An analysis of risk factors for piracy against ships in Nigerian waters

Piracy is a serious threat to the maritime security and economic development of Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea region. According to the International Maritime Bureau, Nigeria recorded 35 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in 2020, accounting for 23% of the global total and making it the most dangerous area for seafarers in the world (IMB 2021). This paper aims to identify and analyze the main risk factors that contribute to the persistence and escalation of piracy in Nigerian waters, and to suggest some possible solutions to address them.

The paper adopts a qualitative research method, using secondary sources such as academic articles, reports, news articles, and official documents to collect and analyze data. The paper is organized into four sections. The first section provides a brief overview of the historical and contemporary trends of piracy in Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea. The second section examines the root causes of piracy, focusing on the socio-economic, political, and environmental factors that create a conducive environment for piracy to thrive. The third section analyzes the challenges and gaps in the legal and institutional framework for combating piracy, both at the national and regional levels. The fourth section offers some recommendations on how to enhance the effectiveness and coordination of anti-piracy efforts, involving various stakeholders such as the government, the private sector, the civil society, and the international community.

Historical and Contemporary Trends of Piracy in Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea

Piracy is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria or the Gulf of Guinea. It has a long history that dates back to the pre-colonial era, when local communities engaged in maritime raiding and trading along the coast (Nwalozie 2020). However, piracy in its modern form emerged in the late 20th century, as a result of the political instability, economic decline, and social unrest that followed the end of the civil war in 1970 and the subsequent military regimes (Alao 2021). Piracy was initially concentrated in the Niger Delta region, where militant groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) used violence and sabotage to protest against the perceived marginalization and exploitation of their oil-rich area by the federal government and multinational oil companies (Nwalozie 2020). Piracy was seen as a means of generating income, acquiring weapons, and drawing attention to their grievances (Alao 2021).

In the early 2000s, piracy in Nigeria expanded beyond the Niger Delta to other parts of the country’s coastline and territorial waters, as well as to neighboring countries such as Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, and Angola (Nwalozie 2020). This expansion was driven by several factors, such as the increased demand for oil in the global market, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the region, the emergence of new criminal networks and syndicates, and the lack of effective law enforcement and maritime governance (Alao 2021). Piracy also became more violent and sophisticated, involving attacks on different types of vessels such as tankers, cargo ships, fishing boats, passenger ferries, offshore platforms, and even naval vessels. The pirates often use speedboats, assault rifles,
grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and sometimes even mother ships to launch their attacks (Nwalozie 2020).

The main objectives of piracy in Nigeria are to hijack vessels for ransom or cargo theft (mainly oil), to kidnap crew members for ransom or exchange for prisoners, or to rob valuables from vessels or crew members (Alao 2021). According to a report by Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), piracy cost Nigeria an estimated $818.1 million in 2017 alone, including direct costs such as ransoms, stolen cargo, insurance premiums, security equipment, naval patrols, prosecutions, etc., and indirect costs such as reduced trade volume, increased prices of goods and services,
reduced foreign investment, etc. (OBP 2018). Piracy also has negative impacts on human security,
environmental protection, regional stability, and international peace (Nwalozie 2020).

Root Causes of Piracy in Nigeria

Piracy in Nigeria is a complex phenomenon that cannot be attributed to a single cause. Rather,
it is influenced by a combination of interrelated factors that create a conducive environment for
piracy to thrive. These factors can be broadly categorized into three groups: socio-economic,
political, and environmental.

Socio-economic factors

One of the main socio-economic factors that contribute to piracy is poverty. Nigeria is one
of the most populous countries in Africa with over 200 million people (World Bank 2020), but
also one of the poorest, with about 40% of the population living below the national poverty line
(NBS 2019). Poverty is especially prevalent in the rural areas and the Niger Delta region, where
the majority of the population depends on fishing and farming for their livelihoods (Nwalozie
2020). However, these livelihoods have been severely affected by the oil industry, which has
caused environmental degradation, pollution, land expropriation, and displacement of local
communities (Alao 2021). Moreover, the oil industry has not translated into equitable
development or wealth distribution for the region, as most of the oil revenues are controlled by
the federal government and a few elites, while the local communities suffer from lack of basic
services such as health, education, water, electricity, etc. (Nwalozie 2020). As a result, many
people in the Niger Delta feel frustrated, alienated, and deprived of their rights and opportunities,
and resort to piracy as a way of expressing their discontent and seeking alternative sources of
income (Alao 2021).

Another socio-economic factor that fuels piracy is unemployment. Nigeria has one of the
highest unemployment rates in Africa, with 27.1% of the labor force being unemployed and
28.6% being underemployed in 2020 (NBS 2020). Unemployment is particularly high among the
youth, who constitute about 60% of the population (World Bank 2020). Many young people in
Nigeria lack access to quality education, vocational training, or decent jobs, and face social
exclusion and discrimination (Alao 2021). This makes them vulnerable to recruitment by criminal
groups or militant organizations that offer them money, weapons, and a sense of belonging and
identity (Nwalozie 2020). Piracy is therefore seen as an attractive option for many unemployed
youths who have no other means of survival or hope for the future (Alao 2021).

Political factors

One of the key political factors that enable piracy is corruption. Nigeria ranks 149 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2020, indicating a high level of perceived corruption in the public sector (Transparency International 2020). Corruption is pervasive in Nigeria’s political system, affecting all levels and branches of government, as well as various sectors and institutions such as the judiciary, the police, the military, the customs, the ports, etc. (Alao 2021). Corruption undermines the rule of law, accountability,
transparency, and good governance in Nigeria, and facilitates criminal activities such as piracy.
For instance, corrupt officials may collude with pirates by providing them with information,
protection, or impunity in exchange for bribes or favors (Nwalozie 2020). Corruption also erodes
the public trust and confidence in the government and its ability to provide security and justice for its citizens (Alao 2021).

Another political factor that contributes to piracy is weak state capacity. Nigeria faces multiple challenges in exercising effective sovereignty and authority over its vast territory and population,
especially in its maritime domain. Nigeria has a coastline of about 853 km and an exclusive economic zone of about 200 nautical miles, covering an area of about 210,900 km2 (Nwalozie
2020). However, Nigeria lacks adequate resources and capabilities to monitor and control its maritime space, such as naval vessels, patrol boats, aircrafts, radars, surveillance systems,
communication systems, personnel, etc. (Alao 2021). This creates a security gap that pirates can exploit to operate with relative ease and impunity. Moreover, Nigeria faces difficulties in enforcing its laws and regulations against piracy, both at the domestic and international levels. Nigeria has ratified several international conventions and protocols on maritime security and cooperation,
such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Convention for
the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA), and the Code
of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in West and Central Africa (Yaoundé Code of Conduct) (Nwalozie 2020). However, Nigeria has not fully implemented or harmonized these instruments into its national legal framework, resulting in legal ambiguities and inconsistencies that hamper the prosecution and punishment of pirates (Alao 2021).
For instance, until recently, Nigeria did not have a specific law on piracy or other maritime offences,
and relied on outdated provisions from the Criminal Code or the Merchant Shipping Act that were not adequate to address the complexity and severity of modern piracy (Alao 2021).

Environmental factors

One of the environmental factors that influence piracy is climate change. Climate change has adverse impacts on Nigeria’s environment and natural resources, such as rising sea levels,
coastal erosion, flooding, droughts, desertification, deforestation, biodiversity loss,
etc. (Nwal

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