From Somalia To Gulf Of Guinea: Piracy Comes a Half Circle

Surya Gangadharan New Delhi 10 May 2019

Piracy off the waters of Somalia is over a decade old and concerned countries including India have cooperated to bring it under control. But what about the Gulf of Guinea off Africa’s west coast? The abduction of five Indian seafarers last month from their ship docked at Bonny Outer Anchorage in Nigeria’s Port Harcourt may have come as a rude shock to their families. But kidnapping and abduction of seafarers for ransom here is as old as the hills.

Reports say the kidnappers have demanded a ransom for the release of the Indian seafarers. “Typically the initial figure demanded would be something outlandish,” said an Indian diplomat who served in Nigeria, “but that sets the stage for prolonged negotiations which are carried out by the company which has insured the ship and its cargo”.

The diplomat said it is unlikely that the seafarers will be harmed, since the motive here is for the kidnappers to make their money. Therefore, negotiations are usually successful but could take months. It is rare that the local police are able to trace the kidnappers and rescue the hostages. Partly this is due to collusion and partly because it is easy to conceal the hostages in the hundreds of small creeks and islands that dot the Nigerian coast.

“These are dangerous waters,” said an Indian merchant navy officer “but India is the biggest buyer of Nigerian crude oil, around 874,000 barrels a day. This is low sulphur ‘sweet crude’ which is easily processed in Indian refineries, therefore the attraction”.

How dangerous these waters are was the subject of a report by the International Maritime Organisation. Last year, its Piracy Reporting Centre warned of “a marked rise in attacks against ships and crews in West Africa.” It said the waters between the Ivory Coast and the Congo (covering six countries including Nigeria) now account for the majority of serious acts of piracy worldwide. In 2018 six hijackings of ships took place here, 13 ships were fired upon, 130 hostages taken and 78 seafarers kidnapped.

Off Nigeria, in the last quarter of 2018, 41 kidnappings were recorded, some of them taking place as far as 185 km from Nigerian waters. The Piracy Reporting Centre suspects its own figures saying that “about half of all attacks go unreported”.

West African waters are heavily travelled by ocean going ships carrying, besides oil, commodities and manufactured goods to and from ports in Africa, Europe and South and North America. Add to that, West Africa has become the global hub of illegal fishing losing an estimated $1.3 billion a year. Fishing vessels operating under “flags of convenience” are denuding waters of fish and pauperising local communities. The result: people turn to piracy.

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