Hijacking Shows Growing Piracy Risk Off Nigeria

File image courtesy Joint Military Task Force

Published Feb 23, 2016 9:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, Nigerian authorities reported the arrest of six suspected pirates and gave new details on the recovery of the product tanker Maximus (ex name SP Brussels), highlighting the growing risk of piracy in the region.

Rear Admiral Henry Babalola said that the suspects' apprehension followed an intense firefight that killed another alleged pirate. “The hijackers . . . refused to surrender . . . and opened fire on the security agents. It was at that point the deceased pirate was gunned down because he came out of the ship to confront the boarding party.”

On February 21, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj announced that ten Indian crewmembers of the Maximus were rescued by Nigerian forces. Unfortunately, two pirates got away with two crew member hostages, one Indian and one Pakistani, Babalola said.

Adm. Babalola thanked naval forces of neighboring nations for their cooperation.

The incident of the Maximus corresponds closely with the predictions of global risk advisory firm PGI Intelligence, which released a memo Tuesday warning that hijackings – with intent to kidnap – are set to rise in the Gulf of Guinea.

PGI cites Nigerian corruption, political change and insurgent groups as risk factors for piracy in the region.

“PGI recorded four attacks on ships at sea that involved successful kidnappings in January, compared to one per month from October to December 2015,” with no significant oil cargo thefts, suggesting that pirates are moving away from their historical pattern – and may begin targeting a wider variety of vessels as they prey on crew instead of crude oil cargoes.

Since his election last year, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has prioritized the destruction of illegal oil refineries in the Niger Delta, with some success – limiting the market for stolen oil cargoes and de-incentivising crude theft, PGI said.

Additionally, shoreside insurgency in the Niger Delta is on the rise, with multiple pipeline attacks in recent months. The unrest may be in response to government initiatives. Buhari intends to halve the payments made to Niger Delta militants under a 2009 amnesty agreement, with the intention of ending disbursement by 2017, and has not renewed many security and surveillance contract programs employing former militants – increasing the incentive to engage in piracy as a source of funds.

Further, piracy might be enabled by government officials, PGI says. Pirates have attacked vesels as far as 100 nm off the coast, indicating planning and targeting skill – and perhaps assistance in locating the ships from maritime officials, some of whom face charges. “Since the beginning of the year, several officials from the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) have been arrested on corruption charges, including the organisation’s former director general Patrick Akpobolokemi, highlighting the extent of high-level corruption within the organisation,” PGI said.

Overall, given the financial prospects of ransom payments and the ability of pirates to reach far off the coast, PGI sees a poor outlook for shipping security in the Gulf of Guinea for the next six months. “The ongoing fall in revenue to militant gangs from oil theft and amnesty payments will continue to incentivise criminal activity at sea, resulting in a steady increase in kidnappings of the crew of commercial vessels,” the firm concluded.