Africa’s Leaking Wound

An oil-based piracy of unrivaled proportion—born in the corruption and crime of Nigeria—is hemorrhaging across the Gulf of Guinea.

Like blood from a leaking wound, the piracy that is spreading westward from Nigeria has now reached the Ivory Coast, 400 miles from its origins on the inland and coastal waters of the Niger Delta. There, and on the waters more than 100 miles off these countries’ coasts, acts of depredation against ships and fixed oil installations have resulted in far greater financial losses and had a far wider economic impact that any piracy seen so far anywhere else in the world.

International concern has been growing for some time. The U.N. Security Council (UNSC), having expressed its alarm about piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in August 2011, passed resolution 2018 two months later, re-emphasizing that concern and urging regional states to take effective action against the pirates’ backers and financiers. 1 The Economic Community of West and Central Africa and the Gulf of Guinea Commission assessed that piracy was “rapidly spreading around the region and increasingly dovetailing into oil bunkering, robbery at sea, hostage-taking, human and drug trafficking, terrorism and corruption,” while resource shortfalls and inadequate legal frameworks meant that piracy suspects were being released. 2This despite the fact that the International Maritime Organization had been working with the Maritime Organization of West and Central Africa for nearly four years to develop a coast-guard network and improve regional maritime security cooperation. 3

Are they right to be worried? Context matters, and West African piracy cannot be viewed separately from the larger issues of Salafist violence spreading from the interior, consequent religious and intercommunal violence in the more populous areas closer to the coast, endemic corruption, links between elites and criminals, massive income inequality, the prospect of state failure, and, standing behind all those, the insatiable need for oil and gas that fuels the competitive behavior of states, international oil companies, and domestic elites.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports that Gulf of Guinea piracy attacks were generally up in 2012 over 2011, the only decline occurring off Benin. In terms of actual numbers the IMB reports 58 incidents for the region as a whole in 2012 compared with 51 in 2008 (the previous high point) and 44 in 2011. 4 That compares with 75 incidents off Somalia in 2012 versus 237 in 2011. 5 However, the reliability of piracy statistics has always been questionable, none more so than for Nigeria, where some commentators have suggested that rates of under-reporting may be closer to 80 percent than the 50 percent that has been the rule of thumb elsewhere.

It is the value of what is being taken that has changed the dynamic in the Gulf of Guinea. Starting in 2010, pirates began to target product tankers, siphoning off tens of millions of dollars worth of refined oil then selling it back into Nigeria and other regional markets. The use of “mother ships” has enabled gangs to capture targets farther afield using levels of violence that differentiate them sharply from pirates off Somalia and in the Malacca Strait. Kidnap-for-ransom of foreign oil workers from supply vessels and isolated oil platforms has continued, although “hardening” measures have made this increasingly difficult. Nigeria’s security measures have also intensified, in particular Operation Pulo Shield, a campaign led by the controversial Joint Task Force to hit oil thieves and illegal refiners, which has chalked up impressive successes over the past year, although the number of cases actually prosecuted are worryingly few. 6

Those efforts, however, rest on shaky foundations. Unrest in the Niger Delta arises from the well-grounded conviction among the region’s minority tribes that oil companies colluded with greedy Nigerian politicians over decades to extract billions of dollars of oil for their own benefit at the expense of local habitat and the livelihoods it supported.

The main grievances are poverty, high youth unemployment, hiring practices that discriminate against locals and between local tribes, and the manipulation of government power by powerful ethnic groups outside the oil-rich Delta region to seize its oil wealth for themselves. The sense of injustice and exploitation that pervade the region has roots in a long struggle by local people for autonomy stretching back generations. The consequent social unrest has a strong criminal dimension. Almost unimaginable quantities of oil have been stolen—more than some African countries actually produce—directly from pipelines, fraudulently removed from storage facilities, and on a much smaller scale from ships at sea. Drawing a simplistic distinction between politically and criminally motivated actions in this conflict, however, fails to take into account the complicity of oil companies and federal and state governments in what amounts to a human and environmental tragedy; such arguments, Nigerian Professor Ukoha Ukiwo says, exhibit “too much economism, too little politics and no history at all.”7

