. A handful are discussing joint patrols. However, since west African piracy stems primarily from one nation, which can be the place most assaults occur, regional co-ordination is prone to make solely a small dent in the issue.

Transport corporations complain that the Nigerian authorities is failing to maintain its waters secure. Its navy usually performs admirably when it intercepts pirate assaults. However it’s ill-equipped and unfold too skinny to stop them. Some speculate that the pirates are in cahoots with navy officers, citing incidents through which pirates flee earlier than the navy arrives or know precisely what number of crew members are aboard a ship they assault. Nigeria has but to make piracy a particular felony offence. Pirates captured by the navy are sometimes quietly launched. Round 300 folks have been prosecuted in Somalia for piracy. Against this, the UN Workplace on Medication and Crime (UNODC) says it doesn’t know of a single prosecution in Nigeria.

Some favour a Somali-style method. BIMCO, the biggest worldwide affiliation representing shipowners, issued a press release in January calling for the EU, America and China to deploy forces to the Gulf of Guinea. Ship-owners additionally need to have the ability to deploy personal armed guards in Nigerian waters. For now, Nigeria solely lets them rent escort vessels staffed by naval officers. “They’ve turned safety right into a enterprise,” grumbles one government.

Others see such calls for as a non-starter. Nigeria, a democracy whose authorities—for all its flaws—is way much less impotent than Somalia’s, is sure to resent overseas navies or mercenaries off its coast. Additionally, overseas governments can be reluctant to foot the invoice. The Gulf of Guinea, not like the Malacca Strait or the Gulf of Aden, shouldn’t be a choke level for worldwide commerce. Mr Williams factors to different constraints on the Nigerian authorities. Its armed forces have their palms full with a jihadist insurgency within the north-east, banditry within the north-west and clashes between farmers and herders within the “center belt”—all of that are far deadlier than piracy.

As an alternative, he argues, corporations themselves ought to do extra to guard their crews. Worldwide transport organisations have drawn up suggestions, primarily based on what labored in Somalia. They embody wrapping the deck in razor wire and constructing a “citadel” on board the place the crew can barricade themselves and name for assist. Among the many ships docked in Lagos many show clearly shoddy safety—massive gaps within the razor wire, for instance, rendering it ineffective. Mr Williams usually finds citadels with doorways that don’t shut; or crews with no coaching on what to do if attacked.

Pay charges of penance

These lapses trace on the awkward undeniable fact that many corporations lack a monetary incentive to take safety extra significantly in west Africa. Insurance coverage firms provide decrease premiums for ships that shield themselves. However the mixed price of insuring the ship, the cargo and the crew (for kidnapping and ransom) for a voyage to Nigeria is often not more than the price of half a day’s gasoline. It may be cheaper to not trouble with armed guards. Premiums are so low partially as a result of Nigerian pirates, not like these in Somalia, have priced their ransoms good: for a lot of firms they are often written off as a value of doing enterprise.

Meaning the heaviest toll is borne by crews, most of whom are from poor international locations like India and the Philippines. Afusat Eke, a social employee for the Nigerian Seafarers’ Welfare Board, says sailors usually undergo from nervousness, melancholy or post-traumatic stress dysfunction after being launched from captivity. Corporations say their rising criticism of the Nigerian authorities is proof that they care about their crews’ welfare (though complaining prices them nothing). Because of the web, extra seamen are conscious of the dangers in west Africa and loth to go there.

Even when transport corporations did do extra, it will not finish piracy. The stark fact, says Mr Mody, is that it may possibly solely be stopped by fixing its underlying causes on land. In west Africa this implies assuaging the Niger delta’s persistent lawlessness. In Somalia pirates nonetheless scour the oceans, on the lookout for unprotected ships, so the frigates and personal guards will probably be wanted so long as chaos reigns on land. Analysts are nervously watching Venezuela, whose financial collapse is believed to have precipitated an upsurge of offshore mugging. All this means will probably be tough to eradicate piracy for a few years to return. However for the sake of the world’s 1.6m seafarers, governments and shippers shouldn’t cease attempting.

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