Crude Oil Theft, Pipeline Security Contracts, Piracy and Elections – A Perfect Storm of Drivers of Instability

Oil Theft and Economic Strain

The Nigerian economy is currently under intense strain, particularly in respect of foreign currency reserves and inflows.  At the end of November, Governor Godwin Emefiele of the Central Bank of Nigeria stated that “The official foreign exchange receipt from crude oil sales into our official reserves has dried up steadily from above $3.0 billion monthly in 2014 to an absolute zero dollars today”, The single greatest earner of foreign currency has, for decades, been the oil and gas sector.  However, the CBN chief attributed the atrophy of this sector’s ability to generate foreign currency inflows to the relentless and expanding industrialised theft of the country’s crude oil and condensate production. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the oil and gas sector represents a huge opportunity for Nigeria, with global supplies having become strained as a result of economic sanctions imposed on Russia.  However, Nigeria has been unable to exploit the potential this global crisis represents and its foreign currency reserves continue to dwindle.  This is becoming critical as evidenced by the CBN governors comments and a swathe of recent changes in monetary policy relating to foreign currency and banking regulations.   

With Europe now unequivocally cut off from the major supply route for Russian gas since the destruction of the Nordstream 1 pipelines, and the failure to commission the Nordstream 2 pipeline through the Baltic, the question is whether Nigeria can ramp up its production and export levels to fill the supply gap in Europe.  The sea routes to Europe’s markets from Nigeria are relatively short and this reinforces the merits of trading hydrocarbons with European countries.  

Europe’s requirement for LNG supplies is buoyant and Nigeria has capacity to produce 22 million tons per annum (mtpa) from Bonny.  The recent commissioning of train 6 has not yet generated the benefits for the economy that were envisaged though.  For Nigeria to fail to step into the supply gap and increase LNG exports to Europe could be economically – and politically – damaging. 

So can Nigeria exploit the prevailing global economic environment to generate a reversal of fortunes and stabilise the economy?  While clearly a potential opportunity exists, Nigeria faces significant challenges, noting that in late September, media sources reported a 13.5% year on year drop in crude oil output.  This is very significant at a time when these other massive new market opportunities are opening up.   

The following graphic is taken from the OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report and shows the steady year-on-year and month-on-month decline in crude oil output.

Industrialized Theft of Hydrocarbons

Pipeline vandalism and lack of investment in pipeline infrastructure are intrinsically linked to the challenges facing the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) and the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources.  Chronic threats/risks to the security and physical integrity of pipelines, particularly in the Niger Delta, undermine confidence among domestic and foreign investors.  The apparent inability of oil companies to secure their pipelines is partly responsible for a wave of divestment by the International Oil Companies, an example of which is the planned major divestment by Shell of its remaining onshore oil production assets.  Shell would likely complete the divestment by the time of the elections were it not for a legal challenge to the process centred around a $1.8 billion settlement claim against the operator by host communities in the Niger Delta.

Onshore gas is less problematic from a security perspective due to its volatility and the technical and safety challenges associated with removing it in volume from the closed systems operated by the oil companies. However, Nigeria’s production of associated gas – that which emanates from the same wells and reservoirs as the crude oil production – is entirely dependent upon the ability of the oil companies to continue to pump oil.  With pipelines now so heavily attacked by thieves and vandals that, according to some sources, as much as 90% of oil that leaves the wellheads is stolen before it reaches the export terminals, there is a significant risk that oil companies will shut in their fields.  This will directly impact on gas production.  

Conversely, with oil being far less profitable than gas for the operating companies, it is possible that the oil companies might take a pragmatic position and adopt an elevated tolerance for theft of crude oil as long as the gas continues to flow.  The downside of such pragmatism is that operators are responsible for the environmental impact of their operations, and as we have seen in the past, they face litigation even for loss of containment events caused by deliberate interventions by communities, criminal elements and militants.  Against such a background, it is understandable that they might decide to divest.   

The Nexus with Piracy

On the maritime front, the point is made in shipping media that when the Dangote refinery comes on stream, the facility will likely export refined hydrocarbon products via tankers.  There could be fewer tankers exiting the onshore terminals in the Delta and more off Lekki.  The cargo will change as well from crude to refined product.  That will change the target set available to pirates and maritime armed robbers off the Lekki area and beyond.   However, in late November 2022, Martha Pobee, an Assistant Secretary-General in the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) of the UN, warned of a shifting situation in the Gulf of Guinea.  She warned that “Pirate groups are adapting to changing dynamics both at sea and in coastal areas,” going on to say; “In this respect, the recent decrease in instances of piracy may in part be attributable to the shift by criminal networks to other forms of maritime and riverine crime, such as oil bunkering and theft, which they likely view as both less risky and more profitable”.  She urged regional States and their regional and international partners to accelerate their efforts to establish security in the Gulf of Guinea, referring to the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, signed in June 2013 as the benchmark.

Strategies to Avert a Crisis

The Dangote refinery will also rely on oil from the Delta region to operate.  That feedstock will need to be brought in either via pipelines or tankers.  If it is via pipeline, the line could be targeted onshore by thieves and vandals.  It could also be a target for politically inspired vandalism / sabotage.  If the feedstock is coming in via tanker, that increases the costs and also relies on existing output and terminals in the Delta.  It is likely that Dangote has been or very soon will be lobbying government to resolve the security dilemma in the Niger Delta Region.  

In response to the challenges in the region, we have seen a re-energised focus in government on the seemingly intractable challenge of securing the pipeline network in the Niger Delta.  The Federal Government has realised that crude oil production is vital for the economy and security of the infrastructure is critical to success.  

Recently, we have seen the award of a Niger Delta-wide contract to the former MEND militant leader, Government Ekpemepulo – aka Tompolo.  As at mid-October, the status of this contract remained unclear as a result of strain between Tompolo and other former militant leaders – notably Dokubo Asari. However, by the end of November, pipeline security contracts with Tompolo companies were in place and operational in Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States. 

According to local media reports, Tompolo’s company, Tantita Security Services, has been directly involved in:

  • The discovery of a 4km illegal pipeline running from Yorke Flow Station to an offshore loading point.  It was just one of 15 illegal connections to the Trans Escravos Pipeline.
  • 06 October 2022 – Arrest of an illegal oil bunkering vessel and its crew in the Escravos area.
  • 07 October 2022 – Arrest of a 1,500 metric tons capacity crude oil tanker, MT Deinmo, IMO number 7210526 with eight crew members at the Escravos River in Warri Southwest LGA.
  • By 10 October, a total of 58 illegal connections had been discovered by Tantita Security Services in Delta and Bayelsa States.
  • 15 October, TSS reports the discovery on preceding days of another illegal connection behind a military post in the Ogulagha Community in close proximity to the Forcados Terminal.

Tompolo was keen to demonstrate his company’s capability as a significant sum of money had reportedly been paid at an early stage – before the contract had been signed.  Despite numerous claims of ‘discovery’ of oil theft infrastructure and operations, Tompolo and his organisation would almost certainly have had foreknowledge of the many oil theft operations in the Burutu Kingdom and the wider area, including into Bayelsa. Tompolo’s Chief of Security in Tantita Security Services is one Keston Pondi – formerly a senior Delta State MEND commander in Camp 5.

In November, despite growing support among influential actors, Tompolo was still faced with demands for inclusion by security companies and organisations that are closely associated with former militants.  In Rivers, Asari Dokubo has been pacified and is now supportive of the contract and High Chief Edwin Clark has called for people in the region to support the contract.  However also in Rivers, The Onelga Security Planning and Advisory Committee (OSPAC) demanded inclusion in the Tantita Security Limited surveillance contract, and in Delta State, a speedboat operated by Tompolo’s company local subsidiary was attacked and the engine stolen.  This may have been purely incidental, but it cannot be ruled out that a group seeking inclusion was sending Tompolo a message.

The key challenge facing Tompolo is to demonstrate capability, competence and integrity in the delivery of the contract.  The problem he faces is that the youths who are directly involved in the operational theft of the hydrocarbons are very small fish in a big pond where some very large fish also swim.  The youths are expendable, and any number of arrests will only scratch the surface of the problem that is driven by powerful actors, who drive the operations from afar.  

The economic emergency created by the dwindling foreign currency reserves, and the election campaign which is now underway will perhaps focus minds in Abuja and energise the review of options for securing the region’s pipeline infrastructure.  Arete sources indicate that at least one of the presidential candidates intends to make the issue of industrialised oil theft a key election issue.  That same candidate has reportedly pledged to address the challenge to the country’s prosperity that this illicit industry represents, should he win the Presidency.  Any response will likely see the deployment of high-tech surveillance solutions that have not previously been used in the region and it is likely the new technology will be integrated with existing command and control structures that will see Tompolo’s companies responding to highly accurate but perishable intelligence.  Thus, it is expected that, given time, Tompolo’s companies will be seen to be an effective response to the oil theft problem. 

