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Why Are Gulf of Guinea Pirates Shifting to Illegal Oil Bunkering?

Pirates on a boat
File image

Published Dec 4, 2022 9:30 PM by The Maritime Executive

One week after the UN Security Council (UNSC) noted the changing dynamics of piracy in Gulf of Guinea (GoG), a new report attempts to explore the factors behind the shift.

The report is prepared under the Critical Maritime Routes Programme, funded by EU and implemented by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

One of the report’s key finding is that although piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is on a downward trend in the past few years, illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism is at an all-time high. Interestingly, the researchers found several indications pointing to the link between the two trends.

“Field research in the Niger Delta shows that high-level actors controlling pirate groups and oil bunkering may have reached consensus to stop allowing deep offshore piracy. A key factor remains that oil bunkering, when compared to deep offshore piracy, entails less risk and significantly higher reward or profit,” notes the report.

Additionally, the heavy presence of international and regional navies in the Gulf of Guinea has made piracy a risky business. Since 2021, there has been a pattern of failed attacks, and it has become increasingly difficult for pirate groups to kidnap seafarers from vessels deep offshore.

This influences the kidnap-for-ransom business model as the pirate groups return not just empty handed, but also indebted to the sponsor who paid for the fuel, bribery money and other expenses encountered in case of an unsuccessful mission.

At the end of the day, illegal oil bunkering is a multi-billion-dollar industry, while piracy and kidnap for ransom did not exceed more than a total of approximately $4 million in 2021.

Since the financial incentives are more favorable, members of pirate groups are now involved in the value chain of oil bunkering. According to one interviewee, this could explain the significant drop in pirate activities in the GoG.

In one case example, an illegal oil refining “camp” owned by a militant and member of a pirate group employs 300 “boys” today. According to the camp owner, nothing can stop them from operating the camp unless they are offered an “amnesty-like package” that will involve a monthly payment from Nigeria’s federal government.

In July 2022, Nigeria slipped behind Angola as Africa’s largest oil exporter. Some analysts blame industrial-scale oil theft as the reason behind the drop. Further, Nigeria’s crude oil production decreased to an average of 940,000 barrels per day in September 2022 – a level not seen since the 1980s.