Even while the Togolese government was holding talks with US officials on anti-piracy measures, pirates escaped with a Greek-owned tanker laden with fuel together with 24 Russian hostages. The ship, the MV Energy Centurion, was subsequently released with its crew after three days but minus 3,100 tons of its gas oil cargo.
Is this the first evidence of Gulf of Guinea pirates adopting Somali tactics? No because kidnapping has been a regular feature of piracy in this region. It started with the abduction of oil workers from facilities both in and around the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta before spreading first to Cameroon to the east and now to ships off Benin and Togo to the west. The Nigerian Navy is too short of ships to be able to contain the problem adequately. Even though it has made substantial investments lately, the new vessels will take time to be delivered and the crews trained on their new equipment. With the exception of Ghana, further to the west, the other regional navies are lamentably under-resourced.
Pirate tactics also make their job harder: The gangs, which are all based in Nigeria, have good intelligence about ship locations and defenses. These hijacks are not random. They are able to board, take what valuables they want and leave quickly, if that is their intention, before navies can respond. During their time on board they can act with extreme violence. If oil theft is the objective then they have the connections to be able to position a receiving tanker within range into which a portion of the original load can be transferred and then quickly sold into local markets. As with the Energy Centurion the crew of the original tanker is generally released along with the vessel itself. The potential profit to be derived from crew ransoms would be of little consequence compared to the value of the oil which can greatly exceed the value of the ransoms achieved by Somali pirates. Dollar for dollar, Gulf of Guinea piracy is the most lucrative in the world.
The first recorded oil hijacking took place in December 2010, involving an Italian-registered tanker the Valle di Cordoba. However, pirate attacks are under-reported, according to the IMB by half and according to other sources by much more. The scale of oil theft and the income from fraud are also believed to considerably greater than official figures suggest.
Piracy in the region – as elsewhere – originates ashore and can only be solved ashore. It is pointless looking to the regional navies to solve the problem which has its origins in the political corruption in Nigeria that feeds off the nation’s oil wealth. Once it is realized that as much oil is stolen in Nigeria as is produced in Ghana then the scale of the problem become apparent. Multiple gangs are involved in oil theft – known as illegal bunkering – from pipelines on land. The number involved at sea is much less. However they, too, probably also have their origins in Niger Delta but have moved into the Lagos area and, quite possibly, established links with interests across the border in Benin where smuggled oil from Nigeria has claimed a major share of the country’s energy economy for decades.
The Nigerian government declared an amnesty for everyone involved in civil disturbances and oil theft in 2009. Mismanagement of the program means that it runs the risk of collapse. Significant numbers of those who surrendered are, despite what are acknowledged to be generous benefits, threatening to return to their old activities because the government has made few attempts to address the fundamental social and political issues that sparked the militancy in the first place.
It is hard to see how this can be accomplished given the corrupt links between regional and national politicians and the bunkering gangs. Too much money is involved. Nor is this demand in any way diminished by the disparity in oil price between Nigeria and its neighbors that give the gangs their profit.
Energy Centurion image source: shipspotting.com
Valle di Cordoba image source: vesseltracker.com