The Nigerian government’s response to this unrest and oil theft, which has so often turned to violence, has rested on two pillars: Coercive power, epitomized by the Pulo Shield operation, which over time has grown in intensity, and since 2009, an amnesty program that effectively buys off the militants but has made no coherent effort to address what causes the militancy in the first place. 8

The effectiveness of the first pillar risks being undermined by growing Islamist violence in the Muslim north. This has spread into the country’s more populous middle belt, where it has exploited longstanding intercommunal tensions. That violence has been perpetrated mainly by the militant jihadist organization Boko Haram and its various splinter groups, such as Ansaru. They have coordinated attacks with al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), which took effective control of large swaths of Mali, was behind the January 2013 assault on the In Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria, and according to African affairs analyst J. Peter Pham has “never hidden its ambition to bring in Nigerian Islamists in order to exploit tensions between Nigerian Muslims and Christians.” 9 Fighting them has distorted government expenditures—some 20 percent now goes to security—and drawn forces away from the Niger Delta including, reportedly, U.S.-trained boat crews, while denying the navy the funds needed to maintain its vessels and surveillance aircraft. 10

The second pillar—amnesty—was a bold move that induced militants to hand in weapons for cash payments and enroll in rehabilitation and training programs. 11 About 26,000 militants from various organizations eventually surrendered in return for a monthly stipend worth three times the minimum wage. The continuing high global oil price has meant that, to date, payments have been maintained at the promised level—including much higher payments to ex-leaders so they’ll do whatever is necessary to keep their former followers in line. Keeping ex-leaders on-side has included granting at least one notorious militant, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a $9 million contract to protect the oil installations he spent most of his career attacking. 12 Critics point out that the program is fiscally unsustainable, with more money going to ex-militants than to the health service; for the program’s defenders, however, keeping the oil and its revenue flowing is justification enough.

The amnesty’s more serious flaw, however, has been the assumption that militancy was simply an outbreak of “large-scale organized crime” in which “once legitimate grievances [had] been abandoned to outright predation.” 13 It consequently failed to address the fact that delta tribal groups believed they were supporting a corrupt political class and had not benefitted from the half-trillion dollars the oil industry has paid Nigeria since 1970. Peace, in other words, was bought, not built. The risk in that approach was always that some fighters would return to the region’s creeks and begin the cycle of violence all over again. The formation of self-styled “third phase” militant groups seems to suggest that this is what is happening. Another expression has been the growth of piracy: militancy has moved offshore. 14

The root of the problem, and the principal obstacle to resolving the social and ethnic unrest in the Niger Delta, is corruption at all levels of government. Inequalities of income feed the problem: Nigeria is the continent’s second largest economy yet had a poverty rate of 70 percent in 2007, while at the same time billions of dollars of oil revenue disappeared into the overseas bank accounts of corrupt politicians and officials. Large sections of Nigerian society do not trust their own government. Crime is a national epidemic; one that the police—lacking adequate pay, training, or numbers—seemingly aid and abet through their own predatory behavior. The enormous sums involved in oil theft—known as illegal bunkering—attracted the interest of military figures early on who demanded payment to look the other way.

Once the country returned to civilian rule in 1999, oil revenue was decentralized, and so was corruption. By 2009, for example, the income of Rivers State alone was, at $2.9 billion, greater than that of several African countries. 15 With more money in their hands, state governors saw their wealth and patronage power increase immeasurably. Politicians quickly recognized the advantages of associating with the well-funded and well-armed oil bunkering gangs, although the gangs’ political allegiance was never strong.

The best-known and most successful of the numerous militant organizations that sprang up was MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Formed in late 2005 by a collection of pre-existing groups, it essentially disbanded, at least in its original manifestation, following the announcement of the 2009 amnesty. 16 It was never a unified entity. Some judged it to have been a primarily criminal organization despite its very public claims to the contrary. Others, while not denying the criminal element, pointed to the federal government’s reluctance to provide security in situations that were not directly oil-related. Such selective application of law enforcement, along with other social pressures, had led each tribe to form armed groups to defend its interests; by the early 2000s those very groups had begun to drift into criminality, particularly illegal bunkering. 17

Rising oil prices have ensured that oil theft remains highly profitable. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables suggest those linked to shady deals have included the wife of a former president and unnamed high-ranking politicians in the nation’s capital, Abuja. Unconfirmed reports assert that Lebanese nationals possibly funding the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, the Russian mafia, and drug cartels may also be involved. 18 None of that theft would be possible on land or at sea without the complicity of many in Nigeria’s political elite, the national oil company, and the military. 19