Conclusion

We should expect the issues discussed in this analysis to become hot topics in the election campaign and we will continue to monitor and add our analysis in the coming months.  The scale of the theft of crude oil is such that the problem will not be fixed quickly or without major pushback from powerful vested interests.  The entire Niger Delta region faces a period of strategic change, and the ending of the industrialised theft of hydrocarbons will not come about without massive investment in the region.  The question is, where will the funding be generated for such a project?

A Review of Stability in the Niger Delta

Background

August 2022 has seen a number of events in the Niger Delta that threaten to destabilise the region again.  The key drivers of instability remain centred around the exploitation of the region’s primary source of revenue – its hydrocarbon resources.  The exploitation of these resources permeates almost every facet of the socio-political character of the region, with contracts for service companies and security suppliers becoming hotly contested sources of tension between communities, companies and political actors at the Local Government Area (LGA) and State levels.  

This nexus of commercial interests and drivers of instability has been the enduring feature of the region since the 2009 Presidential Amnesty Program was introduced to end the militancy in the region.  In August 2022 we saw the issues re-emerge and resulting in the possibility of increased inter-communal conflict.

The region is not a simple monoculture when it comes to crime and violence.  Cultism, ritualism and robbery are an enduring feature of life for the people of the region.  Recent weeks have highlighted the levels of risk facing both indigenous people and visitors, the latter including people travelling to the region for work.  However, this analysis will focus on how the competition for economic advantage arising from oil and gas contracts is a significant driver of instability.

Oil and Gas under Siege

The surge in pipeline vandalism, illegal oil and condensate tapping and artisanal refining is contributing to huge environmental damage across the region, the loss of lives in fires and explosions at bunkering sites and illegal refineries, and an increase in competition between the gangs involved in the illegal industry of oil theft.  Fires and explosions at illegal refineries have increased significantly in 2022, with major events occurring in the Ohaji-Egbema LGA, Imo State, in April 2022 and Ukwa West LGA, Abia State, in May and again on 21 August.  In August, a tanker that was conveying illegal petroleum products exploded in Eleme LGA of Rivers State. These incidents all resulted in multiple deaths.  

The environmental impact of the pipeline tapping, and illegal refining is massive.  Many illegal refineries dispose of the residue from their unsophisticated refining techniques by simply pouring the tar-like reside into the nearest waterway.

The economic impact of the bunkering and artisanal refining is also huge.  It was reported in July that 90% of oil that should be reaching the main terminal at Bonny is lost to crude oil thieves.  One commentator said in August that,” If you pump 239,000 barrels of crude oil into either of the Trans-Niger Pipeline or the Nembe Creek Trunk Line they will receive 3,000 barrels. It got to a point where it was no longer economically sustainable to pump crude into the lines and a force majeure was declared”.  Condensate lines are also heavily targeted as this by product of gas production requires almost no further refining and can simply be mixed with genuine petrol to provide income for the bunkering gangs and also the downstream fuel outlets that enjoy enhanced profit margins.

Illegal bunkering has also expanded dramatically in the last 12 months so much so that the Nigeria Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) recently reported that the nation’s oil output dropped by 12.5 per cent to 1.4 million barrels per day, including condensate, in the first half of 2022, down from 1.6 mbpd in the corresponding period of 2021.  One media source also reported that bunkering cartels stole between 200,000 and 400,000 barrels of crude daily during the period.  

Powerful Forces Threaten Stability

The biggest threat to stability in the region at present is the competition between the powerful cartels behind the bunkering.  In this context, Bayelsa State has witnessed a spate of oil and gas related targeted killings in recent weeks.  

On 12 June, the former MEND militant leader known as Commander Ebi Albert was shot dead in a targeted killing in the Biogbolo suburb of Yenagoa.  He was one of the first tranche of militants to embrace the amnesty.  His killing was the latest in a series of targeted assassinations of former militant leaders in the state.

Also in June, gunmen killed Francis Kolubo, the paramount ruler of Kalaba community in Yenagoa LGA, together with the chairman of the Community Development Committee (CDC), Samuel Oburo.  The murders reportedly were the result of fierce opposition by the two victims to the establishment of a crude oil bunkering camp on the outskirts of the community.  They believed that such a development would hinder the further development of the community by the Nigerian AGIP Oil Company.  The pushback against their plan by the community leaders triggered a spate of attacks on NAOC pipelines by the bunkering gang, who subsequently secured a pipeline surveillance contract from NAOC.

In early July, also in Yenagoa LGA, gunmen in military fatigue shot dead a former militant leader, Indukapo Ogede at a hotel at Okutukutu.  He was the Coordinator of Operations for Darlon Oil and Gas Servicing, an indigenous pipeline surveillance company.

As the 2023 elections loom over the horizon, the Federal Government has realised that this illicit parallel industry is a strategic and potentially existential threat to the nation.  The oil and gas sector generates the vast majority of the country’s foreign currency earnings, and the strategic losses being suffered on lines such as the Trans-Niger Pipeline (TNP) that feeds Bonny Terminal have now reached a level of criticality that can no longer be ignored.  

As the country faces a crippling shortage of foreign currency reserves – witness the recent crisis over repatriation of profits by foreign airlines resulting from government measures to protect its reserves – the Federal Government has decided to attack the problem at its roots – in the Niger Delta.  However, the question of whether this chosen strategy will help or drive further instability in the region remains unanswered.

The Government Acts – But is the Solution Likely to Work?

The recent award of a massive pipeline surveillance contract to the former MEND leader Government Ekpemepulo, AKA Tompolo, has generated significant tension in the region, as many other powerful influencers and former militants feel that the award disenfranchises them. Indeed, the tension has extended beyond the region, resulting in a challenge by the Amalgamated Arewa Youth Groups (AAYG), a northern entity.  This challenge itself has been rejected by the Ijaw youths from the six states of Niger Delta who have publicly stated that the contract, worth more than N4 billion per month, will actually help reduce crude oil theft in the region.  Former MEND militant leaders also pointed out that the AAYG, a coalition of approximately 225 northern youth groups, should focus more on the problems in the north of the country.

AAYG protesters also stormed the NNPC headquarters in Abuja calling for the revocation of the contract and the resignation of the Oil Minister, Timipre Silva – a former governor of Bayelsa State with alleged links to MEND leaders in the state.  

The Ijaw Youth Council Worldwide (IYC), countered that Tompolo would help save the country billions of naira being lost through oil theft and pipeline vandalism.  The former MEND commander, Oyimi 1, who is also Chairman of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Dreams of Niger Deltans (MADND), said Tompolo would not be distracted by the AAYG comments.

However, on 05 September, the coordinator of the group, Muktar Adamu, announced the group had dropped its objection to the contract award, saying “the award of the contract was transparent and well-advertised, and followed due process”.  The apparent reason was that they had seen that the contract had not been awarded to Tompolo directly, but to a company in which he has an interest.

While Tompolo’s two companies had contracts covering part of Bayelsa, Delta, Ondo Imo and Rivers States, three other companies were awarded the other contracts.

Former militants and community leaders in both Bayelsa and Rivers issued statements criticising the award of a region-wide contract to a single contractor, claiming they should also have benefited from the opportunities arising from the contracts.  

A former militant leader in Bayelsa who identifies himself as General Lamptey, said there was no way Tompolo’s companies would be allowed to work in those areas of the state where local leaders that should have benefitted. He further stated that people on the ground would resist the surveillance contractors of Tompolo’s companies.  

In Rivers State, militant leaders in the Kalabari areas, which they claim hosts 83 kilometres of pipelines (referring to the Nembe- Creek Trunk Line (NCTL)), stated that ignoring Ateke Tom and Dokubo Asari would lead to a situation where the surveillance contractors would not be able to work in Rivers State. 

In the north-west of the region, community leaders in Delta State called on the Federal Government to award a separate contract to a company owned by an Urhobo indigene where pipelines transit areas populated by Urhobo communities.  Similarly, in Edo State, speaking on behalf of the oil producing communities and stakeholders in the State, Chief Dr Patrick Osagie Eholor called on the Federal Government and Tompolo to engage in a dialogue and “carry those people along”, stating that they have competent people in the OML30 licence block who can take care of the Trans-Forcados Pipeline (TFP) in that area.   

