Incidents of maritime piracy across the globe have decreased in recent years.[1] Yet a spate of attacks off the West African coast centered around the Gulf of Guinea[2] has drawn renewed attention from governments and shipping companies. According to the industry magazine Maritime Executive, pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea increased by 33% in 2013.[3] At the current growth rate, the number of attacks will be even higher for 2014.

This article reviews recent incidents of maritime piracy in West Africa, looks at some of the groups involved and their tactics, and finally details efforts to combat this trend. It finds that a key difference between piracy off the coast of Somalia and piracy in West Africa is that Somali pirates target ships as part of kidnap-for-ransom schemes, whereas in West Africa pirates primarily hijack ships[4] to siphon off crude petroleum to sell on the local black market.[5] This presents both problems and solutions to governments and other interested parties. Since pirates and hijackers in West Africa operate in national, rather than international, waters, the security responsibility shifts to national navy and police forces. Yet nine countries[6] share waters along the Gulf of Guinea, corruption in these states is endemic, and pirates often conduct attacks in one state’s territorial waters only to flee to another state’s jurisdiction. Moreover, maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Guinea are often not properly delineated, hindering cooperation between governments and their navies.[7]

A Spate of Recent Attacks
The year 2013 marked a significant drop in international piracy due to the falloff in Somali-related attacks on Africa’s east coast,[8] but the slack has been taken up on the other side of the continent. In early January 2014, 55 miles off the coast of Gabon, five pirates boarded a liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier only to be frightened off when the crew raised the alarm and blew the ship’s horn.[9] Also in January, the Greek-owned MT Kerala vanished in Angolan waters south of the Gulf of Guinea before reappearing further north in Nigerian waters about 57 miles southwest of a Nigerian oil terminal[10] and missing almost 13,000 tons of its diesel cargo.[11] To facilitate the theft, the pirates allegedly disabled the Kerala’s identifications system and communications equipment and used paint to conceal its identifying markers.[12]

Experts say pirates near the Gulf of Guinea primarily hijack vessels to siphon off the crude oil on-board; however, serious threats to human life are emerging.[13] On December 17, 2013, a Ukrainian captain and Greek engineer were abducted from their oil-carrying ship off the Nigerian coast.[14] Nigerian pirates released the two men three weeks later after an unknown ransom amount is believed to have been paid.[15] In March 2014, a top UK-based maritime intelligence organization announced a special advisory warning for crew kidnapping in the Gulf of Guinea following 10 attacks since December 2013 alone.[16] In August 2012, Togolese security forces traded gunfire with pirates who had hijacked a Greek oil tanker.[17] More recent activity suggests piracy is expanding further south to Angola’s coast in the southern Atlantic Ocean.[18] Angolan waters lie almost 1,000 miles from the regional piracy epicenter in Nigeria, with Angola the second largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa behind Nigeria.[19]

Eleven of the 40 global incidents of piracy, boarding, hijacking and armed robbery aboard ships recorded by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center thus far in 2014 were in the Gulf of Guinea.[20] According to the IMB, West African pirate attacks comprised 19% of all piracy in 2013. Although many attacks go unreported and figures accordingly vary, that figure was 10% in 2010, 14% in 2011 and 19% in 2012.[21] As explained by Maritime Executive, “International navies are not actively engaged in counter-piracy missions in the region, unlike in the waters off Somalia, the piracy hotspot on the other side of the continent.”[22]

Responsibility for Attacks
Nigerian piracy makes up the majority of attacks on vessels in West Africa.[23] The Nigerian navy estimates that up to 200,000 barrels of crude oil—valued at around $200 billion annually—are lost daily to thieves and pirates.[24] Although piracy involving the theft of oil dominates maritime attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, a rise in maritime-related kidnappings occurred in late 2013 and early 2014. Approximately 12 ships were hijacked and 20 crew members kidnapped in Nigerian waters alone during the first 10 weeks of 2014, with the kidnapping incidents generally occurring between 12 and 50 nautical miles from land.[25]

There is a history of paying ransoms for the release of kidnapped energy company personnel in the Gulf of Guinea and, specifically, in Nigeria.[26] The most notorious group responsible for kidnap-for-ransom operations in Nigeria is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND, which was formed in 2005-2006, draws its roots from the 1990s, when Niger Delta politicians funded and armed university youths to coerce political opponents.[27] All of the militant groups in the Niger Delta claim that they commit acts of theft and violence to seek economic justice, as the region is one of the richest in Africa in terms of resource wealth but remains one of the most underdeveloped and polluted.[28]

