Combating piracy and oil theft in Nigeria

Piracy and oil theft in Nigeria

Combating piracy and oil theft in Nigeria

Royal Roads University, the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, and Maritime Forces Pacific will be holding the biennial Maritime Security Challenges conference in Victoria, B.C. from Oct. 1-3, 2012. One of the conference panel discussions will focus on security issues in the Gulf of Guinea. This article explores key maritime concerns in this region and discusses some of the political and economic factors that make improving security in the Gulf of Guinea such a challenge. More information on MSC 2012 can be accessed at

Much has been written about Somali piracy and its threat to the international shipping industry. However, there is also a growing piracy problem on the other side of the African continent, in the Gulf of Guinea. According to the International Maritime Organization, 2011 marked a peak year for pirate activity in the region, with 64 reported attacks, a 28 percent increase from 2010. The waters off Nigeria are particularly risky: Africa’s most populous country and top oil producer is home to a strong network of criminal organizations that have increasingly targeted ships carrying valuable cargo. In coming years, shipping traffic off the coast of Nigeria is projected to increase, as world demand for its oil grows. The risk of hijacking, however, could discourage international shipping vessels from approaching Nigeria’s ports.

Improving security in Nigerian waters will not be easy. It will require coordinated action among naval and coast guard fleets to fend off pirate attacks. It will also require taking action against land-based criminal groups, and the government corruption that allows them to thrive. In addition, a long term strategy against piracy and organized crime must include measures to address the extreme poverty and inequality that have driven Nigerians to pursue illicit activities. Piracy is a symptom of deeper economic, political and environmental problems, all of which need to be examined and rectified in order to put a permanent end to piracy and oil theft.

Theft at sea

The International Maritime Bureau has recorded 10 attempted hijackings off Nigeria in the first quarter of 2012, though the real number is likely much higher. The majority of the attacks occurred near the Niger Delta and targeted ships carrying oil. Unlike Somali pirate attacks, which have focused primarily on hostage-taking for ransom, Nigerian attacks have focused on stealing cargo. The pirates are usually equipped with automatic weapons, communication devices, and improvised oil tankers to transport their plunder. They have been known to attack ships over 70 nautical miles from shore.

Although piracy has occurred in Nigerian waters since the late 1970s, the problem has received relatively little government attention and has flourished unchecked. There have been many reports of crews broadcasting distress calls, but receiving no response from the Nigerian authorities. Furthermore, there have been many allegations that government officials have turned a blind eye to the issue, or have actively colluded with criminal groups to receive a share of piracy profits.

In the past decade Nigeria has increased its naval and coast guard capabilities. Nigeria opened a regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Lagos in 2008, and signed a multilateral agreement with neighbouring countries on streamlining search and rescue operations. This February, the Nigerian Navy hosted naval forces from 11 other nations in a four-day exercise focused on crime prevention at sea. The Navy has also budgeted funds to purchase more than two dozen new patrol vessels this year. Despite recent improvements, however, the country’s maritime forces are still under-equipped for the considerable task of patrolling Nigeria’s 853 kilometre coastline.

Fighting piracy on land

While it is important to increase the capacity of the coast guard and navy to prevent pirate attacks, piracy at sea stems from the deeply engrained land-based problem of organized crime. Nigeria’s coastline is notorious for its criminal networks, armed insurgents, and thriving black market, especially in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. Criminal groups have established hidden camps among the mangrove forests of the Delta, taking advantage of the labyrinth of swamps and creeks. From these camps, they launch waterborne attacks against ships then retreat to the complex waterways of the Delta.

Many of the camps belonging to criminal groups house illegal refineries, used to process oil that has been stolen from ships or from pipelines. An estimated 100,000 barrels of oil per day are illegally diverted from the pipelines that criss-cross the Delta, in a process referred to as “illegal bunkering.” Approximately 10 percent of Nigeria’s refined oil supply comes from illegal bunkering and refining operations. There is a well-established black market, which is reported to involve officials at all levels of government, selling oil to customers across Nigeria and in neighbouring countries.