Organized crime is thriving across the whole Gulf of Guinea region. Narcotics smuggling is the principal driver: drugs shipped across the Atlantic by air and sea—increasingly by submarine—are landed along the West African coast then smuggled into Europe by air or by land across the Sahara. It may yet be inappropriate to draw parallels between West Africa and Mexico or Central America but that could change. The great worry is that more states may go the way of Guinea-Bissau, where drug cartels already wield significant influence. 20

The extent to which drug gangs are involved in oil theft is unclear. With crime, however, comes corruption. As William Hughes, the ex-head of the United Kingdom’s Serious and Organized Crime Agency, told a conference in 2009, it is “very difficult to deal with the indigenous law enforcement [agencies of West African governments] because they’re all controlled by ministers and other government officials who are all suspect, if not actively involved in [crime].” 21

Those states may be a long way from failing. Nonetheless, they are necessarily weaker than states where the government’s legitimacy is acknowledged, which in a West African context means they would be better placed to withstand social unrest arising from ethnic and religious differences, economic inequality, and natural-resource competition. The divide between northern Muslims and southern Christians, which has turned violent in Nigeria but is still peaceful elsewhere, nonetheless exists all the way from Nigeria to Senegal, and may be similarly open to extremist exploitation.

Countering those actors, and pirates, draws in external powers. The United States initiated the first Africa Partnership Station mission along the West African coast in 2007. 22 Increased Islamist activity in Mali has prompted deeper U.S. engagement in the region, including building a drone base in Niger. 23 France has also been very active. In 2011, well before the recent intervention against al Qaeda elements in Mali, the French announced a $10 million regional maritime-security mission. 24 In January of this year the European Union announced a €4.5 million ($6.1 million) regional antipiracy initiative. 25 Those traditional relationships have now been complicated by growing investments from Russia and China, particularly the latter—Africa’s largest trading partner. 26 At-risk economic investments are often followed by defense involvement. Lagos has been mentioned as the possible location for a Chinese “overseas strategic support base” for distant-water naval operations, supplementing two other suggested locations. One is in Namibia and the other in Angola, which already is one of China’s principal oil suppliers. 27

In 2005 the National Intelligence Council predicted that Nigeria would be a failed state by 2020, perhaps reflecting that the discovery of oil does not automatically produce development. 28 Oil was discovered in Nigeria shortly before independence and since then the country’s GDP per capita and life expectancy have both declined. 29 The current international system that makes international recognition—not internal legitimacy or functionality—the key to state authority works to the benefit of dysfunctional oil producers in the developing world. Enclaves that are valuable to oil consumers—and to the domestic elites who facilitate and benefit from international legitimization—function well enough. They include oil and gas fields, export terminals, oil-related shipping, and offshore infrastructure around which defensive perimeters can be drawn, leaving the space in between relatively unprotected. 30

Piracy is inseparable from economic and political conditions on land and although the number of incidents may rise or fall, as long as the conditions that favor piracy remain propitious then even the most extensive and sophisticated security regimes will find it difficult to control the problem—particularly if they have to fight other fires as well. Those conditions are in place around the Gulf of Guinea. 31 Recommendations to address these conditions have been made regularly within Nigeria as part of widespread political, economic, and social reform. 32 Deep-seated social attitudes, such as tolerance of corruption and the perpetuation of subsidies that distort Nigeria’s internal energy market, are major obstacles to change. If Nigeria continues to be beset by political and criminal dislocation, that will continue to have a destabilizing effect on its neighbors. Without meaningful reform all that remains is the language and methods of security.

1. U.N. Security Council Res. 2018, 31 October 2011, UN Doc. S/RES/2018.

2. U.N. Security Council, “Gulf of Guinea piracy ‘clear threat’ to security, economic development of region,” 27 February 2012.

3. Chris Trelawny, “The Naval Contribution to Sustainable Development in West and Central Africa,” RUSI Journal, vol. 152, no.5, October 2007, 70–74.

4. IMB Annual Reports 2008 and 2011; “IMB reports piracy falls in 2012, but seas off East and West Africa still dangerous,” Insurance Journal, 16 January 2013.

