Africa Defense Forum
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Piracy Down, Oil Theft Up in Gulf of Guinea


Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea continues to drop as a result of efforts by regional and international navies and piracy convictions in Nigeria and Togo in 2021, according to a United Nations report.

But, U.N. officials noted, part of the decline in piracy might be due to a shift by criminal networks to other crimes, especially oil bunkering.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project noted that over the past 15 years, the Gulf had become the world’s hot spot for piracy. Incidents included armed attacks, vessel boarding and hijacking, kidnappings, and murder. But although there were 81 piracy incidents in the Gulf in 2020, there were only 34 incidents in 2021. In the first nine months of 2022, there were only 13 reported incidents.

“It is not, however, time to rest on our oars,” said Florentina Adenike Ukonga, executive secretary of the Gulf of Guinea Commission. She pointed to the need to clamp down on a variety of other maritime crimes that affect the well-being of coastal populations.

Nigeria, the largest country and economy in the region, has been credited with leading Gulf countries to cooperate with one another, according to the news agency Quartz.

During the U.N. announcement, officials noted that without continued vigilance, piracy can return to the Gulf. Officials also said it remains critical to have the necessary national and legal frameworks in place to effectively prosecute people involved in piracy.

The U.N. reports that less than one-third of Gulf of Guinea countries have enacted legislation to criminalize piracy as set out in the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In 2021, a court in Togo convicted and sentenced nine people to prison for acts of maritime piracy in the first trial of its kind. The case stemmed from a 2019 incident during which the group boarded a small tanker and robbed the crew before being apprehended by the Togo Navy, the Maritime Executive reported.

Weeks after the Togo trials, a Nigerian court made its first convictions under its new anti-piracy law. The court imprisoned 10 pirates for 12 years each over the hijacking of a merchant vessel in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub.

The Critical Maritime Routes Programme, funded by the European Union, issued a report linking the reduction in piracy to the rise in oil bunkering. The report noted that although piracy was in a “downward trend,” illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism were at “an all-time high.”

Bunkering refers to all forms of oil theft, such as diverting crude from pipelines and ships.

“Field research in the Niger Delta shows that high-level actors controlling pirate groups and oil bunkering may have reached consensus to stop allowing deep offshore piracy,” the report noted. “A key factor remains that oil bunkering, when compared to deep offshore piracy, entails less risk and significantly higher reward or profit.”

The report noted that the Gulf now has a heavy contingent of international and regional patrols, making piracy riskier than ever. Since 2021, there has been a pattern of failed attacks, “and it has become increasingly difficult for pirate groups to kidnap seafarers from vessels deep offshore.”

Bunkering has been particularly hard on Nigeria. The Maritime Executive reported that in July 2022, Nigeria slipped behind Angola as Africa’s largest oil exporter.

“Some analysts blame industrial-scale oil theft as the reason behind the drop,” the news service reported. “Further, Nigeria’s crude oil production decreased to an average of 940,000 barrels per day in September 2022 — a level not seen since the 1980s.”

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