Responding, in an interview in early September, Tompolo explained that he would be engaging with major militant leaders in Rivers State – including Dokubo Asari and Ateke Tom – and they would realise the way ahead.  He made it clear that all the major players would be included in the overall delivery of the contract, with plans to meet key players in Ondo, Imo and Rivers States.  The former leader of the IYC, Chris Ekiyor, explained that the people protesting against the contract were simply impatient and need to engage with Tompolo to understand how the contract would be delivered.

The Ijaw National Congress (INC), the overarching body of all Ijaws, set up a committee to reduce tension arising from the pipeline surveillance contract.

Nevertheless, on 11 September, media reported that Asari threatened to confront and disarm any personnel working on the Tompolo contract who enter the Kalabari lands in Rivers State.

 

Can the Challenge Be Met?

In late August, the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, said the federal government would soon go public with the identity of highly-placed Nigerians behind oil theft in the country.  He implied that the ‘big men’ behind the industrialised theft of the nation’s wealth included members of the political elite and the security organs.   His assertion that the cartel includes senior people in the armed forces was an echo of a 2019 statement by Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike.  He claimed that the cost of such operations was beyond the reach of low-level community based criminal gangs.  Illustrating his point is the case of the MV. Heroic Idun, a 3 million barrel capacity very large crude carrier, which allegedly managed to lift 3 million barrels of crude illegally while in Nigeria waters.  Its subsequent escape to Equatorial Guinea remains contentious and largely unexplained.

Sheu’s words might herald a forthcoming clash between Tompolo’s contractors and powerful actors who will use the security forces to protect their operations.  More likely is a pragmatic balance being reached and the oil theft continuing after a suitable interval in which the contract will be hailed as a success.  The contract award can be viewed as an extension of ‘Operation Dakatar Da Bararrwo’, which was launched on 01 April.  Since its launch, 23,110,102.59 litres of diesel have been seized while crude oil was put at 39,664,420.16 litres or 230,882.73 barrels.  For kerosene, about 649,775.38 litres were confiscated; while PMS had recovery of 345,000.49 litres, Sludge 380,000 litres, and LPFO 66,000 litres.  During the operation, 85 suspects were arrested with 72 Boats while 23 vehicles were also seized.  At first glance, these figures are impressive.  However, they represent a mere skimming of the surface and the arrest and disruption of the very lowest levels of the illicit activity.  The major cartels that steal on an industrial scale will remain untroubled by such operations.

Militants and Surveillance Contracts

Sylva and Kyari decided to award the contract to Tompolo based on his history of leading the highly franchised militant groups in the first decade of the century and his handling of a pipeline surveillance contract in Delta State in 2014-15 with Oil Facilities Surveillance Limited.  Some senior military leaders as well as some governors in the region pushed against the award.  

Awarding pipeline surveillance contracts to former militant leaders is not unprecedented.  In 2014, a contract was awarded to Oil Facilities Surveillance Limited, which was owned by APC chieftain, Chief Emami Ayiri and the PDP’s Chief Michael Diden, AKA Ejele, to secure pipelines in Delta State.  Other contracts were awarded in Bayelsa to ‘Macaiver’ and in Rivers State to Farah Dagogo and Dokubo Asari under the overall control of Ateke Tom.  The contracts ended in 2015 ahead of the forthcoming elections.  Since then, a patchwork of contracts has been awarded to various companies.  

The government perception is that of all the contractors awarded lucrative contracts, only Tompolo has succeeded in securing pipelines.  

Can Tompolo Succeed?

It is reported that he has reached an understanding with the commander of the JTF that it will work collaboratively with his companies.  Tompolo is also perceived by the government as someone who knows the terrain, who understands the bunkering business and who commands a substantial number of men who will aggressively attack the problem of policing the pipeline networks.

Tompolo has mounted a significant and successful diplomatic campaign to win over his detractors in the region and beyond.  Indeed, in the first week of September, the AAYG reached an understanding with Tompolo and the leader of the Itsekiri youth movement (the Itsekiri Leaders of Thought), who met with Tompolo on 11 September to work out a protocol whereby the Itsekiri and Ijaw can both benefit from the contract.  The following day, the Itsekiri leaders began recruitment for the contract indicating a satisfactory outcome to the meeting.

At his headquarters in Oporoza in the Burutu Kingdom of Delta State, he has also held meetings with a succession of former militants, community leaders, journalists, security forces commanders, bunkering gang leaders, and pressure groups.  His efforts appear to be bearing fruit and the hope is that the status quo will be maintained in the region but only time will tell.

 

Strategic Impact of the Insurgency in the North West

Introduction

At the end of March 2022, Arete published a deep dive report into the attack on the Abuja Kaduna train that took place on 28 March.  At the time, the details of that incident were slowly becoming clearer, but the motivation and the impact of the incident remained uncertain.  In the four months since the attack, a picture has emerged of a much deeper-rooted problem for the Federal Government than a single group carrying out an isolated attack for quick financial gain.  What has become apparent is that the Nigerian Government has yet another insurgency to address, but this time it is happening right on the doorstep of the seat of government.  The implications of this, as we enter the election campaigning period ahead of next year’s elections, are profound.  

An Expanding Problem for the Government

In the intervening period since the end of March, insurgents based in Niger State have:

  • Continued to kidnap travellers plying the road between the capital land Kaduna – the gateway to the North.  
  • Attacked the security forces – particularly in and around Suleja, which is the key point between the areas in Niger State where they have their bases and the target rich Abuja-Kaduna corridor.
  • Attacked a convoy of the Presidency in Katsina State – the President’s home state.
  • Attacked Kuje Prison in the Federal Capital Territory, releasing hundreds of inmates including a large number of jailed insurgents.
  • Attacked a patrol of the elite 7th Guards Brigade in Bwari, a satellite town of Abuja lying to the north-west of the capital

The insurgents have demonstrated capability and intent to mount bold attacks in areas that previously had been regarded as relatively secure compared to other parts of the country.  It is believed that the insurgents are now present and occupy bases in six local government areas of Niger State and mount their attacks into the FCT and Kaduna State from these areas. 

Clearly, this evolving threat presents a massive challenge to the authority of the government at a time when the security situation in many parts of the country is becoming one of the main subjects discussed by people examining the political future of the nation.  The boldness of the attacks and the proximity to the seat of government for the country have galvanised these discussions both within the government and among its political opponents.  But could the emergence of this new challenge to the authority of the state have been predicted?  A body of thought that says it could is gathering strength and momentum.  

So, what were the drivers behind the formation of this powerful new group?

Anecdotal information indicates that the insurgents, some reports numbering them in tens of thousands (although the figure is more likely to be less than a thousand), are comprised of youths who had previously been mobilised to act as enforcers in the previous elections in 2019.  They were paid and provided with weapons to ensure the vote went a particular way and they were also promised jobs and other benefits after those election.  It is suggested that these promises were quickly forgotten by the political sponsors and patrons, leaving a large number of disgruntled and resentful youths in possession of firearms.  

Since the 2019 elections, we have witnessed the North-West geopolitical region become the most unstable, with the highest rate of kidnapping and almost daily attacks on communities by gangs of roving bandits who travel on motorcycles and pick-up trucks.  The timeline and geography of this evolution fits with the narrative.  

Could this situation have been foreseen?

There is a precedent for type of event with an almost identical sequence of events occurring in the Niger Delta following the 2003 elections, i.e., when large numbers of youths who had been armed by political patrons to support their election campaigns were abandoned once the elections were over. 

In this regard it could be argued that the situation in the North-West could have been anticipated and the drivers of the instability addressed before the situation deteriorated to its current extent.  

Conclusions

The collapse of security in the North-West over the last three years has been widely discussed and the details of the individual incidents are well known.  However, the developments since the March 28th attack on the train have taken on a new, and much more threatening, dimension for the Federal Government.  Against a background of widespread, diverse and expanding security challenges throughout the country, the situation in the North-West threatens to become a major political liability for the APC in the forthcoming elections, with some well-placed commentators suggesting that the APC already might be mortally wounded by it.

The security organs of the state continue to wrestle with the challenge of finding a solution to the situation, but to date they have been reacting to an adversary who enjoys a secure operating base and considerable freedom to move, giving them the initiative and the confidence to strike wherever and whenever they choose.  While the immediate impact is being felt in the FCT-Kaduna-Niger tri-State border areas, the insurgent campaign threatens to have enormous impact on the elections, resulting in a profoundly destabilising effect on the nation as a whole.  Some commentators are starting to talk about the ‘Balkanisation of Nigeria’, which is a scenario that would have huge strategic implications in the wider regions around Nigeria. 

 

Timeline of Events in the FCT-Kaduna-Niger Tri-State area – April-July 2022

26 April – Attackers release images of some of the abducted train passengers.

06 May – The pressure from the families of the abducted Abuja-Kaduna passengers may have forced the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) to put a hold on the resumption of train services within that route.  

