The piracy targeting the coast of West Africa takes root in the oil-slicked creeks of Nigeria's southern delta, where militants steal millions of dollars of crude with the apparent help of security agencies, experts said Saturday.
While the attacks target ships throughout the Gulf of Guinea, now rated by London insurers as being just as dangerous as the waters off Somalia, the majority happen along Nigeria's coastline. Threats of piracy have also seen needed cargo shipments drop in the region and led to calls for potentially arming private security contractors to protect vessels, experts say.
"If governments are not going to step up to the plate, ... others are going to move in," said Alex Vines, the African research director for London-based Chatham House. "Private security providers are licking their lips in anticipation of coming in and making good money."
The Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent's southward curve from Liberia to Gabon, has seen an escalation in violent pirate attacks from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts. Last year, London-based Lloyd's Market Association — an umbrella group of insurers — listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.
Speaking Saturday at a conference on piracy hosted by Nigeria's Institute of International Affairs, experts largely blamed the escalation of attacks on Nigeria's militant groups in the Niger Delta. While a 2009 amnesty program saw many lay down their weapons, gangs now freely steal crude oil running through foreign companies' pipelines in the region. Those same gang members have the technical knowledge necessary to hijack and steal gasoline and oil from tankers in the region, said Freedom Onuoha, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research and Studies at Nigeria's National Defense College.
Those oil tanker hijackings have happened more and more in recent months, with pirates likely able to make as much as a $2 million profit for offloading 3,000 tons of fuel, Vines said. Meanwhile, shipping into Benin has dropped as much as 70 percent after insurance rates skyrocketed for the region, as other shippers have stopped reporting incidents out of fears of seeing their own premiums rise, he said.
Since the oil delta insurgency grew more violent in 2006, there's been a permanent military presence in the region. Despite that, the thefts have gotten worse, leading analysts and diplomats to say that senior military officials actively take part and profit in the oil thefts.
"Why are they not going after them?" Onuoha asked, though he declined to directly implicate the military as uniformed Nigerian naval officers sat in the conference.
Nigeria has launched more anti-piracy patrols and has detained some 40 vessels in recent months, said Vice Admiral Dele Ezeoba, the chief of staff for Nigeria's navy. He also brought up the idea of putting armed private security guards on vessels in the Gulf of Guinea as a solution to slow attacks. He left the conference without taking questions from journalists or the crowd.
For now, Western countries have increased their own patrols into Nigerian and West African waters. The U.S. has had several ships pass through the region in recent years to conduct training exercises for Nigeria's navy and special forces on anti-piracy operations. A French naval vessel had to help a hijacked ship last year. A British warship, the HMS Argyll, also just docked in Lagos as well as part of the anti-piracy push in the region that has becoming increasingly dangerous.
As Andrew Pocock, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, said: "We need to move from analysis to action."
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .