Thursday, 29 September 2011

West African pirates- following Somali footsteps?

The UN Security Council this week voiced concern over increasing incidents of maritime piracy, armed robbery and reports of hostage-taking in the Gulf of Guinea, and called on the international community for help. The industry must be feeling a keen sense of déjà vu, also because pirates off the West coast of Africa seem to be copying the Somali pirates that had expanded operations from off their coast to waters much further afield. Recent developments indicate that Nigerian pirate gangs are similarly moving into the territorial waters of neighbouring countries in response to stricter Nigerian policing at home.

We had reported earlier that the coast of Benin had seen a marked escalation in pirate attacks this year as mainly Nigerian armed gangs raided ships to steal fuel, personal effects and stores. It is now reported by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) that attacks may be on the rise off Cameroon to the South, in part because the Nigerian military has unleashed a crackdown on gangs operating in its own waters. "We believe that this is happening because the Nigerian navy and coastguard has clamped down heavily on piracy in their waters, forcing the pirates to move elsewhere," says IMB’s Cyrus Mody. The Nigerian Joint Task Force is believed to have arrested thirty suspected pirates in the last month. There have been 19 pirate attacks off Benin this year, compared with none in 2010. Direct fallout: neighbouring Ghana says it is beefing up its own coastal security apparatus in response to spreading piracy.

Nonetheless, recent attacks on ships further afield- including at least one incident where the crew were held hostage- point to a worrisome trend in the Gulf of Guinea, an area rich in oil and a busy trading zone. The Cyprus-flagged Mattheus I was hijacked 60 nautical miles off the coast of Benin less than two weeks ago. The success of their brethren on Africa’s east coast is encouraging to these gangs, no doubt. "While Somalis are not coming to Nigeria with franchise kits, Nigerians do have smartphones and so can surf the Web and keep an eye on what the Somalis and other pirates are doing and incorporate inspired changes," Michael Frodl of U.S.-based consultancy C-LEVEL Maritime Risks told Reuters. "All this represents a growing menace to shipping off Nigeria, Benin, and other West African nations."

Insurers have already added Benin to their lists of high-risk areas, but analysts say that it is just a matter of time before the entire Gulf of Guinea region, rich in oil, minerals and other commodities, becomes widely perceived as an area hazardous to ships and crews in transit.

Many analysts see events in the Gulf of Guinea mirroring those in Somalia over time. Frodl says that pirates are moving offshore not just to avoid coastal patrols "but also to take advantage of ships letting down their guard in waters assumed to be safer. The attacks off Benin represent the same sort of pivot we saw from the Somalis when the more ambitious and capable pirates shunned the Gulf of Aden a couple of years ago for the Somali Basin," he said.

Most Gulf of Guinea pirates have not sought to hijack vessels so far, being apparently content with just loot and robbery. However, with unconfirmed reports suggesting that there have already been cases of West African pirates being paid small ransoms to release crews, the writing- as it was in Somalia for a long time- seems to be well and truly on the wall.

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