MEND is not considered a unified organization; instead, it is recognized as a messy coalition of splinter groups and factions.[29] A 2009 government amnesty resulted in many Niger Delta militants laying down their arms,[30] yet recently alleged members of MEND have resumed attacks.[31] In January 2014, elements within the group claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nigerian tug boat and the abduction of two Agip Oil Company employees.[32] “At the right time, we will reduce Nigerian oil production to zero by 2015 and drive off our land, all thieving oil companies,” threatened Jomo Gbomo, a MEND spokesman, in January 2014.[33] MEND also claimed the kidnapping of two American sailors off the Nigerian coast in October 2013.[34] The Americans were later released, allegedly in exchange for a ransom.[35]

Nigerian government elements are also thought to be involved in the illicit movement of oil. Nigerian gang members suspected of piracy in the gulf and arrested in late 2012 claimed a network of government workers gave information on the location and content of vessels in the Gulf. In the gang commander’s confession to Nigerian authorities, he stated, “Once we complete the assignment, we would inform the pointsmen who thereafter, contact the cabal that takes charge of the hijacked vessels. We usually meet at a designated point on the high sea, from where they would offload the contents from the hijacked vessels and thereafter, deposit them in various oil facilities for distribution by oil marketers. We are not directly involved in the sale of the product. We only assist to convey the product to the designated point by acting as escorts in case of any confrontation. My gang has about 3,000 various weapons which are kept in different parts of the country.”[36] The commander claimed that he made 10 million naira ($62,000) on his last operation.[37]

Moreover, the line between piracy and conventional criminality is becoming increasingly blurred in Nigeria, resulting in the “cross-pollination” of the country’s naval and police forces’ remits.[38] The Gulf of Guinea is almost as big as the Gulf of Mexico,[39] and policing the waters has proved difficult.

Pirate attacks are spreading out from Nigerian waters. The Economist apportioned responsibility for the January 2014 attack on the MT Kerala in Angolan waters to Nigerian pirates, as “the pirates forced the vast vessel to sail hundreds of miles up the coast before offloading much of its cargo close to the Niger Delta.”[40] The increase of naval and police patrols in Nigerian waters, albeit patchy and riven with corruption, has led to a knock-on effect in neighboring countries’ territorial waters. In Ghana, the MT Mustard was intercepted by a naval vessel in August 2013 after having been used to siphon 3,500 tons of stolen crude oil from the tanker vessel Cotton in neighboring Gabonese waters.[41] The pirate vessel siphoned the fuel in Gabonese territory before it “sailed into Ghanaian waters, first docking at the eastern port of Tema before heading for an offshore oil facility off the town of Saltpond,” suggesting Ghanaian elements were involved in the robbery.[42]

In Cameroon, a group known as Africa Marine Commando has conducted a number of attacks,[43] while in September 2013 a Cameroonian newspaper claimed a pirate was killed by government forces following a raid there.[44]

Victims of pirate attacks in Benin in 2012 reported assailants speaking English and French, suggesting that they were from the Benin-Nigeria border region.[45] With Nigerian waters under increasing surveillance from the combined naval forces of Benin and Nigeria, local knowledge of Benin’s coast next door has become a valuable commodity for Nigerian pirates, suggesting piracy in Benin may grow. “The shared history, culture and language of Yoruba communities on both sides of the border encourage such collaboration,” explained a 2012 International Crisis Group report.[46]

Strategy, Tactics and Corruption
Pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea appear to employ similar tactics. According to Noel Choong, the head of the IMB’s piracy reports division, pirates typically hijack ships for five or six days, ransack the vessels, steal the cargo, and leave the sailors.[47] Hijacked tankers are often taken back to Nigerian waters, where the oil is siphoned off and the crews are freed.[48]

Nigeria’s geography makes for easy flight. Pirates conceal boats and stolen commodities in the thousands of inlets, rivers and mangroves that comprise Nigeria’s coast. Crude oil is unloaded to criminal partners and resold on the local market through government and non-government facilitators. “These vessels are attacked because there is a booming black market for fuel in West Africa,” read a report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2013. “Without this ready market, there would be little point in attacking these vessels.”[49]

