Benin Reels Under Piracy Assault

It is well known that criminal gangs can affect legitimate economic activity. Bribery, theft and kidnapping can all deter development and persuade investors to look elsewhere. Yet recent events in Benin have shown how the operations of a relatively small number of pirates can harm an entire national economy. An African Business investigation into piracy […]


It is well known that criminal gangs can affect legitimate economic activity. Bribery, theft and kidnapping can all deter development and persuade investors to look elsewhere. Yet recent events in Benin have shown how the operations of a relatively small number of pirates can harm an entire national economy. An African Business investigation into piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has revealed the vulnerability of international shipping to attack and the susceptibility of small countries to organised crime.

Piracy has become increasingly associated with Africa over the past five years. Between 50 and 100 Somali pirate gangs have preyed on shipping over an ever-wider area of the Indian Ocean, from the Maldives in the east to Madagascar in the south. The number of international vessels seized and crew members taken hostage has propelled the problem onto front pages around the world. Yet a parallel explosion in pirate activity off the west coast of Africa has attracted far less global attention because few non-Africans are taken hostage for an extended period of time.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) lists five African countries as being particularly susceptible to pirate attacks: Somalia in the east and Benin, Cameroon, Guinea and Nigeria in the west. Until 2011, most attacks were committed in Nigerian maritime waters by criminal gangs that are also involved in oil theft and kidnapping in and around the Niger Delta. Fishing boats are also targeted for robbery but many such attacks are not reported and so do not appear in the official figures, while some pirate attacks on tankers and cargo vessels have also not been officially recorded.

This can be because fishermen have little confidence in the local police or military, or because vessel owners or users are involved in illegal activities themselves, from illegal oil bunkering to non-payment of taxes. Others fear that the increase in their insurance costs will outweigh the benefits of making a claim.

The IMB estimates that the real number of pirate attacks is at least twice as high as the official figure because of underreporting. The oil and fishing industries are particularly responsible for underreporting. The Nigerian navy estimates that there are 10 to 15 attacks every month and that the figure can range as high as 50. Although the number of recorded pirate attacks fell in Nigeria during the course of 2011, the total number of attacks in the region increased as a result of a spate of violent incidents off the coast of Benin.

Most pirate attacks in West Africa in 2010 were relatively low-level armed robberies but 2011 saw many hijackings and cargo thefts, almost exclusively of refined petroleum products, such as diesel and petrol from tankers. It should be noted that many of the vessels are described as chemical tankers, but this refers to ships carrying various forms of fuel in separate compartments and so are still involved in the oil industry.

The Nigerian government has cracked down on piracy and oil bunkering off its shores since the introduction of a militant amnesty in the Niger Delta in August 2009. Thousands of militants handed in their weapons, resulting in a fall in the incidence of kidnapping and oil sector related piracy. Many former militant leaders also support the new President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, and so have halted their attacks on the oil and gas industry in the Delta.

Moving west

However, some criminal activity appears to have been displaced into the waters of neighbouring Benin, as a limited number of armed Nigerian militants have continued to target oil industry vessels.

It seems that the pirates are waiting until tankers leave Nigerian waters before attacking. The ease with which Nigerian groups have attacked fuel tankers may also have encouraged organised criminals in Benin to target the tankers in order to rob their crews.

Growth in pirate activity off Benin, however, is even more starkly presented in the statistics. From not a single incident in most years between 2000 and 2010, there were 20 attacks in 2011, the third-highest figure in the world, behind the 198 blamed on Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden and in the Red Sea, plus the 30 recorded in Indonesia. However, Somali pirates operate over a vast area of the Indian Ocean, while Indonesia is a massive country of 18,306 islands and 1,919,317 square kilometres of land territory extending 5,120 km from west to east. By contrast, Benin has land territory of 112,620 square kilometres and a coastline of just 121 km.

The director of the IMB, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, said: “The vessels are taken over by the armed pirates and then forced to sail to an unknown destination, where the cargo is discharged into a smaller tanker. And then the vessel is brought back and released.”

Police and military officials in the region state that firearms were used in all attacks on tankers during 2011, including AK47s, rocket-propelled grenades and machetes in some instances. Police records in the Port of Cotonou show that the first attack in the pirate offensive was recorded on 24th December 2010, when the Italian-flagged chemical/oil tanker Valle di Cordoba was seized by 15 armed pirates 60 nautical miles southwest of Lagos. Crew members were beaten, robbed and forced to sail the vessel to a position southeast of Lagos, where fuel was transferred to a smaller waiting vessel. The pirates left the vessel close to Escravos Offshore Terminal in Nigeria’s Delta State. The second attack occurred on 3rd March last year, when the Maltese-registered chemical tanker Duzgit Venture was attacked 12.5 nautical miles from Cotonou by 14 armed pirates in two boats. Taking control of the vessel, they ordered the captain to sail 60 nautical miles off Gabon. The expected recipient barge failed to arrive and the captain was then ordered to sail to Warri in the Niger Delta.