12 May – Three Nigerian police officers were killed when an ISWAP cell ambushed a police team in the town of Suleja in Nigeria’s north-central state of Niger, near the country’s capital city.  

15 May – The train attackers release one of the hostages – a heavily pregnant woman.  In a video message circulating on social media, the woman said the abductors told her she had been freed on “compassionate grounds”.  

20 May – The Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) suspended the resumption of train services on the Abuja-Kaduna route.  

29 May – The train attackers’ withdraw their previous threat to stop feeding the over 60 abducted passengers of the Abuja-Kaduna bound train and to start executing the victims 

31 May – video released showing passengers pleading for government intervention.  One of the passengers was a course-mate of VP Osinbajo when they were at Lagos Law School.

08 June- Two of the abducted passengers of the Abuja-Kaduna train regain their freedom after spending 72 days in captivity.  

15 June – 11 of the abducted train passengers are released by their captors.

21 June – President Muhammadu Buhari has directed increased efforts toward rescuing kidnapped railway passengers still in custody and bringing the case to a close.  Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, on Tuesday said upon the President’s approval, rescue efforts are taking a two-lane approach, the kinetic and non-kinetic, to ensure the captives’ safe release.  Shehu said the kidnappers made a demand for the release of their own children and upon the settlement of that issue, they let go eleven of the victims, even though more were expected.

29th June 2022 – Mohammed Al’Amin, one of the remaining 50 hostages of the abducted Abuja-Kaduna train passengers was shot by his captors.  The incident occurred during “friendly exchanges of fire at the forest between the abductors that are guarding the victims and preventing them from possible escape.” Although the victim was critically wounded but still alive and in need of medical attention, appeals to the insurgents to release the wounded victim for access to medical care were “vehemently refused”.

04 July – ISWAP claims responsibility for another attack in Suleja, killing a policeman

05 July – ISWAP attacks Kuje Prison in Abuja, which housed more than one thousand inmates.  They attacked using explosives to breach the walls and then entered the prison with small arms.   600 inmates including 67 Boko Haram terrorists were said to have been freed during the attack. The attackers were able to operate inside the facility for almost four hours without facing any response.

07 July – 7 abducted train passengers were released by the insurgents.  Families of the released passengers stated that ransoms of 100m naira per victim and 200m naira for a Pakistani were paid.    200m was paid in Naira and the remaining 600m was paid in the equivalent in dollar value.  These released captives stated that the terrorists celebrated when they returned to the camp with prisoners they had released from Kuje Prison..  This indicates that the train attackers and the prison attackers are the same group.

10 August – 7 further abducted train passengers were released, 6 members of the same family including 3 children aged between 18 months and 7 years old, along with an unrelated 60-year-old woman.  It is not clear if any ransom was paid to the terrorists for their release.

Russia In Africa – A Strategic Evolution

Background

Moscow’s attempt to destabilise the West has backfired spectacularly, with Europe demonstrating greater cohesion and resilience than was perhaps anticipated, NATO being reinvigorated and, in all likelihood, expanding to incorporate two powerful and geographically important new members in Finland and Sweden.  

This unexpected outcome from the invasion of Ukraine will likely encourage Moscow to draw NATO and European attention away from its eastern frontiers and refocus their efforts elsewhere once the war in Ukraine is concluded.  One of the most likely future focal points for Russia will be Africa.

The African continent is rich in mineral resources, some of which are not found in significant volumes in Russia.  It is also a growing market for various products ranging from foodstuffs and technology to weapons and energy.  Moscow already has a footprint in Africa, with relationships existing or emerging in countries throughout the continent.  These relationships include trade and commercial agreements, diplomatic ties, military cooperation agreements, and energy – including nuclear technology.

The scene is set for a rapid expansion of Russian presence on the continent in parallel with burgeoning Chinese investment in the region as well as an increasing focus on Africa’s potential among numerous western countries.  Following Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, the race for expanding influence in Africa between the three power blocks could develop into a significantly destabilising force in some parts of the continent.

However, Moscow is not having it all its own way in Africa.  The vote in early March 2022 on the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine was opposed by only one African nation – Eritrea.  The African Union and ECOWAS also joined the strong international consensus of condemnation of the Russian attack. The current AU Chairman, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, as well as AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, also criticized Russia’s unprovoked war, noting that did not stop the former from accepting an invitation to Moscow in early June 2022.

Of the 54 African states, 28 voted to condemn the Russian invasion with 16 countries abstaining and 9 choosing not to vote. Ultimately, the vote has been a surprising condemnation of Moscow from a continent where the worldview of many leaders is shaped around non-alignment.  This, combined with enduring resentment of the impact of the various proxy wars fought on the continent during the Cold War, a focus on diplomatic etiquette, and a desire to remain non-aligned in the face of great power rivalries, makes the outcome of the vote quite remarkable.

The vote also exposed divergence of governance norms across the region and demonstrated that Africa’s future relations with Russia will be variable and likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

The countries that refused to condemn Russia have leaders who have been heavily co-opted by Moscow, including Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Bourhane of Sudan, and Malian Colonel Assimi Goïta.  Those leaders were not elected in any recognisable democratic process and are heavily propped up by Russian patronage and mercenaries.

The leaders of Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe all benefit from Russian weaponry, disinformation, or political support and none of them would benefit from a democratic process that could remove them from power.

Other countries, including Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, and South Africa, abstained or did not vote probably as a result of an ideology of non-alignment.

It is evident that Moscow has a lot of work to do if it wants to supplant the West in Africa, but how can it successfully achieve this potential aim?

 

Moscow’s Aims

Following the virtually unchallenged Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its consolidation of lands occupied by Moscow-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Moscow ramped up its strategic effort to gain further traction and influence in Africa.  It sees the continent as the next frontier for expansion of its political, military, and economic interests in response to growing pressure from the West.

In November 2019, leaders from up to 40 African nations gathered in Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast for the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit.  Many of them represented nations that Russia had no particularly strong history with.  The summit established a formal partnership with the aim of strengthening existing and potential political, security, economic, legal, scientific, technical, humanitarian, information, and environmental cooperation. The Russian team stressed to the African delegations that this cooperation offered a way for African states to affirm their sovereignty and resist European and American coercive diplomacy.  The latter point underlined that the continent was on the cusp of a new ‘Scramble for Africa’ with three main protagonists;  Moscow, Beijing, and the West all vying for influence and cooperation.

Russia began developing its position on the continent two years earlier, through a number of low-key and covert operations, but its efforts were constrained by budget limitations.  This effectively forced Moscow to rely on diplomatic and military means to gather influence and support rather than an investment of large amounts of hard currency.  

Most recently, on 03 June 2022, President Macky Sall – Chairman of the African Union – met with President Putin in Moscow where they discussed “…freeing up stocks of cereals and fertilisers, the blockage of which particularly affects African countries…”.  The agenda also covered expansion of political dialogue, economic relations, and humanitarian cooperation between Russia and African nations. Sall, visited Moscow at the invitation of Putin and was accompanied by the Chadian Chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat.  During the meeting, Putin took the opportunity to take a swipe at the West, saying “I would like to recall that our country has always been on the side of Africa, has always supported Africa in its struggle against colonialism.”  Read it here.

From the point of view of geostrategic security, there are three key threads to Moscow’s strategic aims in the continent. 

Firstly, establishing a presence in the southern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden which would undoubtedly present a threat to NATO’s southern flank, as well as the strategically vital choke points for international maritime trade that pass the Horn of Africa and the Suez Canal.

Secondly, after a less than impressive performance by its armed forces in the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow will be seeking to re-establish its credentials as a great global power.   It has arguably suffered significant loss of ground in this respect,  both diplomatically and militarily.  It has also been severely diminished economically.  Establishing a strong presence and degree of influence in Africa will remind the world that Russia is a country that must not be ignored.

Thirdly, establishing itself as a major external power on the continent would force the West to focus even greater efforts and resources into the continent in order to counter Russia’s influence while at the same time conducting aggressive influence operations among African nations to attack the standing of the West.  To some extent, as we shall see below, this is already happening.  

In terms of trade, Africa is still a relatively small but growing market for Russian goods compared to Europe and Asia.  Africa trades more with India, China, and the US than with Russia.  Nevertheless, in 2022, Russian trade with Africa has grown by 34%.  The importance of this should not be underestimated.  As it feels the weight of sanctions imposed by the West, Moscow views trade with African nations as a strategic opportunity. 

President Vladimir Putin has said Africa is one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities and has spoken about offering:

  • political and diplomatic support
  • defence and security help
  • economic assistance
  • disease-control advice
  • humanitarian-relief assistance
  • educational and vocational training

Where Russia Already Has a Presence

Between 2014-19, the African continent – excluding Egypt – accounted for 16% of Russia’s major arms exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).  80% of these exports went to Algeria with the remaining 20% spread across the rest of the continent.

