THE¬†MV City of Xiamen, a container ship flagged in Antigua and Barbuda, was about 160km (100 miles) off the Nigerian coast in the evening of April 25th when 14 pirates, armed to the teeth, boarded her and broke into the ship‚Äôs safe room. They made off with an undisclosed sum of cash and five crew members, who were freed on May 13th, probably after a ransom had been paid.
The incident is typical of piracy in west Africa‚Äôs Gulf of Guinea: it was violent, quick and almost entirely Nigerian. In the 1990s a peaceful movement protesting against the iniquities of government in the Niger delta decayed into a violent and criminal insurgency. Armed gangs preyed on fishing boats and stole oil from pipelines. Oil companies responded by moving more of their operations offshore. The gangs followed. During the height of the insurgency in 2006-09, they extended their reach beyond Nigerian waters. Since then, ships across the length of the gulf‚Äîfrom Gabon in the south to Liberia in the west‚Äîhave been targeted.
Figures compiled by the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy worldwide, indicate that the frequency of attacks in the region has waxed and waned. But security experts say piracy off west Africa is getting worse. Reported incidents jumped from 44 in 2011 to 62 in 2012. This year, with 28 incidents so far, could be the worst ever. Ten of the 2012 assaults on ships in the gulf were hijackings, more than a third of the world‚Äôs total. Most disconcerting is the pirates‚Äô increasing sophistication. Cyrus Mody, the bureau‚Äôs assistant director, says assaults happen farther and farther out at sea, some as far as 140 nautical miles offshore. And while kidnappings are still rare, the practice may be on the rise.
Shipping companies are boosting security on vessels. Insurance rates are going up, as are ransom demands. This escalation comes just when several west African countries have found offshore oil and gas. Around 40% of oil consumed in Europe and 29% of North American consumption are said to pass through the Gulf of Guinea, including from Angola.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has dropped to almost nothing in the past year, thanks to foreign intervention. But west African governments, fearing an erosion of their sovereignty, have so far not welcomed the idea of Western naval patrols. Moreover, some local security people may be in the pirates‚Äô pay. Efforts to establish a regional operations centre, where intelligence could be shared and responses co-ordinated, have foundered among squabbles over its location. The most obvious choice, Nigeria, was vetoed by its neighbours.