A new spate of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast have seen warnings issued by shipping interests, analysts and insurance clubs. Heavily armed gangs, believed to be Nigerian, are boarding tankers with impunity off the coast of Benin, hijacking ships for up to four days as they loot personal belongings and stores- and, most importantly fuel, which is pumped out into smaller tankers and then sold in the thriving black market. Although no ship has been held for ransom so far, analysts fear that Somali style piracy may be a strong possibility in the future if this menace is left unchecked. Crewmembers are often beaten. One was reported missing in May after an attack; his body was found later.
Additional pirate activity seems to be focused on the coast of Benin, a small country that is Nigeria's neighbour. A dozen attacks have been reported off Benin since March. Although pirate attacks on ships and oil interests in the Niger Delta and off the Nigerian coast are nothing new, the surge in attacks in the last few months has the industry worried also because the numbers of similar incidents off Nigeria- notorious for underreporting pirate attacks- have remained unchanged, clearly indicating an escalation in piracy.
There have been fifteen incidents reported off Benin already this year; last year there were none. Maritime security agencies say that the gangs involved are almost certainly Nigerian, and they seem to be better organised than ever before. Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer where some high profile citizens have been earlier accused of involvement in the black market for oil.
"It's almost certainly Nigerian pirates that are responsible for the attacks," said Peter Sharwood-Smith of the consultancy firm Drum Cussac. "This is piracy on a fairly organised scale, where they're targeting oil tankers and the like and they're stealing the fuel."
Norwegian firm Bergen Risk Solutions agreed with this view in an independent finding. "Our investigations indicate that the organised group responsible is based in Nigeria and has high-level patronage in that country," it said, adding that pirates seem to have tied up with local criminals in Benin and are increasingly involved in robberies as well as the huge theft of oil and fuel. Michael Howlett of the International Maritime Bureau says that the pirates are well organised, "because you have to have the system in place to receive this (hijacked) tanker." Crews of hijacked tankers are beaten and forced to sail to nearby locations where oil from their ship is pumped out to smaller tankers controlled by the pirates. Bergen Risk says the stolen cargo has been sold in "several West African ports, possibly including Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire and Port Gentil in Gabon."
Somali piracy expanded from domestic waters to infest huge chunks of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and parts of the Red Sea. Piracy off Africa's opposite coastline seems to be following a similar pattern as gangs expand their area of operations, following tankers who moved away from dangerous waters off Lagos to transfer oil elsewhere. No doubt, these gangs have learnt from Somali pirate tactics. The ineffective global response to Somali piracy will continue to encourage other criminals unless the international community does something substantial to ensure that crews and ships are not perceived as soft targets any longer.