Against this relatively modest position, Moscow’s defense relationships with African nations are growing.  Since 2015, military cooperation agreements have been signed with over 20 African countries. Read more about it here.

In 2017-18, Russia had weapons deals with Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Equatorial Guinea.  These included fighter jets, combat, and transport helicopters, anti-tank missiles, and engines for fighter planes. Full story here.

Russia has also been active in the Central African Republic (CAR), officially helping to support the embattled UN-backed government against an array of rebel groups.  This support has seen the Russian private military company (PMC), the Wagner Group, active in the country, providing security to the government and supporting indigenous forces in the protection of key economic assets.  Wagner group has also been reported to be active in Libya, Sudan, Mali, and Mozambique.

State-owned Russian companies have been mining bauxite in Guinea, diamonds in Angola, and winning concessions to produce off-shore gas in Mozambique.  Lukoil have interests in Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria and is reportedly seeking exploration and mining licenses in the Republic of Congo.

Russia is also offering nuclear power technology to several African countries, including the construction of the first nuclear plant in Egypt, financed by a $25bn (£19bn) loan.

Russia’s footprint in Africa is set to expand.  Its current presence is illustrated in the following maps:

Source: https://www.mining.com/russias-comeback-in-africa-favours-profit-over-long-term-influence-analyst

 

Source:  https://www.graphicnews.com/en/pages/39567/POLITICS-Russia-influence-in-Africa

Strategies

Russia’s strategy for increasing its influence in Africa takes several forms, including:

  • Political engineering and supporting counter-government activities
  • Electoral engineering and influencing voter behaviour through misinformation and disinformation
  • Direct military support to Moscow-friendly regimes or opposition groups using Wagner group.
  • Exchanging arms for resources.

The principal characteristic of the strategy is that Moscow co-opts the elites in the target countries in order to gain advantage that greatly outweighs the investment required to achieve that position.  This is a strategy that suits Moscow, given the financial constraints imposed on it.  This strategy requires no long-term investment or even relationship building and pays no attention to establishing strong relationships with the population.  It relies almost completely on influencing key individuals in the power structures through coercion, personal reward and manipulation.  The most frequently identifiable strategy relies on political support and deployment of Wagner troops in countries with natural resources on Moscow’s shopping list.

This has been the approach adopted by Moscow in Central African Republic where Moscow propped up President Touadéra.  The same strategy has been seen in support of Denis Sassou-Nguesso in the Republic of Congo, Ali Bongo in Gabon, Filipe Nyusi in Mozambique, Andry Rajoelina in Madagascar, Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, Salva Kiir in South Sudan and Alpha Condé in Guinea.  This list is not exhaustive. Read about it here.

In the African countries where Russia has become most entrenched – Libya, the CAR, and Mali — there is growing evidence of it deliberately undermining the United Nations, deploying mercenaries, and violating human rights.  These all have a highly destabilising effect on the countries concerned and potentially for regional neighbours.

In Libya, where Russia has its strongest military presence, there is evidence of efforts to undermine the UN process aimed at establishing a constitutionally based, unified government through its support for a parallel government in the east of the country led by the warlord Khalifa Haftar.

In CAR, the National Security Advisor is a Russian and the Presidential guard comprises of Wagner mercenaries.  They are also very active around gold and diamond mines and increasingly aggressive towards the UN peace keeping force in the country.

In Mali, Russia began an influence operation in 2019 based on disinformation aimed at damaging the standing of the UN and the French operations in the country, as well as the democratically elected president, Ibrahim Keita.  Amid claims of widespread human rights violations involving Wagner mercenaries, the Russians have used their veto in the UN Security Council to supress any attempt to investigate the massacres.

As well as providing support to democratic leaders, Moscow has also weighed-in in support of undemocratic alternatives as they did in Libya, where they supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar.  Elsewhere, it is reported that the August 2020 coup in Mali led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, was planned in Russia while members of the Malian army participated in extended training.  Since early 2021, Wagner troops have been operating alongside Malian troops, including participating in atrocities against civilians which they have attempted to blame on French troops, who have since withdrawn from the country. In Sudan, Russia reportedly urged military leaders to resist the planned transition to civilian rule. 

In conducting these operations, where it aligns with and supports indigenous military factions, Moscow has ensured that its proxies in those countries have supplanted the democratically elected powers and created enduring hardship for the greater populations.  

Russia has also been active in manipulating voter behaviour in elections in Africa – a tried-and-tested strategy employed by Russia in western polling exercises. 

This usually involves widespread and multifaceted influence operations using media, social media, and other messaging channels.  The basis of the strategy is to disseminate supportive messaging for their favoured candidate, coupled with unfavourable representations from opposition candidates, the dissemination to the media of flattering, albeit dubious, poll results, and the unqualified and timely approval of election results by a pseudo-election monitoring organization, such as the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC). These methods were highlighted in the recent elections in Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, among others.

Russia also carries out well-structured information operations in target countries with the aim of altering voter behaviour, influencing public opinion against the West and undermining democracy.  Its campaigns typically support chosen candidates and denigrate those that are unfriendly towards Moscow’s ambitions.  Additionally, Russia has established a broader campaign to undermine democracy by disseminating reports and whispering campaigns about the weaknesses of democracy and the futility of supporting candidates who strongly support democratic principles.  As in all effective influence operations, the psychology is subtle, suggesting there is little to choose between the various political systems and therefore no real advantage to democracy.  The end state aim is to encourage a sense of inevitability among the voters who will then passively accept whoever is elected to represent them.  The message is usually that nobody is any better or worse than the alternative.

In those countries where Moscow is already close to the incumbent leader, it will continue to work very hard to keep that individual in place.  An example is the support for Alpha Condé’s candidacy for a third term in Guinea in 2020, which the country’s constitution prohibits.  When Condé faced widespread opposition to the proposed extension of his term, the Russian Ambassador, Alexander Bregadze, attempted to neutralise the opposition with a carefully constructed statement in which he said, “constitutions are not a dogma, a Bible or a Koran… it is the constitutions that must adapt to reality, not the reality that adapts to the constitutions.”   Russia’s interest in the continuance of the regime is less subtle.  Guinea has the largest reserves of bauxite in the world and Bregadze now heads up the operations in Guinea of Rusal, Russia’s largest aluminium company.  

However, Moscow does not always have its way, and the ousting of Condé in a coup in September 2021 set them back. The departure of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma in 2018, a reliable friend of Moscow, saw his replacement, Cyril Ramaphosa immediately cancel a deal with Moscow to build a nuclear power plant.  This saved South Africa from a huge debt commitment and weakened Moscow’s leverage over the country.  Russia apparently used the prospect of investment in nuclear energy technology to leverage elite capture in the country and disseminated disinformation and created tension to influence its internal politics.  Russia has used investment in nuclear programs to influence other African countries, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zambia.

Russia has also supplied surveillance technologies to a number of autocratic regimes in Africa, including Uganda and Rwanda, to help them control their political rivals and civil society groups. 

Russia has traditionally worked hard to influence governance in Africa by exploiting characteristics of democracy such as elections, free media and news platforms – in an effort to manipulate outcomes that are supportive of its interests.  At the same time, it seeks to sow seeds of dissent and disillusionment among the populace about the merits of democracy.  An African leader who gains or retains power through elections, even flawed elections, gains a powerful legitimacy and that serves Russia well insofar as it also legitimises the relationships and presence in the country enjoyed by Russian organisations – including its mercenaries.  The basis of this strategy is that it is hard to criticise the presence of a Russian interest when it has been invited there by a legitimate, democratically elected leader.

With regards to Moscow’s arms trade with the continent, it remains to be seen whether it will be able to fulfil orders already in place or offer future orders as many of its arms plants are reportedly struggling to manufacture weapons systems due to embargoes and sanctions imposed since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

 

“Dezinformatsiya” and Influence Operations

Following the reality check of the UN vote in March 2022, Russia will likely ramp up its efforts to regain traction and expansion of its interests in Africa.  One of the primary tools that it will use to achieve this aim is disinformation.  Disinformation is the intentional dissemination of false information with the intent of advancing a political objective.

 

In October 2019, Facebook removed dozens of fake accounts operating in Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan, that had been engaged in a long-term disinformation and influence campaign aimed at promoting Russian interests.  The accounts were linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group who has long-standing ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Prigozhin has been indicted for interfering in U.S. elections.  The deactivated accounts give us a glance into the nature of Russian disinformation campaigns in Africa.

