Home / Energy / Black gold buccaneers: Oil piracy in the Gulf of Guinea
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Black gold buccaneers: Oil piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

The frequency of piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea has increased at an alarming rate in recent years. According the United Nations’ 2013 Transnational Organized Crime threat assessment for West Africa, piracy in the Gulf “is a product of the disorder that surrounds the regional oil industry.” Nigeria, which produces well over 2 million barrels of oil per day, occupies 530 miles of coastline and drives the industry.

Nigeria saw US$52 billion in revenue in 2011. However, Nigeria remains incredibly poor. In 2012, Nigeria ranked 12th in world oil production, but the UN ranked the nation 152nd of 187 countries on its Human Development Index. Robbery, kidnapping for ransom, and hijacking vessels are all part of an organized crime network born out of political unrest and economic disparity.

While pirates do not solely hijack oil vessels, tankers are often the primary targets. As recently as July 25, oil tanker Hai Soon 6 disappeared off the coast of Ghana. The ship was released shortly afterward, but had been relieved of her cargo.

Just before that the Fair Artemis was attacked in the same area. The Liberia-flagged vessel had radioed in a distress signal on June 4, but it failed to respond to communication attempts afterward. While the individuals on board were safe when the ship was recovered about a week later, the cargo and other items had been stolen.

The Gulf of Guinea extends along the coast of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. According to data from the UN, most incidents of piracy from 2006 through 2010 took place off the shore of Lagos, the economic center of Nigeria. The Port of Lagos is one of the largest in Africa. Most of the incidents during that time were either attempted attacks or successful robberies.

In 2010, one hijacking occurred off the coast of Benin, and by 2011 the number had spiked to nine. That number only proceeded to grow in 2012. Unlike previous years, however, these incidents took place sporadically along the coastline and were no longer isolated to the waters near the Port of Lagos.

Piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, 2007. Image via the United Nations'Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa threat report.

Piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, 2007. Image via the United Nations’ Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa threat report.

Piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, 2012. Image via the United Nations' Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa threat report.

Piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, 2012. Image via the United Nations’ Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa threat report.

Part of the explanation for this could stem from the end of the Niger Delta conflict in 2011. Essentially, the conflict arose from tension between the minority ethnic groups in the region and the foreign oil companies, fueling militarization and violence. Part of the rationale behind piracy was the heavy political statement it carried, but because the political theater where it had been prevalent no longer existed, pirates no longer felt beholden to target the Niger Delta specifically.

The discovery of a massive oil reserve in 2007 off the coast of Ghana, a previously untapped nation, has sparked more industry in the region, making security in the region even more urgent. While stealing crude is a profitable business for pirates, kidnapping for ransom is even more lucrative, putting the employees of the industry at great risk. Some oil workers have even lost their lives at the hands of pirates in the Gulf.

An organization known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has taken full advantage of these profit-generating tactics. Between 2012 and 2013, MEND hijacked 12 ships, kidnapped 22 sailors and, and killed 4 oil workers. All in all, the militant organization brings in billions of dollars from its exploits, aiming to expose the appalling circumstances of the people in the Niger Delta.

The West and Central Africa Maritime Security Trust Fund, which has received generous contributions from the United Kingdom, China, and Japan, was developed in December 2013. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) developed the fund to “sustain and escalate the intensity of IMO’s engagement to achieve” their goals of suppressing pirate activity in the Gulf of Guinea. The IMO proposed the implementation of security measures in March to curb the activities of pirates in west and central Africa. The Code of Conduct was officially adopted by 13 Heads of State in the region on June 25. An excerpt from the Code of Conduct explicates the purpose of the agreement.

Through becoming Signatory States to the Code of Conduct, States in West and Central Africa have affirmed their intention to “co-operate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of transnational organized crime in the maritime domain, maritime terrorism, IUU fishing and other illegal activities at sea” …

Under the Code, the Signatories agree to share relevant information, investigate suspected ships, apprehend and prosecute perpetrators of piracy, and care for anyone harmed as a result of violence. The Code of Conduct has inspired few headlines in the month following its adoption. The full contents of the Code can be found here.

For the United Nations’ full report, Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, click here.

 

This is the first installment of a three-piece series on oil piracy.