Nigerian pirates rampage in West African waters

Late that night in February, a gang of pirates hijacked a Chinese trawler 80 miles off the coast of Gabon. Over the next 36 hours, they swept through the territorial waters of four West African countries, attacking three more boats before sailing the Lianpengyu 809 for another 250 miles to the Niger Delta in Nigeria.

Just after midnight on February 10, they abandoned the trawler off the Nigerian state of Rivers and took 10 of the boat’s 14 crew to the coves of the Delta, a safe haven for the growing criminal syndicates. more sophisticated which have transformed the Gulf of Guinea in recent years. into a global hacking hotspot. A month later, the crew members were released in exchange for $ 300,000 in ransom, according to local media.

The attack on four boats in less than two days was particularly brazen, but came after a year in which the Gulf of Guinea accounted for 130 of the 135 sailors kidnapped around the world, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau.

As the shipping industry called for more action to curb attacks, the Lianpengyu attack made it clear that “pirates are capable of operating with impunity” in the Gulf, said Munro Anderson, director of Dryad Global, a UK based shipping consultancy firm of the pirate movement.

As the attacks unfold from Côte d’Ivoire to Congo-Brazzaville, the pirates are emerging almost exclusively from Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta. “Nigeria’s inability to effectively govern its territory beyond urban areas and oil installations is at the heart of conflicts in the Niger Delta and by extension in the Gulf of Guinea,” said Tarila Marclint Ebiede, non-resident scholar at the Center for Democracy and Development. Poverty, high youth unemployment and lack of education are also determining factors, he said.

As seafarers are in danger and transport costs rise in an already expensive region, Denmark, home to the Maersk shipping company, and the industry have called for a joint European naval intervention.

Anne Steffensen, chief executive of the Danish Shipping trade group, said foreign powers must work with coastal states to address the root causes of piracy. But “what we want is [also] have an international coalition of the willing. . .[to]securing the kind of free and safe passage of ships “with warships,” she said.

While shippers may wish for a response similar to the one that crushed the pirates who thrived off the Somali coast ten years ago, unlike Somalia, Nigeria is not a failed state and it is unlikely. that it allows foreign navies to enter its waters. The Gulf of Guinea is a regional shipping route and does not attract as much international attention as the Indian Ocean route which passes through Somalia and accounts for 40% of international trade and a large part of the global oil industry. .

Piracy was not criminalized in Nigeria until 2019, and many observers say there must be official sanction – whether from local officials or the security forces – given the logistics involved in making it happen. unload prisoners in the delta and keep them fed and sheltered for weeks. “You hang on to six Filipinos somewhere in the Niger Delta – how do you keep that a secret?” said a maritime consultant who did not wish to be named.

“Nigeria itself is a fairly serious international player [and] sees itself as the jewel in the African crown and ultimately fails in its international responsibility and in many ways willfully, ”said Anderson. “This is the first time in the world that we have seen piracy develop from a fully developed state.”

But Dakuku Peterside, former head of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, said even the Navy struggled to navigate the labyrinthine creeks of the delta: “It’s very difficult to operate there and it is. often interpreted to mean that there is a compromise on the side of military forces. ”

Every year, the United States and other Western powers hold a Gulf Naval Warfare Games training exercise, which focuses in part on piracy. But most of the region’s navies are woefully underfunded, and even Nigeria’s – by far the most capable – is under-resourced.

Abuja recently announced $ 195 million in funding for new navy ships, drones and helicopters. In January, the EU launched pilot security program in the Gulf of Guinea was aimed at stepping up European engagement and regional coordination, but the EU effort was not sufficiently developed with African states, said Ian Ralby, a maritime lawyer who has long worked on piracy.

Basically, the problem may be one of poverty in the delta, where falling oil prices have sent some of those who survived the sale of stolen crude back to sea. Pirate crews are often made up of former pipeline saboteurs, said Joe Ekiye, deputy program director for Port Harcourt-based NGO Stakeholder Democracy Nigeria. A presidential amnesty program for these saboteurs has largely benefited militant leaders, not their supporters. “It is a purely economic question,” he said.

Nigerian pirates have so far focused on kidnapping crew members rather than ships. Although the ransoms are lower, they are easier to manage than ships. Hostages are often held for weeks in swampy mangrove forests and moved from camp to camp, while envoys demand ransoms and companies pull stacks of US dollars from local banks and liaise with the military to know how to release their employees.

A shipping official who spent years in Nigeria and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to free a kidnapped crew said the experience could be heartbreaking. But pirates have a vested interest in keeping the hostages alive and fed. “They [come out] Bit of sodomy, “said the executive,” but mentally and actually physically, they were in pretty good nicknames.

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