 

Russian disinformation campaigns are a growing concern for African countries where information is a commodity that can be unreliable at the best of times.  Local political and economic interests as well as erroneous interpretation and unreliable sources shape the messaging in many African media sources. 

 

Prigozhin’s involvement was confirmed by a report from the Dossier Center, a Russian investigative organisation headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oligarch who fell out of favour with Putin, and also a detailed and in-depth investigation by Facebook.  Other disinformation was prevalent on Instagram.  A stark example was found to be occurring in Mozambique, where just a month before the October 2019 elections, numerous pages emerged that exclusively promoted the Frelimo ruling party.

 

The pages targeting Libya were more complex and perhaps more subtle.  These pages fell broadly into two categories, the first of which were supportive of Khalifa Haftar, the Russian-backed rebel commander trying to undermine the UN-recognized government and seize Tripoli with the support of Wagner Group mercenaries.   The pages included messaging that Haftar would stabilise the country and bring peace and security.  This strategy was backed by a second set of pages that asked readers to consider how much better things were under Muammar Gaddafi.  Between them, these pages accounted for 90% of the Russian content.  The remaining 10% were supportive of one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.  The latter is regarded as a potential presidential candidate.  Moscow is actively supporting both Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and is thought to be attempting to bring the two together.

 

The impact of this influence operation was significant, with 9.7 million interactions and the posts were liked by 1.7 million accounts.  However, there is evidence that the campaign was flawed.  In some of the responses, people challenged the messaging, particularly the premise that things were better under Gadaffi.

 

Similar pushback has been seen in other countries.  In Mozambique, the designers of the campaign demonstrated a stark degree of naivety when they launched a disinformation strategy suggesting the opposition party had agreed a deal with the Chinese government to allow the latter to dump nuclear waste in the country.  The designers obviously failed to appreciate that opposition parties do not sign agreements with foreign governments.

 

The volume of disinformation campaigns in Africa is surging, but African governments in targeted countries do little to address disinformation campaigns as in many cases it is a supportive narrative.  It is even possible that some of them are complicit in the overall strategy.  Russia is not alone in spreading disinformation in Africa.  In Libya, at least 6 nations have been detected using disinformation as a strategic tool.  Nevertheless, Russia has been proven to be the principal participant in the campaign to shape the thinking of millions of Africans.  

 

To put the extent of the problem into context, Tessa Knight, a South Africa-based researcher with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab stated, “Every time I have set out to search for coordinated disinformation in advance of an election or around conflicts, I have found it. I have not investigated an online space in Africa and not found disinformation. I think a lot of people are not aware of the scale of disinformation that is happening in Africa and how much it is distorting information networks.”

 

Part of the problem is that social media platforms pay less attention to removing false content in Africa than in other parts of the world.  This possibly reflects an assumption that the target audience is less sophisticated and therefore the damage is less than in Europe or the Americas.  This is a false assumption and the burgeoning use of mobile technology across the continent ensures that a wide audience participates in the debates triggered by these campaigns.

 

The following graphic illustrates the extent of known influence operations in Africa as 26 April 2022:

Disinformation campaigns that have been detected and publicly documented,  Source:  Africa Center for Strategic Studies

Payback – What Will it Cost Africa

Russia has been characterised as an autocratic kleptocracy, in which opposition figures are neutralised through various means ranging from judicial action and imprisonment to assassination.  It has also shown disdain for the international rules-based order and complete contempt for internationally recognised national borders.  The impact of such a political culture if introduced into African states could be profound.  The former characteristic can be found in countries across the continent, but the latter characteristic could have disastrous impact on Africans were it to become part of the African political culture.  

For all its problems, Africa has generally respected international borders – even those drawn up by colonial powers in ignorance of cultural and tribal considerations.  Were Moscow to influence African states to the extent that they started to eye the resources in neighbouring countries, cross-border conflict could escalate into all-out war between nations.

The Russian strategy in Africa has led to a loss of freedoms, particularly in Mali, where opposition leaders and journalists who have challenged the legitimacy of the new regime have been arrested for questioning and threatened by youth militias sponsored by the junta.

 

Conclusions

Russia is clearly focussing heavily on expanding its influence and leverage in numerous African countries.  Its strategy is aggressive and disruptive, creating instability and insecurity in previously stable, democratic countries.  This presents a threat to political and economic stability and, where Wagner force mercenaries are present, to societal stability and security.

At the level of corporate operations, companies should incorporate disinformation campaigns into their threat assessments and risk analysis templates.  In certain countries, if active in the extraction of minerals or hydrocarbons, companies’ operations could well become a target for Russian disruption, i.e., of the workforce through disinformation, or even direct targeting by proxies acting on behalf of Russian interests.

In short it is likely Russia will continue to pursue a policy of expansion across the continent, and this will likely accelerate after the war in Ukraine reaches a conclusion.  This will likely be to the detriment of Europe and the West unless steps are taken to mitigate it.   

 

Has Nigeria’s Piracy problem been solved?

Background

On 08 March 2022, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) decided to remove Nigeria from its Piracy List in view of the dramatic reduction in the number of reported incidents of piracy in Nigerian waters.  Following the report attributing the improvement in security to the efforts of the Nigerian Navy, the Chief of Naval Staff of the Nigerian Navy, Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, said:

“We will sustain the tempo of our Maritime Security Operations efforts. As you are all aware, the NN is the cardinal institution in the maritime sector that has the responsibility to lead the national response and prosecution of maritime threats. I make bold to say that the NN made giant strides in ensuring the security of the nation’s maritime environment.  It is heart-warming to note the significant decline in piracy attacks by 77 percent on Nigerian waters as reflected in the International Maritime Bureau (IBM) Third Quarter 2021 report.  I am glad to notify you that the latest IMB report (just last week) shows that Nigeria has exited the IMB Piracy List. However, considering the NN’s lead role in the regional effort at combating piracy and armed attack against shipping, the Service will not relent.  Also, the NN’s effort at containing piracy in the nation’s maritime domain has earned us commendation by the Office of the National Security Adviser on behalf of the President Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Federal Republic of Nigeria”.

The reduction in the number of incidents reported in the region has been significant, with no attacks recorded in Nigerian territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zone since November 2021 and just four incidents being reported in the whole of the last 12-month period – one each in April, June, October, and November.  

In light of the developments highlighted above, and given that Nigerian waters have not witnessed such low levels of piracy in any 12-month period since 2006, is there credible evidence to snow suggest that piracy in Nigeria is a thing of the past?

Introduction

The International Maritime Organisation defines an act in Article 101 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as consisting of any of the following acts:

(a)         any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft and directed:

(i)         on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;

(ii)        against a ship, aircraft, persons, or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b)       any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;

(c)       any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a)

It defines armed robbery as:

(a)     any illegal act of violence or detention or any act of depredation, or threat thereof, other than an act of piracy, committed for private ends and directed against a ship or against persons or property on board such a ship, within a State’s internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea;

(b)     any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described above.”

This analysis will consider all acts of maritime criminality that fit these definitions.

The analysis does not take into consideration criminal acts against vessels in ports, anchorages, and on the region navigable rivers unless they involve acts of extreme violence, kidnapping of mariners from internationally registered vessels, or hijacking of internationally registered vessels.  The analysis will examine trends and patterns of activity going back to 01 January 2018 in order to provide some context to the reduction in activity witnessed in the last 12 months.  

It is acknowledged that a great deal of maritime criminality occurred outside the parameters described above, but a full historical dissection of the region’s security history is beyond the scope of this article.

Historically, we have witnessed a number of evolutions in the maritime security threats that have plagued the Gulf of Guinea for almost two decades.  To examine some of the more significant trends and patterns we will consider:

The annual ‘Ember Months’ spike:

Local wisdom warns us every year to be more security conscious in the Ember Months – November and December.  Some people include ‘Octember’ in this warning.  It is true that criminality increases in the run into the festive season as people resort to crime to ensure they can take care of their families over the holiday season.  This phenomenon can be witnessed in the statistics for maritime and riverine criminality as well as onshore and urban crime patterns.  Perhaps the starkest example of this phenomenon in the maritime environment occurred in 2020 when at least 15 acts of piracy occurred in Nigeria’s waters (and that excludes robbery in the ‘brown water’ environments).  Previous years have seen an increase in the 4th quarter, but 2020 was demonstrative.

Mid-year lull:

In the years leading up to 2013, there was always a dramatic reduction in incidents in July and August.  This was attributable to the fact that sea conditions were unfavourable for small craft operations and the pirate gangs at that stage had not yet moved into the use of motherships.  From 2013, we saw a steady increase in the number of incidents in those months as the gangs used large vessels to reach further offshore and support small boat operations in deep water.