Both low- and high-level corruption facilitate and encourage pirate-related activity in the Gulf of Guinea.[50]  Nigeria and Cameroon jointly languish at 144 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.[51]  Cote D’Ivoire sits at 136, while Togo is close behind at 123.[52]

Government officials hold discretionary powers in many of Nigeria’s major ports.[53] A Nigerian corruption commission report co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Program recently found that “corruption is reported to be a legitimate and accepted tool to promote business interests. Gifts are accepted as normal and expected even in the port agencies.”[54]

In one of the worst cases of corruption, admirals of the Nigerian navy, Francis Agbiti and Samuel Kolawole, were charged with involvement in the illicit bunkering of 11,000 tons of crude oil to an awaiting Russian-crewed vessel in 2003.[55] The two officers were sacked and demoted for their role in the theft.[56]

According to maritime security specialist James Bridger, in the early 2000s “the basic grievance [among militants] was that the federal government in Abuja [Nigeria] had taken too great a share of Nigeria’s petroleum wealth, while distributing little back to the oil-soaked communities of the Niger Delta. A plethora of militant groups emerged to ‘reddress’ the oil issue during this period.”[57] This allows criminals to profit under the guise of economic justice—although clearly genuine grievances exist in the delta.

Efforts to Combat Piracy
There have been efforts to combat piracy in the region. In 2012, the Togolese army agreed to hire private security companies to guard anchored vessels at the port of Lome,[58] while Nigeria installed anti-piracy surveillance towers along its coast in December 2013.[59] In February 2014, Cote D’Ivoire announced it would expand its navy by 40 vessels to help combat piracy within its waters.[60]

Regionally, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) launched a coordination center in 2009 to pool money financed by maritime taxes to combat piracy in the gulf.[61] In September 2011, neighbors Nigeria and Benin launched “Operation Prosperity” in an attempt to curb piracy, which is ongoing.[62] In an attempt to coordinate a response to attacks, an anti-piracy code was adopted by 22 West African countries in June 2013.[63]

On the international level, the U.S. Navy has donated boats and carried out training in Nigeria,[64] while the U.S. Congress passed a bill on January 7, 2014, “encouraging increased cooperation between the United States and West and Central African countries to fight armed robbery at sea.”[65]   These measures follow the U.S. Africa Command’s ongoing efforts to train national naval forces in the region and to “promote relationships between nations to combat these illicit activities.”[66]

The UN Security Council in 2011 passed a resolution condemning threats of piracy and armed robbery in the gulf,[67] and Japan contributed $1 million to an International Maritime Organization West and Central Africa Maritime Security Trust Fund to curb piracy in the gulf in March 2014.[68]

Onboard armed security details proved important in dissuading pirates from attacking vessels in the international waters off Somalia and East Africa in recent years. In the Gulf of Guinea context, however, only armed guards from or employed by the national forces of the state in whose territorial waters a vessel is in may operate on ships.[69] As the majority of attacks in West Africa take place in territorial waters of countries with standing governments and navies—which is in contrast to the international waters off Somalia patrolled by pirates—coordination can be difficult. This is especially true when some of the countries in West Africa deny that incidents of piracy have even taken place.[70]

Piracy and armed attacks are not new ventures in West Africa, but growing export volumes out of the region destined for Europe and China, among other states, mean piracy will grow as a critical issue for regional governments and international energy organizations. Nigeria and Angola are Africa’s top crude oil exporters respectively, with the latter an important supplier of crude oil to China, the United States and the European Union.[71] Of the nine Gulf of Guinea countries, eight export metals and oil to American and European markets.[72] Nigeria became Africa’s biggest economy in April 2014, exporting almost $100 billion worth of crude petroleum in 2011.[73] In 2011, 24% of all Nigerian exports went to the United States, valued at $30 billion—although this number has fallen significantly in 2012 and 2013.[74]

With a number of governments holding territorial control of the Gulf of Guinea—some of which suffer from high levels of corruption—pirates and criminal enterprises are able to hijack ships and siphon off oil with little deterrence. Unlike the waters off the Horn of Africa in the east, powerful international navies are not patrolling the Gulf of Guinea. The states in the Gulf of Guinea have their own national navies—which are generally weak—and the waters do not lie along major international shipping lanes.

A chief cause of piracy in West Africa is the vibrant black market for crude oil in Gulf of Guinea states. As such, with these structural impediments a symptom of a much greater illness, piracy in the Gulf is likely to continue despite qualified efforts at the regional level to reduce it.

Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lives in Turkey.

[1] Rick Gladstone, “Global Piracy Hits Lowest Level Since 2007, Report Says,” New York Times, January 15, 2014.

[2] “The Rise and Rise of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea,” Think Africa Press, July 18, 2013.

[3]  “Suspected Pirate Attack on Tanker Off Angola,” Maritime Executive, January 22, 2014.

[4]  Offshore rigs in the Gulf are generally not targeted.

[5]  Keith Johnson, “Oil Pirates and the Mystery Ship,” Foreign Policy, January 29, 2014.

[6]  The Gulf of Guinea is not territorially defined, although it generally includes: Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

[7]  Daniel J. Dzurek, “Gulf of Guinea Boundary Disputes,” IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, Spring 1999, pp. 98-104. It is important to note that attacks occurring in national waters are categorized as armed robbery and not piracy. Piracy only occurs in international waters.

[8]  “Drop in Sea Piracy Helped by Big Somali Improvement, Watchdog Says,” BBC, January 15, 2014. The Somali decrease has been attributed to the presence of armed guards on ships, increased international naval presence and action taken by the Somali government.

[9]  “First Pirate Boarding for 2014,” Maritime Executive, January 4, 2014.

[10]  “Navy Intercepts Hijacked Greek Ship MT Kerala, in Nigeria,” Vessel Finder, February 4, 2014.

[11] “Oil Soaked Pirates in Gulf of Guinea,” Maritime Executive, March 15, 2014.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Personal interview, Chris Trelawny, head of maritime security at the International Maritime Organization, March 24, 2014.

[14]  “Pirates Abduct Greek, Ukrainian from Ship Off Nigeria,” Reuters, December 17, 2013.

[15]  “Master and Chief Engineer of m/t Althea Released, Nigeria,” Maritime Bulletin, January 7, 2014.

[16]  “Dryad Maritime Warns of Surge in Gulf of Guinea Kidnap Incidents,” Dryad Maritime, March 7, 2014.

[17]  Chandrika Narayan, “Pirates Hijack Greek-Operated Tanker Off Togo Coast,” CNN, August 28, 2012.

[18]  “Oil Soaked Pirates in Gulf of Guinea.”

[19]  “Angola,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, February 5, 2014.

[20]  See, for example, the IMB Piracy & Armed Robbery Map 2014 from ICC Commercial Crime Services, available at

[21] “Somali Pirate Clampdown Caused Drop in Global Piracy, IMB Reveals,” ICC Commercial Crime Services, January 15, 2014.

[22]  “Oil Soaked Pirates in Gulf of Guinea.”

[23]  Mark Doyle, “Nigeria’s Piracy – Another Form of Oil Theft,” BBC, June 18, 2013.

[24] “No Crude Oil Theft,” Nigerian Navy, available at

[25] “Kidnapping Resurgent in Gulf of Guinea Piracy,” KRMagazine, March 20, 2014.

[26]  Josh Margolin, “US Sailors Held Hostage Off Nigeria Freed,” ABC News, November 12, 2013.

[27]  Caroline Duffield, “Who are Nigeria’s Mend Oil Militants?” BBC, October 4, 2010.

[28]  The Niger Delta has one of the highest population densities in the world and is one of Nigeria’s most underdeveloped regions. Also see “Oil Industry Has Brought Poverty and Pollution to Niger Delta,” Amnesty International, June 30, 2009.

[29]  Stephanie Hanson, “MEND: The Niger Delta’s Umbrella Militant Group,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 22, 2007.

[30] “Nigeria: Government Amnesty Program for Niger Delta Militants, Particularly with Respect to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND),” Refworld, August 5, 2011.

[31]  See, for example, Elisha Bala-Gbogbo, “Nigeria’s  MEND Rebels Threaten Future Attack on Oil Industry,” Bloomberg, January 27,  2014.

[32] Osa Okhomina, “We’re Responsible for Agip Tug Boat Attack, Kidnapping of Engineer, Captain – MEND,” Leadership, January 28, 2014.

[33]   Bala-Gbogbo.

[34] “MEND Claims Responsibility for Kidnap of U.S.  Sailors,” This Day Live, November 18, 2013.

[35]  Ibid.

[36] Bless Nube’s confessional statement cited in Evelyn Usman, “Top Government Officials, Politicians Contracted Up – Sea Pirates,” Vanguard, December 12, 2012.

