- Since October 2015 there has been a notable increase in recorded kidnappings at sea in the Gulf of Guinea, as regional militant gangs move away from oil theft as their preferred source of revenue.
- The changing pattern of criminality is partly the result of a government crackdown on oil theft, but it is also indicative of a wider upsurge in militancy in the Niger Delta relating to the prosecution of prominent militant leader Government Ekpemupolo.
- Incidents of bombings, kidnappings and acts of piracy will continue to grow in the Niger Delta over the next six months, particularly in the event of a confrontation between militant groups and the Nigerian military.
Pirates favouring kidnap for ransom over oil cargo theft
Since mid-January there has been a notable uptick in reported incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, with many of the incidents involving the kidnap of crew. PGI recorded four attacks on ships at sea that involved successful kidnappings in January, compared to one per month from October to December 2015. During the same period (October 2015-February 2016) there were no major oil cargo thefts, in what represents a continuation of a long-term decline in hijackings for the purposes of oil theft in the Gulf of Guinea over the past 18 months. Although cargo theft remains a serious concern in the Gulf of Guinea, the rise in kidnappings could see piracy gangs target a wider range of vessels as they come to focus less on those carrying oil.
As has been the case in the past, the recent incidents confirm the ability of pirate gangs to operate at significant distances from the Niger Delta, which has historically been the focus of regional piracy. On 11 February pirates hijacked a commercial vessel and kidnapped five crew members off Abidjan, the first such reported incident off Ivory Coast since September 2014. The Abidjan incident came just two weeks after five crew members were seized from a Greek-owned chemical tanker 110 nm off Bayelsa on 29 January. Pirates’ ability to intercept target vessels far out at sea demonstrates the high level of planning in such attacks and is likely indicative of prior knowledge of the location of the vessel, which would suggest the complicity of employees within the shipping industry and Nigeria’s security agencies. Since the beginning of the year, several officials from the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) have been arrested on corruption charges, including the organisation’s former director general Patrick Akpobolokemi, highlighting the extent of high-level corruption within the organisation.
Government crackdown driving change
Since his election in May 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari’s crackdown on illicit refineries in the region has made it more difficult to process and sell stolen oil, dis-incentivising pirates from hijacking vessels for their oil. According to security officials, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps destroyed 106 illegal refineries in the Niger Delta in 2015, most of which were shut down since Buhari came to power.
Improved navy patrols and surveillance in the Niger Delta have also made it more difficult for criminal gangs to store and transport stolen crude, prompting many criminals to operate further out to sea. These surveillance activities do not, however, appear to have had a significant impact on the rate of kidnappings within the Niger Delta, which remains high. Depressed oil prices have also made the sale of stolen oil significantly less profitable than was previously the case.
Rising militant tensions in Niger Delta
There is a strong risk that kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea will continue to grow in the year ahead, in line with increasing militancy in the Niger Delta that has seen an upsurge in bombings on oil infrastructure. There have been four major attacks on pipelines reported since 15 January in the Niger Delta, reflecting growing tensions in the region since Buhari came to power. These include an attack on a pipeline that forced the closure of refineries at Port Harcourt and Kaduna on 17 January, resulting in a loss of 5.4 mn litres of the 6.8 mn litres of petrol Nigeria produces each day.
Such attacks have occurred with growing frequency since Buhari’s election in March 2015, but appear to have increased since a judge ordered the arrest of former Niger Delta militant leader Government Ekpemupolo, known as Tompolo, for money laundering and theft on 14 January. Tompolo was one of the most powerful militant leaders during the 2004-2009 Niger Delta insurgency and has remained a highly influential political and business figure in subsequent years. He is known to have maintained extensive ties to militant gangs through the amnesty period and in 2012 procured seven Norwegian Hauk-class, high-speed torpedo support ships.
Changes to the Niger Delta’s amnesty programme are also exacerbating tensions among the militant leaders responsible for the earlier conflict. The government announced on 14 January it would extend the 2009 amnesty programme that saw militants lay down their weapons in return for regular payments, but the government has decided to halve the stipends with the intention of eliminating them altogether in 2017. Buhari has also refused to renew many of the security and pipeline surveillance contracts awarded to Niger Delta militants at the end of the insurgency, a move that has further angered militant groups in the region.
Over 2016, the government’s management of militant tensions will be a key factor in determining the extent of political violence in the Niger Delta and the corresponding threat to commercial operators in the Gulf of Guinea. Tompolo has so far refused to obey the arrest warrant and any attempt by the federal government to deploy troops to Delta State to secure his arrest would almost certainly provoke a backlash, including further attacks on pipelines and foreign commercial interests in the Niger Delta. Although the militants no longer command the level of support they did in 2009, sabotage, bombings and kidnappings in Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa states remain a high probability over at least the next six months. Meanwhile, the ongoing fall in revenue to militant gangs from oil theft and amnesty payments will continue to incentivise criminal activity at sea, resulting in a steady increase in kidnappings of the crew of commercial vessels.