The kidnapping of three Indians after their ship was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Nigeria is a reminder of how the waters around West Africa have replaced the Somali and East Africa coast as the new hotspot for piracy.
The three Indians have been identified as Sushil Kumar from Nagrotra Surian, Pankaj Kumar from Samloti and Ajay Kumar from Palampur, all merchant navy personnel from Himachal Pradesh.
Concerned over the incident, two key politicians from the state – health minister J.P. Nadda and former chief minister Shanta Kumar – have shot off letters to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, urging her to ensure their early release “from the custody of Nigerian pirates”. The ministry, on its part, has assured them that the government will “strongly act to secure the safe return of the youths”. Nadda said Swaraj had assured him that “the government of India is making all possible efforts to bring them back as soon as possible”.
Meanwhile, a family member of one of the victims said they received a satellite phone call on March 12 from Nigeria saying that a group of pirates had hijacked a ship and had kidnapped three Indian crew members. The pirates have demanded a ransom for the release of the Indian nationals, the member claimed.
This incident of piracy and kidnapping comes at a time when Nigeria, one of Africa’s largest crude oil producers, is facing a severe economic crisis leading to a fresh wave of militancy and insecurity, especially in the Niger Delta region, and the Gulf of Guinea in a larger context. Both old and new militant groups have embarked on a concentrated campaign to cripple Nigeria’s oil and gas industry. In 2016, militancy cost over $7 billion in lost revenues to the Nigerian government and pushed the country into recession as oil production fell by as much as half. The increase in pirate attacks and armed robberies are, therefore, being attributed to rising insecurities in the Niger Delta region.
The Niger Delta on the Gulf of Guinea is a resource-rich region. A number of militant organisations, such as Niger Delta Avengers, Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate, Bakassi Strike Force operate in the region. These organisations blame international oil companies and the Nigerian Federal Government for unfair distribution of the delta’s resource wealth. There have been instances of pirate gangs attacking commercial vessels in the waters of Gulf of Guinea, conducting robberies, stealing oil and abducting crew for ransom. Activities of the resurgent Niger Delta insurgency, spearheaded by the Niger Delta Avengers, are mainly targeted at disrupting the country’s oil and gas infrastructure, which is a strategic concern for the Nigerian government.
In a 2017 report, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) had named Nigeria as one of the “hotspots for sea piracy” and the main “kidnap hotspot”. Over the years, these pirate groups have shifted from hijacking tankers for theft of produce, to focusing exclusively on kidnapping of crew for ransom. This shift in modus operandi is largely a result of increased maritime surveillance and a decline in global oil prices. Since hijacking of tankers requires more technical expertise and investment, marine kidnapping for ransom provides a more favourable risk-reward ratio to pirates. This has become an overriding security concern for vessels operating in the high seas.
Certain vessel characteristics such as speed, low freeboard makes vessels more attractive to pirate gangs, but all commercial vessels that can be boarded while navigating in waters always remain at risk of getting attacked. Under-reporting of piracy attacks off Nigeria also remains a major issue. Therefore, shipping containers and vessels are urged to report all incidents in order to assess the actual level of piracy and increase cooperation among the respective navies, patrol ships and international organisations.
In the wake of growing piracy off the Nigerian coast, the role played by regional organisations, the Nigerian government, the navy and private companies assumes more significance. The 2017 IMB report had underlined the failure of government agencies responsible for monitoring and foiling attacks to fulfil their responsibilities. In 2006, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) was created by merging its predecessor, National Maritime authority (NMA) with the Joint Maritime Labour Industrial Council. Its primary responsibility is to monitor Nigerian shipping, its coastal waters and maritime labour. NIMASA in 2017 even awarded a surveillance contract worth billions of naira, but it has not taken off as yet. Moreover, Nigeria lost the elections to secure category ‘C’ status at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) owing to its insecure and unsafe waters. NIMASA spent less than naira 100 million ($276,000) for the IMO campaign and even faced budgetary constraints
Against this backdrop, a gradual rise in political will and concerted efforts by some West African nations to take ownership of maritime security have been noticed of late. Following the thwarting and arrest of MT Maximus hijackers in 2016, the Nigerian navy launched operation ‘Tasare Teku’ in the face of intense pirate activity. However, information sharing by Maritime Domain Awareness and maritime law enforcement capacities and capabilities vary sharply in the region. Since Nigeria is the main country of origin for criminals in maritime piracy, the government is trying its best to pass laws that will prosecute pirates who had hitherto gone unpunished.
The Nigerian government has also embarked on public-private security partnerships to tackle piracy. Under a memorandum of understanding signed in 2016 between the Nigerian Navy and 16 private firms, the private companies were required to supply and maintain shipping vessels and patrol boats, and provide the bulk of offshore oilfield security. The Nigerian government is also looking to leverage international initiatives by organisations such as the ‘G7 Friends of the Gulf of Guinea Group’ in order to strengthen the fight against piracy and other criminal activities on sea. Therefore, it is imperative for governments to increase maritime governance by strengthening maritime institutions.
Since 2013, Nigeria has become a hub for organised crime in West Africa. The rise and spread of Boko Haram’s armed insurgency, especially in North-east Nigeria, has been President Muhammadu Buhari’s toughest challenge since coming to power in 2015. The severity of the situation has been compounded by the 2016 Niger Delta insurgency. It is important to note that there is an intrinsic link between onshore violence and the surge in offshore piracy. This pattern suggests that at the tactical level, the “attackers”, when not employed in militancy, oil theft, illegal bunkering or gang warfare, engage in piracy to fulfil some of their fiinancial needs, which is why incidents of kidnappings for ransom are on the rise.
While Buhari’s government has made some inroads in its fight against piracy, ensuring maritime security continues to remains one of the foremost challenges for Nigeria. Any regional effort by governments and maritime institutions to contain piracy and ensure safe passage of shipping vessels must include transparency and coordination, and Nigeria has to be an integral player in this regard.
In this backdrop, the challenge facing the government of India in securing the release of the three nationals is daunting and requires robust cooperation with the Nigerian government and international organisations concerned.
Abhishek Mishra is doctoral candidate in African Studies, University of Delhi.