Election years:

Historically, as criminal gangs raise funds for their political patrons’ electoral campaigns, we have witnessed an increase in criminality both onshore and in Nigeria’s waters in the 12 months leading up to an election.  These spikes might be very localised, such as off the coast of Bayelsa in 2010, and not particularly evident in the overall statistics for the period.  

Changes – mother ships:

As mentioned above, the introduction of the use of motherships by pirate gangs allowed them to extend their reach, and from 2013 we started to see attacks occurring much further from the nearest landfall, and eventually the evolution of extended operational deployments into the waters of other Gulf of Guinea nations – with Nigerian gangs operating as far south as Angola and as far west as Liberia.

Migration to other waters:

The migration to the wider Gulf of Guinea environment also coincided with a more ‘industrial’ approach to kidnap for ransom activities, with pirate action groups (PAGs) deploying for several weeks and accumulating as many as 30 hostages.  This behaviour had clear economic benefits for the PAGs, allowing them to collect much larger ransoms in both individual and cumulative terms, and in so doing, dramatically improving their profit margins.  The gangs were clearly identified as Nigerian by the testimony of their victims upon release and also the fact that the kidnap victims were frequently held in camps in the Niger Delta.

Last six months – comparison

To illustrate the stark reduction in activity levels, we will compare activity in the last six calendar months (December 2021 through to May 2022) with the same period 12 months previously and also against the five-year rolling monthly average.  The following graphs are based on data available to Arete.

This first graph shows very clearly the complete absence of activity in Nigerian waters in the last 6 months.  The reality is that no acts of piracy were recorded in Nigerian waters in 8 of the last 12 months.  There have only been three other months (August 2018, November 2019, and August 2020) in the period Jan 2018 to Dec 2020 in which there were no incidents recorded in Nigerian waters.  However, in August 2018, an incident occurred in Gabonese waters that were attributed to Nigerian pirates, and in November 2019, five incidents occurred in the waters of Togo, Benin, Sao Tome & Principe, and Equatorial Guinea.  In August 2020, a single incident occurred in Ghanaian waters. 

An absence of reported incidents that matches the current hiatus in activity has not been witnessed for two decades or more.  However, the keyword is hiatus.  We do not know how long this period of grace will last as the organised crime groups (OCGs) that launch the PAGs likely still exist, still own their motherships and retain the capacity and capability to mount further operations at relatively short notice. 

This second graph shows the monthly activity rates since 01 January 2018 for Nigerian territorial waters and EEZ.  It is clear that despite the peaks and troughs in activity levels, the overall trend is downwards towards the current extremely low levels.  However, if we look at the next graph, which includes similar incidents in the waters, with the exception of Nigeria’s, between Ivory Coast in the West and Congo Republic in the south, the picture is slightly different.

This graph shows a trend line with a very gentle upward gradient, which persists through the currently extremely low levels of activity in Nigerian waters.  Nevertheless, the graph also shows a significant general reduction in incident rates in ‘foreign’ waters over the last 12 months when compared to the preceding 12-month period.  This almost certainly reflects the fact that most of the piracy attacks in the whole of the Gulf of Guinea are carried out by Nigeria-based OCGs/PAGs. 

As a more direct comparison, the following graph shows annual totals for the various territorial waters and EEZs of the littoral states of the Gulf of Guinea.

What is interesting is that even after the marked reduction in Nigerian waters, activity persists in the jurisdictions of other Gulf of Guinea states.  It also reflects the predominance of activity in the Nigerian EEZ, which is likely a reflection of the density of available targets, the ease of reach from the home bases of the PAGs, and the range of the mother ships being used, and the endurance of their crews.

It is thought that the PAGs operate in the waters of neighbouring nations in the view that the naval threat is lower in some of those states.  Of interest is the spike of activity in the waters of the Congo Republic in 2021, which coincides with the reduction in activity in Nigerian waters.

So what?

All of the above point to a number of key questions:

How long will the hiatus last?

This depends entirely on what is driving the absence of PAG activity.  If the OCG/PAGs have found another more lucrative or less risky revenue stream, then the hiatus is likely to last.  Of course, if the OCGs have responded to external pressure from the Federal Government then again, it could last – at least until there is a change of government.

Have the OCGs shifted their operations to another source of income onshore?

It is possible.  However, there has not been any noticeable spike in other criminality onshore or indeed the emergence of any new form of organised crime.  Oil bunkering is at an all-time high, and it is possible that some of the OCGs are also involved in that activity and have shifted their efforts into that arena.  It is possible, as the industrialised theft of oil and condensate no longer attracts the international condemnation and attention that the piracy was attracting.  

Have the PAGs retained their capacity and capability to resume operations?

As far as we know, they have not burnt their boats on the beaches.  That must mean they have either sold them or retained them.  Some of the mothership’s identities were well known and it is likely that had they been sold as they would have required a complete change of identity in order to operate unmolested by indigenous and international security forces in the region.  For now, we have no evidence to suggest that the capacity and capability of the PAGs have been removed from the OCGs.

Is this a reflection of a reporting anomaly?

This has been touched on above.  Reporting of activity in Nigeria and West Africa has always been incomplete, sometimes misleading, and sometimes mischievously so.  However, it is interesting that reporting of activity in anchorages and ports has also fallen away sharply.  There are lots of political and commercial factors that could be behind that, including the cancellation of the Secure Anchorage Area contract in early 2020.  We cannot rule out that the anchorages and ports are suddenly a lot safer.  The data would suggest that is the case.  Anecdotal information would suggest otherwise.

What could have forced the change?

Deep Blue:

The much-vaunted Deep Blue project that married NIMASA operations with those of the Nigerian Navy has been claimed to have changed the security dynamics in quantum leaps.  However, it has not been possible to find any substantive evidence that the Deep Blue project now dominates the maritime environment off the coast of Nigeria.  

International patrols – Danish naval action:

The presence of international warships in the region was certainly a game-changer in 2021.  Several interactions between western and Chinese warships and vessels under attack were reported.  The intervention that perhaps had the greatest impact was that of the Danish frigate Esbern Snare, which intercepted a PAG while in the act of attacking a commercial vessel deep off the coast of Nigeria in November 2021.  The incident resulted in four pirates being killed and five being taken into custody.  There have been no incidents in Nigeria’s EEZ since that event.

International political and commercial pressure:

One very interesting possibility is the international pressure that could have been brought to bear through commercial (mainly insurance) channels and also closed diplomatic channels.  The precedent for the latter form of intervention was apparently set when the enduring problem of extended hijacking for cargo theft was brought to an abrupt halt.  The cartels involved in that form of criminality simply ceased operating.  It cannot be ruled out that a similar intervention might have induced the pirate gangs to ‘seek other work’.  The commercial impact that the Lloyds Joint War Risk Committee classification of Nigeria’s waters has had on the Nigerian economy has been significant.  In November 2021, NIMASA stated that it was determined to have the War Risk Insurance Surcharges removed from vessels operating in Nigerian waters.  It cannot be ruled out that the federal authorities identified the big men behind the OCGs responsible for the piracy and persuaded them to ‘seek other work’.

Have the big men behind the piracy made enough money to ‘retire’?

This is another possibility that cannot be ruled out entirely.  The precedent was set when the kingpins behind the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) were effectively bought off by the 2009 Niger Delta Amnesty program payments, and the award to their newly formed companies of huge contracts – mostly to protect the assets they had previously been plundering.  So major criminal actors do sometimes “read the tea leaves” and decide to retire while they are ahead.  On the other hand, it is strongly suspected that the PAGs operating out of Nigeria belonged to five or six separate OCGs.  It is unlikely that the bosses of all the groups decided to shut up shop at the same time.  

So, the question “What induced the pirates to stop their operations?” remains unanswered with any certainty at this time.  

What Next?

There remains a huge amount of uncertainty in the security environment in Nigeria.  The forthcoming elections in early 2023 will likely shape the future security architecture in the country for the subsequent 8 years at least.  It is known that the Presidency is greatly concerned about the currently held views of the electorate regarding security in the country.  This was brought to a head by the attack on the Abuja-Kaduna train attack on 28 March 2022.  A significant amount of energy and time has been spent discussing the various security challenges facing the country and the Presidency is determined to make a difference before the end of the year and the run-in to the polls.

It is likely the impact of piracy on the country’s economy has driven the launch of Deep Blue and the Navy’s focus on generating a safer and more secure environment for mariners.  The country now rests on a political fulcrum and the security challenges have the potential to tip the elections against the ruling party.  Therefore, it is likely that more resources will be introduced into the battle against the pirates being fought by the Nigerian security organisations in the coming months.

Nevertheless, Nigerian security forces have 39,700 sq. km to patrol and secure.  That is a huge challenge, and the assets and resources are not yet in place to ensure security for mariners operating in the area. 