The various groups in the Niger Delta have different motives for stealing oil. Insurgent groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have turned to oil theft – as well as kidnapping – for political reasons, mainly to raise funds for their armed struggle for control of local resources. They are opposed to the state’s alliance with oil companies, and claim that oil theft is a just form of vigilante wealth redistribution. Other criminal groups have the more immediate motive of personal enrichment.

Cracking down on oil theft and organized crime with military force has proven complicated. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, the region became increasingly militarized; as state security forces increased their presence to protect oil fields and pipelines, criminal operations and militias acquired huge stocks of modern weaponry. The military launched counter-insurgency campaigns, and the ensuing clashes with armed criminal and rebel groups resulted in many casualties and a significant displacement of civilians. Violence eased following an amnesty in 2009, but there are still regular reports of clashes and bomb attacks launched by militia groups. The conflict has hindered oil production, with output dropping 20 percent between 2006 and 2011.

Currently, the military is again trying to ramp up its operations in the Niger Delta. In early 2012, the Air Force opened a new Mobility Command Headquarters in the Delta, and the Navy is also looking to establish a permanent presence to facilitate raids on criminal hideouts. A joint military task force, code named Operation Pulo Shield, was launched in January 2012 to combat oil theft, and has raided close to 100 bunkering and refining operations. The authorities are making a serious attempt to strengthen the rule of law, although some fear that the increasing military presence in the region will anger local communities and renew the cycle of arms accumulation and violence.

Addressing root causes

The government’s strategy against piracy and organized crime has received criticism from some community leaders and analysts for failing to address the key economic and political issues that engender conflict and criminality in the first place. Indeed, a long term strategy against piracy and oil theft in Nigeria must somehow address the severe poverty of the Niger Delta region, as well as the endemic corruption and mismanagement in the Nigerian oil sector that see revenues go only to the top echelons of society.

The foreign oil companies that began drilling in the Niger Delta in the 1960s have made billions of dollars in profits. The Nigerian government has also benefitted immensely, with oil profits representing 80 percent of federal revenues. The country’s political and business elite have received a hefty share, as have the ruling elite in the Niger Delta. Oil revenues that could have been invested in social programs, infrastructure and economic opportunities in the Delta have largely been diverted to projects in other regions, inflated government and industry salaries, or simply pocketed by corrupt officials.

The people of the Niger Delta perceive this as a grave injustice. The local people who are most affected by the industry have watched in frustration as rich foreign oil workers come to stay in luxurious enclosed camps, while most of the nearby villages lack basic services. Over 70 percent of the Delta’s 30 million people have no access to electricity, clean water, or medical care. Despite government and industry claims that oil would bring development to the country, the average Nigerian in the Delta region is probably worse off now than before oil was discovered.

Some reports suggest that in the Niger Delta, piracy and illegal oil operations are among the only economically rewarding occupations available in a region where the adult unemployment rate is around 70 percent. Traditionally, Niger Delta communities survived on fishing and agriculture, but 50 years of irresponsible oil industry practices have poisoned the water and soil, turning the Niger Delta into one of the most contaminated zones on earth. Crop yields have declined, and fish stocks have collapsed almost completely.

Foreign oil companies are not entirely to blame, as illegal bunkering and refining operations have also been very damaging.
The UN Environment Programme estimates that it would take up to 30 years of intensive clean-up efforts to restore the region. In 2011 the Nigerian government was discussing a billion-dollar cleanup plan, but progress has stalled, and there are rumours that the project may be cancelled altogether. Yet restoring the environment and nurturing economic alternatives are key steps to improving security for the local population, the oil industry, and the shipping industry.


Nigeria is facing a grave problem with crime on land and at sea, and the country has begun to address the issue by strengthening its maritime security forces and cracking down on organized crime in the Niger Delta region. The government is financially dependent on oil revenues, and is aware that it needs to improve security in order to maintain oil production and export levels. However, improving long term security for tankers and oil rigs cannot be accomplished with military force alone. There is a need for a two-pronged strategy, which both deters criminal activity by increasing military patrols, and addresses the underlying problems of poverty and corrupt governance that make criminality so appealing.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not reflect the policy of Canada’s Department of National Defence or the Royal Canadian Navy. This article may be disseminated and/or reproduced free of charge, but only in its entirety.

Georgina Nicoll, Office of Asia-Pacific

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