When it became clear that the vessel’s owners were aware of the hijacking, the pirates panicked and turned towards Lagos. Plans to steal the cargo were abandoned and boats came out from Badagri to collect the pirates, the captain and two other hostages, although the hostages were later released.

Of the 28 attempted or actual attacks claimed between 24th December 2010 and 19th August 2011: 22 involved product or chemical tankers; three crude tankers; and three unknown vessels.

According to Benin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nassirou Bako-Arifari, no local vessels have been attacked. Until 8th May last year, all attacks were designed to steal refined petroleum products, mainly petrol or diesel. Since then, there have been both hijackings in order to seize this fuel and robberies. Crew are robbed for cash and valuables and dozens of crew members have been badly beaten.

According to IMB figures, 85% of attacks have been made while the tanker in question is at anchor or engaged in ship-to-ship activities, when fuel is transferred from a large tanker to a smaller vessel to be taken into the Port of Cotonou.

Cross-border crime

From interviews with police and naval officials and security consultants working in the region, it appears that most of the pirates are Nigerians who siphon off fuel product for sale within the region. They are reluctant to be directly quoted but there is definitely more than one group of pirates, as vessels have been attacked at the same time in different areas, such as on the 8th May last year. Tanker crew members, in interviews with police, say that the pirates speak English, French and an unknown African language. Some of those arrested to date have been pirates living close to the Benin-Nigeria border, and with connections on both sides. One concrete example is the case of William Locky, arrested in Cotonou on suspicion of piracy in the attack on the Cancale Star. His father comes from Benin and his mother from Nigeria. On several occasions, tankers seized off Benin have been taken to an area known among criminals as the ‘Togo Triangle’, where oil is transferred between vessels. There is some disagreement over exactly where the Togo Triangle is located, although it is believed to lie off Western Nigeria. According to one Niger Delta security consultant: “The gangs targeting tankers off Benin are multiple gangs working within one cartel. Two to three cargoes each worth $5-10m are taken each month.”

Given that the pirates seem to have advance knowledge of ship-to-ship operations, it seems very likely that they have some connections within the port of Cotonou. Any smaller tankers or lightering barges that come out to meet the larger tankers sail from and return to Cotonou. Both the chief of the Benin navy and the regional representative for Interpol agree that collusion at the Port of Cotonou is likely, and that the attacks could not occur without land-based assistance.

The impact of piracy

The growing incidence of piracy in West Africa is having a range of effects on maritime security, trade and confidence in the region, threatening the activities of international oil companies, local fishermen and wider trading relations. The government of Benin is heavily reliant on the revenue generated by the port of Cotonou. According to the data from the Ministry of Defence and the chief of marine, Captain Maxime Ahoyo, the port incomes are considerable, accounting for 70% of Benin’s GDP, 80% of national tax revenue and 90% of foreign exchange.

According to the navy chief in Cotonou, there was a 70% decrease in maritime traffic to the port in the third quarter of 2011 because of the higher insurance costs triggered by piracy. International shipping data also reveals that the number of ships sailing off the coast of Benin fell sharply, from about 150 per month in 2010 to fewer than 50 by the end of 2011.

At the same time, Benin has lacked the resources to adequately respond to the threat and so the national economy could be badly affected by prolonged pirate activity. As a result of the number of attacks off Benin in 2011, the country’s exclusive economic zone has been included in the Hull War, Strikes, Terrorism and Related Perils Listed Areas by Lloyd’s Joint War Committee. This designation allows insurance companies to impose additional premiums on vessels sailing through the country’s maritime territory.

The frequency of attacks offshore Benin declined in late 2011 but simultaneously increased offshore Nigeria. Reduced pirate success may have been the result of international cooperation. The Benin navy is now receiving support from foreign governments, including new radar equipment, surveillance aircraft and patrol craft. In addition, joint patrols with the Nigerian navy appear to be having some impact.

The Nigerian flag officer commanding Nigeria’s western naval command, Rear Admiral Emmanuel Ogbor, says that four alleged pirates were handed over to Beninois officials in November for prosecution, while another four were transferred to the Nigerian authorities. However, the fall in the number of attacks may be due to tanker owners deciding to use other ports. Further attacks offshore Benin in early 2012 suggest that the problem has not been solved.

Finally, any measures taken to tackle piracy off the coast of Benin could merely displace the problem. Tankers carrying oil from the Niger Delta to the North American eastern seaboard and Europe must travel past many other West African maritime states and so any attempt to stem piracy off Benin could encourage attacks anywhere from Togo westwards. This would pose greater challenges for pirate gangs based in Nigeria but Togo and Ghana could easily be targeted by speedboats based in Lagos. A regional solution is therefore required along the lines of that operated in the western Indian Ocean.

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