Pirate attacks off the coast of West Africa have increased sharply, figures show, raising fears that the region could emulate Somalia as a menace to shipping.
Nigeria and Benin have reported 22 piracy incidents so far this year, including two in recent days, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said. Benin did not suffer any such attacks last year.
“I believe we are nearly at a crisis here and if it’s a crisis, there has to be action,” Rear Admiral Kenneth Norton of the US Naval Forces Europe-Africa said.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, which stretches along the coasts of a dozen countries from Guinea to Angola, has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings, cargo thefts and large-scale robberies over the past eight months, according to the Denmark-based security firm Risk Intelligence.
Nigeria, Benin and nearby waters were this month listed in the same risk category as Somalia by Lloyd’s insurers in London.
Neil Smith, Lloyd’s head of underwriting, said: “It’s always been a concern for the shipping industry. The model that’s taken root in Somalia might spread to other areas.”
Pirates pose a threat to commercial shipping coming into Lagos’ busy Apapa Port and the thriving used-car market based in Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou.
Benin collects 40 percent of government receipts from port activities each year.
“Dozens of ships are already fleeing our shores due to fears of these pirates,” said Maxime Ahoyo, Benin’s navy chief of staff.
While lower than the 163 attacks attributed to Somali pirates in the first half of this year, analysts say the number of attacks off Nigeria is underreported because some ships carry illegal oil cargo and others fear their insurance rates will rise.
“It’s definitely more than we are showing in ours stats. We are calling for vessels to report more when incidents happen. This is the only way for a realistic picture of the crisis,” said Cyrus Moody, a manager at the IMB.
West African pirates may have been encouraged by the impact of their Somali counterparts, but there also important differences, analysts say. Their focus tends to be on robbery rather than seizing vessels.
Those from Nigeria have also been more willing to use violence, beating crewmembers with rifle butts and electric cables and shooting and stabbing those who get in the way. At least two fatalities are known to have occurred. In some cases, crewmembers are taken ashore and held for ransom.
Pirates from Benin have tended to steal oil cargo and then release the ship.
“The recent incidents off Benin have been very different from Somalia. They do not hijack the entire vessel as the Somalis do. The incidents are more hit-and-run and robberies,” Moody said. “We don’t believe the Somali model is being copied. Lawlessness and lack of government in Somalia allows pirates to keep vessels on the coast for months on end. We hope that won’t be possible in West African countries or anywhere else.”
Officials from Nigeria’s navy, its maritime industry and other groups met US officials this week to discuss issues including anti-piracy strategies.
The US and other Western nations have an anti-piracy armada patrolling the waters off East Africa, but there is no West African counterpart, leaving Nigeria and its neighbors to stop the growing attacks on their own.
Experts believe many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive. Antony Goldman, a West Africa analyst at London-based PM Consulting, said the illegal sale of oil had created “a culture of lawlessness” in the coastal zone.