[37]  Ibid.

[38] Christos Kyrou and Kaade Wallace, “The Gulf of Guinea: Maritime Piracy’s New Global Nerve Center,” Fair Observer, March 3, 2014.

[39] David Arnold, “Shippers Raise Alarm Over Oil Piracy in Gulf of Guinea,” Voice of America, October 14, 2013.

[40] “Angola in their Sights,” Economist, February 6, 2014. Cyrus Mody, assistant director of the ICC International Maritime Bureau, supported this claim in: David Kashi, “Nigerian Pirates Likely Hijacked Oil Tanker off Angola’s Coast, Expert Says,” International Business Times, January 24, 2014.

[41] “Ghana’s Navy Intercepts Suspected Pirate Ship and Arrests Crew,” Reuters, August 2, 2013.

[42]  Ibid.

[43] For more details, see the listing for the Africa Marine Commando in the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland’s START.

[44]  Interestingly, the pirate had possible familial ties to a leader in the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. There are not thought to be operational links between these pirates and Boko Haram. See Yerima Kini Nsom and Nformi Sonde Kinsai, “Pirates Kill 7 in Bakassi Again,” Cameroon Mirror, September 5, 2013.

[45]  “Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, undated.

[46]  “The Gulf of Guinea: The New Danger Zone,” International Crisis Group, December 2012.

[47] Quoted in Jon Gambrell, “Pirates Kidnap 24 in Gunfight Off Togo Coast,” Independent, August 28, 2012; Joe Bavier, “French Tanker Believed Held by Pirates Off Ivory Coast,” Reuters, February 6, 2014.

[48] Harry Alsop, “Oil Tanker Near Ivory Coast Hijacked by Pirates,” Daily Telegraph, February 4, 2014.

[49]  “Maritime Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.”

[50]  Personal interview, Chris Trelawny, head of maritime security at the International Maritime Organization, March 24, 2014. For a confession of a Nigerian pirate, see “Oil Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea,” Conflict Trends 4 (2012).

[51] “Corruption Perceptions Index 2013,” Transparency International, undated.

[52] Ibid.

[53]  “ICPC Study Unravels Cause of Corruption at Nigerian Ports,” Marine and Petroleum Nigeria, undated.

[54]  “Corruption Thrives in Ports, Says ICPC,” Nigeria Intel, December 10, 2013.

[55] “NIGERIA: Conviction of Admirals Confirms Navy Role in Oil Theft,” Integrated Regional Information Networks, January 6, 2005.

[56]  Ibid.

[57]  James Bridger, “Piracy in West Africa: Preventing a Somalization of the Gulf of Guinea, Pt.1,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 12, 2012.

[58] “Togo Implements New Anti-Piracy Measures,” Gard, July 4, 2012.

[59]  Edd Gent, “Anti-Piracy Surveillance Towers Installed in Nigeria,” Engineering and Technology Magazine, December 20, 2013.

[60] David Pugliese, “Ivory Coast to Expand Navy by 40 Ships To Fight Piracy,” Ottawa Citizen, February 9, 2014.

[61]  “The Gulf of Guinea: The New Danger Zone.”

[62]   Ibid.

[63]  “New West and Central Africa Piracy and Maritime Law Enforcement Code Adopted,” Maritime Executive, June 26, 2013.

[64]  “The Gulf of Guinea: The New Danger Zone.”

[65]  The bill is available at

[66]  Captain Dave Rollo quoted in Donna Miles, “Africa Command Helps Partners Promote Maritime Security,” American Forces Press Service, October 28, 2013.

[67]  United Nations Security Council Resolution 2018, October 31, 2011.

[68]  “Japan Gives One Million Dollar Boost to Gulf of Guinea Fund,” International Maritime Organization, March 17, 2014.

[69] Anna Petrig, “The Use of Force and Firearms by Private Maritime Security Companies Against Suspected Pirates,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 62:3 (2013).

[70] “Angola Navy Says Missing Tanker Located, Crew Faked Pirate Attack,” Reuters, January 26, 2014.

[71]  “Angola.”

[72]  For more details, see the Observatory of Economic Complexity, MIT Media Lab Macro Connections, available at

[73]  “Profile Nigeria,” the Observatory of Economic Complexity, MIT Media Lab Macro Connections, available at

[74]  Ibid.

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