PUNCH Reports A recent report has refocused attention on the debilitating effects of piracy on Nigeria’s coastal waters and the economy and the need for stronger official response. In reaction to alarming data by the International Maritime Bureau showing that the Gulf of Guinea accounts for over 90 per cent of global piracy and sea-based kidnapping, the Chinese authorities, leading other foreign nations, have suggested extra security protocols to protect their maritime trade with Nigeria and other sub-regional partners. The Federal Government needs to take extraordinary measures to secure its coastal waters through which 90 per cent of its international trade is conducted.
Preoccupied with the unprecedented level of insecurity — terrorism, banditry, kidnapping and armed robbery — across the country, the government appears to be paying less than required attention to coastal piracy. It should pay attention. Despite inefficiencies and poor infrastructure, the Nigerian Ports Authority said the maritime sector had 10,000 direct new jobs in 2017. It is through the coasts also that crude oil and gas that provide 90 per cent of export earnings are evacuated and the gateway for most imported goods.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has spiked, keeping away cargoes and adding greatly to the costs of trading with Nigeria. Insurers are said to charge thrice the going rates on Gulf-bound cargoes. The gulf encompasses 13 countries in West and Central Africa. Nigeria accounts for about 850 kilometres of its coastline, 12 nautical miles of territorial waters; it has 24 nautical miles of contiguous zone, 200 miles of Exclusive Economic Zone and over 4,000 km of inland waterways.
A report by The PUNCH details how the oil and gas exports and other trade have come under severe threat from local and international piracy and kidnapping gangs. Oil production vessels, tankers, container ships and coastal barges have been attacked and crews held hostage for ransom. Of the 132 piracy attacks globally in the first nine months of 2020, most were in the Gulf of Guinea, as were 80 of the 85 seafarers kidnapped. The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents estimates resulting losses at N1.9 trillion this year. The United Nations said piracy in the gulf had become more violent and cost $2 billion in annual losses. The International Maritime Bureau ranked Nigeria as the biggest victim of piracy in 2018 with 21 attacks out of the 77 reported worldwide; 73 per cent of kidnappings and 92 per cent of the hostages held occurred in the Gulf of Guinea. There were just three off Somalia, once the global hub of piracy. Identified hotspots include Apapa, Bayelsa, Brass, Bonny Island and Port Harcourt.
Ominously, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said piracy has moved inland as local criminals attack barges on the creeks to steal crude in coordination with gangs operating at sea. Passengers and their goods too are coming under attack on inland waterways. Robbers and kidnappers attack ships and boats while in the ports, said Reuters, with increased brigandage in the Niger Delta region.
The economy is haemorrhaging and the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), needs to give piracy as much attention as the criminality in the hinterland. The Economist brands our coasts as the “’centre-point’ of contemporary sea piracy,” with Nigeria hosting the largest share of piratical operations. Shipping, said the Maritime Industry Foundation, “is the lifeblood of the global economy,” carrying 90 per cent of world trade and generating over $500 billion in freight rates. In Nigeria, it generates about $6 billion annually, said the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, employs 100,000 persons directly and supports two million indirect jobs.
Safeguarding the waterways therefore needs fresh thinking and strategies. The task forces, naval operations and controversial security contracts have achieved limited success. In June 2019, Buhari assented to the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act in furtherance of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, a pact signed in 2013 by 25 West and Central African countries to address piracy, armed robbery against ships and illegal shipping. This should be vigorously enforced. The Nigerian Navy needs to be well-funded, manned and equipped with coastal vessels and smaller, manoeuvrable patrol boats that can operate in the labyrinthine creeks and inlets. The Navy, Police and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps should have highly trained special operations personnel. Increasingly, countries battling piracy, drug smuggling, human trafficking and arms smuggling rely on intelligence, affordable interdiction technology tools such as aerial and underwater drones, listening devices and one-man and two-person mini vessels to smash criminal gangs and networks. Groundwork should commence for a coastguard force to police the coastal and inland waters and free the Navy for its primary military duty of territorial defence and power projection. NIMASA should step up its plans to acquire additional surveillance airplanes helicopters and boats. As the UNODC says, piracy is simply illegal big business and should therefore be defeated by securing the land, tracking financial flows and stamping out corruption. At their height, Somali pirates were collectively making $30 million a year, it said.
A Cardiff University research identified corruption, weak law enforcement and poverty as aiding piracy in Nigeria and hindering efforts to stamp it out. The Navy, Customs and the NPA allegedly collude with pirates. A report said that “the dysfunctional oil industry and violent politics of the Niger Delta” also fuel piracy. Tackling it therefore requires stepping up the anti-corruption war, rigorous law enforcement, cleaning up state agencies, reforming the oil industry and securing a buy-in by the coastal communities in law enforcement. Unless locals take the lead, the federal security personnel will continue to record limited success. As the Chinese have indicated, the country needs to cobble together an international coalition similar to the one that stamped out piracy on the Somali coast. UNCTAD projects global maritime trade to plunge by 4.1 per cent this year but expects it rise by 4.8 per cent in 2021; Nigeria should quickly curtail piracy to benefit from that recovery curve.