By Mary Harper
Take a boat ride out from the Nigerian port of Lagos and it is easy to see why piracy, sea robbery and other forms of maritime crime are such a problem.
The ocean is swarming with cargo ships, oil tankers, barges and other vessels waiting for permission to enter the overcrowded port.
Great hulks of rusting metal, anchored and sitting low in the water, almost as if they are inviting pirates to sling their ladders over the side and clamber up on board.
“It was 14 August 2014,” says Nigerian navigation officer Rotimi George.
“At around 2am I heard banging on my cabin door: Boom, boom, boom, boom. ‘Pirate attack, pirate attack’. They seized the captain, who was Russian, and the Ukrainian chief officer.”
Mr George is one of hundreds of seafarers who have been attacked this year off the coast of West Africa one of the world’s top piracy spots – and far more dangerous than the waters off Somalia.
According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and the Oceans Beyond Piracy group, there has been an escalation in violence.
More seafarers were killed and wounded in the first nine months of 2014 than for the whole of 2013, when more than 1,200 were affected.
This is believed to be a conservative estimate, as the IMB says about two-thirds of attacks off the coast of West Africa go unreported.
As well as physical violence, there are the psychological scars.
Captain Suresh Biradar, an Indian who was kidnapped off the coast of Nigeria, says he will never return to sea again.
“They kept us on the bare wooden floor of a tiny hut. Each day, the only food we had was a 70-gram packet of noodles.
“The pirates became violent after taking drugs. They pointed guns near our heads and ears, and fired bullets.
“I was released after 28 days when a ransom was paid.”
The experiences of Mr George and Capt Biradar reflect a growing trend, not only of kidnapping for ransom, but of pirates sorting through the crew and taking away those considered to have “high-value” nationalities.
A study by Oceans Beyond Piracy has documented how pirates have seized American, Indian and Polish seafarers, but have left behind Nigerians because they are considered worthless in terms of ransom.
Robbery, cargo theft and ransoms
Unlike Somali pirates, who have used the single technique of seizing ships and their crew for ransom, there are three types of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
According to a former member of the British special forces, Sven Hanson, who now works for a private maritime security company in West Africa: “You’ve got the classic armed robbery at sea, which has been happening for centuries, where pirates board a vessel to steal money, radios and mobile phones.
“The next scale up is cargo theft, the predominant threat in West Africa, when pirates hijack an oil tanker, take her to a quiet place, bring another ship alongside and siphon off the oil.
“Third, there’s kidnap for ransom when pirates seize the expatriates.”
In most cases of West African piracy, the pirates want the cargo, not the crew.
This means levels of violence are higher than they are off the coast of Somalia, where the pirates need to keep the crew alive in order to obtain ransoms.
“The attacks are deadly and brutal,” says the first female head of the Nigerian trawler owners’ association, Margaret Onyema-Orakwusi.
“The pirates throw the captain and chief engineer into the cold room where we store the fish. They freeze to death,” she says.
“Piracy has decimated the fishing industry; 100,000 jobs have been lost and Nigeria now imports more than 80% of its fish.”
Many of the pirates are former militants from the oil-rich Niger Delta region, although, as maritime expert Bolaji Akinola points out, they are just part of a complex, global jigsaw.
“The criminality stretches very wide – if someone steals crude oil, he has to sell it either to a country or a multinational company.”
A pirate based in the Niger Delta said the only way to get a share of the region’s oil wealth was to rob ships.
“We attack seafarers and we beat them so they’ll tell the government,” he told the BBC.
“They’re eating the oil companies’ money while we go hungry. We have to collect their money in order to survive.”
In its efforts to combat maritime crime, Nigeria has a bewildering number of government agencies, partnerships with private security companies, even deals with former seafaring militants who have themselves carried out spectacular acts of piracy.
Senior naval official Rear Admiral Samuel Alade says piracy has been “drastically reduced” because of what the navy and others are doing.
‘War risk area’
Not everyone shares his point of view.
The Norwegian Ship-owners’ Association says the number of times its vessels visited Nigerian ports decreased by 37% between 2011 and 2013 because of the threat of attacks, even though port calls to the rest of Africa increased by about 20%.
Underwriters have designated the waters off Nigeria, Togo and Benin a “war risk area”, pushing up insurance costs.
This ultimately affects the cost of food, oil and anything else that is transported by sea from West Africa.
Nigeria’s multi-pronged approach to tackling piracy has generated confusion, even amongst its own security agencies.
Nigerian maritime police in October 2013 opened fire on Nigerian naval personnel after mistaking them for pirates.
In March 2014, two British men working for a private maritime security company were arrested and accused of stealing oil.
The strategy of paying former militant leaders to help fight maritime crime is also proving problematic.
One former Delta warlord, General Boyloaf, who led a spectacular attack on a Shell oil platform 120km (74 miles) out to sea, was in August 2014 appointed by the authorities as leader of a maritime security outfit in his home state of Bayelsa.
“The government was having serious security challenges in the creeks,” he said.
“They chose me to deal with it as the creeks are my terrain. I was born in the creeks, I fought against the government in the creeks and I will now use that knowledge to hunt the pirates.”
But dressed all in white and sitting on a black sofa under an oil painting of a tiger in his villa in the capital Abuja, he complained the government was “choking” funds agreed as part of a 2009 amnesty for the militants.
“What do you expect us to do? We will fight. I know what my people are capable of doing,” he said.
Maritime expert Bolaji Akinola does not think former warlords should be involved.
“People who fought against the state are now being hired to protect its most precious facilities. If they’re no longer satisfied with what they’re getting, they can hold the state to ransom.”
Mr Akinola believes efforts by the Nigerian authorities and their partners in the private sector are beginning to “push the pirates back”, at least in Nigerian waters. But the pirates are not going away.
A bit like squeezing a balloon, he says they are “going further west and further south, and deeper into the Atlantic Ocean”.
“The situation in the Gulf of Guinea is going to get worse before it gets better.”