5. Ibid.

6. Oscar Nkala, “Nigerian army arrests 1,945, destroys ships, illegal oil refineries in 2012 crackdown,” defenceWeb, 10 January 2013; “NIMSA and the dilemma of piracy, oil theft war,” This Day, 27 January 2013.

7. Martin N. Murphy, “Petro-Piracy: Predation and Counter-Predation in Nigeria’s Waters” in Douglas Guilfoyle (ed.), Modern Piracy: Legal Challenges and Responses (Cheltenham & Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2013), 61–2; Ukoha Ukiwo, “Causes and Cures of Oil-related Niger Delta Conflicts,” Policy Notes 2009/10, The Nordic Africa Institute, February 2009, 2.

8. Murphy, “Petro-Piracy,” 64, 71, 84–5.

9. ‘Nigeria’s crisis: A threat to the entire country,” The Economist, 29 September 2012; “Islamists Ansaru claim attack on Mali-bound Nigerian troops: paper,” Reuters, 20 January 2013; J. Peter Pham, “Boko Haram’s Evolving Threat,” Africa Security Brief, no. 20, April 2012; Drew Hinshaw, “Timbuktu training site shows terrorists’ reach,” The Wall Street Journal, 1 February 2013.

10. Drew Hinshaw, “Nigeria emerges as center for pirate attacks,” The Wall Street Journal, 3 January 2013.

11. “Nigeria offers militants amnesty,” BBC News, 26 June 2009.

12. Drew Hinshaw, “Nigeria’s former oil bandits now draw government cash,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 August 2012.

13. Michael Watts, “Petro-Insurgency or Criminal Syndicate?” Niger Delta Economies of Violence Working Papers No. 16 (Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, 2006), 29.

14. Murphy, “Petro-Predation.” 85–6.

15. Ibid., 72.

16. “Nigeria militant group MEND does not exist anymore: former leaders,” Platts, 25 February 2011.

17. Sofiri Joab-Peterside, “On the Militarization of Nigeria’s Niger Delta,” Niger Delta Economies of Violence Working Papers No. 21 (Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, 2007) 6–15.

18. “Wikileaks names ex-first lady, others as oil thieves,” Punch, 7 September 2011.

19. Murphy, “Petro-Predation,” 78; Evelyn Usman, “Top government officials, politicians contract us—sea pirates,” The Vanguard, 12 December 2012.

20. Davin O’Regan, “Narco-states: Africa’s next menace,” The New York Times, 12 March 2012.

21. Dylan Welch, “Corrupt west African nations ‘running global crime,’” Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2010.

22. U.S. Africa Command, “Africa Partnership Station,” .

23. Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. to expand role in Africa,” The Wall Street Journal, 29 January 2013.

24. “France launches Gulf of Guinea anti-piracy operation,” Reuters, 11 November 2011.

25. “EU initiative launched to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea,” The Information Daily, 15 January 2013.

26. “Russia Russneft plans investment in Nigerian oil,” Reuters, 20 October 2011; “Nigeria, China to sign $23 billion oil refinery deal,” Voice of America, 14 May 2010; Peter Wonacott, “In Africa, U.S. watches China’s rise,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 September 2011.

27. “Chinese Paper Advises PLA Navy to Build Overseas Military Bases,” Chinese Defense Mash-up, 8 January 2013.

28. Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future: Conference Summary, National Intelligence Council, March 2006, 16.

29. Michael Watts, “Crude Politics: Life and Death on the Nigerian Oil Fields,” Niger Delta Economies of Violence Working Papers No. 25, (Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, 2009), 16.

30. Ibid., 36–37, 109; Afua Hirsch and John Vidal, “Shell spending millions of dollars on security in Nigeria, leaked data shows,” The Guardian, 19 August 2012.

31. On piracy’s qualifying conditions see Martin N. Murphy, Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World. (New York and London: Columbia University Press/Hurst, 2009), 28–9.

32. J. Shola Omotola, “Niger Delta Technical Committee (NDTC) and the Niger Delta Question,” in Victor Ojakorotu (ed.). Anatomy of the Niger Delta Crisis: Causes, Consequences and Opportunities for Peace. (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2010), 99–119.

Dr. Murphy is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States. He currently is engaged on a new book, to be published by Routledge: Piracy, Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare at Sea: Navies Confront the Twenty-first Century .

Original Article