Summary

Shipping companies and offshore operators should be prepared to meet the security challenges of short-notice or no-notice increases in the threats facing them in the Gulf of Guinea.  The threat currently is assessed to be dormant and it could emerge again very quickly.  Pirates live on the land and their families stay on the land (mostly).  They are driven and controlled, by onshore factors – poverty, greed, politics, bribery, corruption, and even adventure.  Nigeria is moving into an election process, and like any election in any country, it generates uncertainty and, for some people, fear for their future. 

Shipping companies should avoid immediately seeking to cut costs.  The situation remains uncertain, and the Joint War Risk Committee still classifies the waters of the region as a listed area – meaning they consider the risk to be high.  For now, despite the economic pressures being at an all-time high, shipping companies should avoid being seduced by pronouncements that piracy is a thing of the past.

Chinese Naval Base in Guinea & Its Implications

For several months now western media has been speculating that the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is developing a position with the Government of Equatorial Guinea that will allow it to construct a naval base at the Equato-Guinean mainland port of Bata.  

The flurry of interest in this plan was triggered by a publication in the Wall Street Journal on 05 December 2021 that reported upon an apparently “classified” piece of US intelligence that was the cause of “great concern” in Washington.  

Indeed, this is no surprise as China wanting to establish a standing naval presence in the Atlantic Ocean, i.e. opposite the United States’ western seaboard, would naturally set alarm bells ringing.  

So what would be the likely impact of such a development?   In this analysis Arete examines:

  • China’s strategic aims;
  • The potential impact of the base on US and western naval strategy in the region;
  • The potential impact on ongoing maritime security issues in the Gulf of Guinea.

China’s Strategic Aims

US defence officials believe the Chinese want a base on the Atlantic coast where they can replenish naval combat units with fuel, ammunition and consumables as well as create a facility where they can repair warships.

Gen. Stephen Townsend, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in May 2021 that “The Atlantic coast concerns me greatly”.  His concerns are based on the short distance between the Atlantic’s eastern seaboard and that of the US and are most likely focused on the significant shortening of response times that the US currently enjoys and the potential for Chinese naval units to interdict western trade in the event of the current trade rivalry developing into a cold war scenario (or worse).

It is worth noting that China has a relationship with Equatorial Guinea that stretches back 50 years and its engineers have already made significant improvements to the port facilities at Bata – the largest city in the country. 

China also has a large diplomatic mission in the country and has made significant investments in the country’s infrastructure, including roads and hydro-electric power facilities.  Bata port currently has surplus capacity and has a dedicated basin for the Equato-Guinean Navy.  

Nevertheless, if China were to utilise the facilities to any significant extent, the presence of multiple naval vessels would likely impact commercial operations.  Therefore, it is probable that China will extend and improve the existing naval facilities or even build brand new facilities adjacent to the existing port.

Between 2014 and 2019, China was involved in 39 military exchanges with Gulf of Guinea partners, including the deployment of Chinese naval vessels which have conducted counter-piracy operations.  Of this presence, only two exchanges took place with the Equatorial Guinean armed forces.

Figure 1.  Gulf of Guinea showing location of port of Bata.

Figure 2.  Port of Bata, Equatorial Guinea. 

The construction of a naval base and the establishment of a permanent Chinese military presence in the region would reflect China’s strategic intent of ‘encircling’ the US in order to allow it to compete globally with US commercial interests.  

In 2017, Beijing first established a presence on the continent when it set up shop in Djibouti, taking over former French facilities and justifying its presence by mounting counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. 

It is no coincidence that China selected Djibouti to establish its first major overseas military base, with Djibouti sitting on one of the world’s most important chokepoints for maritime trade.  China spent $590 million dollars on the project, and it now has a toehold on the continent alongside the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, the UK, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. 

As strategically vital as Djibouti is, the US appears even more concerned about the potential for a Chinese military base on Africa’s western coastline. Dr. Freedom Onuoha, a senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the University of Nigeria–Nsukka, told Nigerian media that “A Chinese base in the Atlantic Ocean can play a decisive role in cutting off US access to strategic resources from many African states if conflict breaks out in the future.  In a situation of intense hostility or great power confrontation in the future, it makes it a lot easier for China’s naval forces to stroll up and down Africa’s Atlantic coastline”

Bata’s location is advantageous, sitting at the central point of the Gulf of Guinea coastline and enjoying the presence of the Equatorial Guinean island of Bioko off the coast – which would likely serve as a forward basing opportunity for defensive assets in the event of an international crisis between the US and China.  

Aside from the strategic military advantage such a base would impart, China’s growing commercial interests and influence in the country worries US trade officials.  American companies have invested heavily in the oil and gas sector in the country, with us oil majors and US service companies being pre-eminent to date in developing the country’s oil and gas resources. The presence of a Chinese military base would significantly elevate its leverage and influence in any future bidding rounds for future oil mining licenses in the country.  

Furthermore, Washington has recently criticised the government of President Nguema for its poor adherence to international human rights standards and high levels of corruption.  Such criticism will likely push Equatorial Guinea into the arms of a more ‘forgiving’ partner.

The power play between Washington and Beijing offers the chance for President Nguema’s government to leverage huge economic advantage for his country.  However, playing two global powers off against one another is not without its own perils.  

At this early stage, it is unclear whether the principal driver behind China’s regional ambitions are economic or the furtherance of their bid to become the pre-eminent global superpower.   Europe has rested on its historical ties and been less proactive in maintaining and indeed developing them.  This has been compounded by its reticence in doing business with countries that score low on governance.

China, however, has no such reservations.  Indeed, Chinese companies have far lower interest in local content regulations and are disinclined to employ local people in senior and middle management positions.

With regards to other nation’s interests the UK’s new global position, following Brexit, has reinvigorated its interest in its Commonwealth partners and the EU also recently decided to compete with China’s Belt and Road initiative.  

Thus, the stage is set for a contest between competing nations and trade bodies that may very well see African nations falling into debt traps, while western nations lose market share and influence in international bodies as African nations align more frequently with China.

 

The potential impact of the base on US and western naval strategy in the region

As the West realigns its energy requirements away from a Russia focussed supply market, the littoral states of West Africa, which all have oil and gas reserves to varying extents, have become more strategically important to Washington, Brussels and London.  

This renders the Gulf of Guinea countries and their maritime trade routes and hubs of increasing strategic importance as highlighted in our previous #AreteDeepDive.  

The presence of a Chinese permanent naval base in the region will almost certainly re-focus the minds of key decision makers in Washington and the US Africa Command (Africom) on how to counter the influence of the Chinese presence, and potentially how to neutralise its ability to interfere with trade routes deemed vital to western economic and security interests.

It is likely that the West will seek to establish basing rights of their own in the region, seeking to identify a country that is open to the attractiveness of huge investment in return for allowing a western military base on their territory.  

Likely locations would be existing port facilities that could be expanded or developed, new space created for a western airbase and an agreement to allow the basing of manpower and the pre-positioning of logistics materials.

Recent events however will have worked to Beijing’s advantage.  China will have watched the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine carefully including evaluating the thresholds of how far the West can be pushed and what tools and strategies it is prepared to deploy to contain an adversary.  

The West, on the other hand, will have learned valuable lessons about how far and in which directions it can flex its muscles.  One irrevocable effect of the war in Ukraine is that the West is now alert to its strategic weaknesses and is beginning to re-arm and remobilise its military potential.  

At the moment, the focus is very much on containing Putin’s ambitions, however significant sections of the intelligence architecture and foreign policy departments of numerous western governments will have remained engaged in watching and assessing everything that China does.  It is likely that key military powers in the West, notably the USA, United Kingdom and France will seek to match any expansion of Chinese influence in the region.  

In the absence of permanent bases, it is likely that the US, UK and EU states will seek to have naval units almost on permanent station in the Gulf of Guinea should China’s plan come to fruition.  In short it would be highly unlikely that they would allow the Chinese to dominate those waters uncontested.  It might be that the UK and France look to their former colonies for support to deployed warships and the US to seek a permanent base for an Africom deployment.

 

The potential impact on maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea

Any foreign naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea will impose constraints on the ability of pirate action groups (PAG) to operate freely in the region’s waters noting that piracy incident rates have already seen a reduction in the last 15 months (most likely due to COVID and the effect on the world economy).  

Indeed, Western naval deployments have already demonstrated the potential for impacting piracy as witnessed by the Danish frigate HMDS Esbern Snare against a PAG on 24 November 2021 and more recently, on 03 April 2022, we saw an Italian frigate, the Luigi Rizzo, respond to a call by a ship under attack 261 nautical miles southeast of Accra in Ghana.  In both instances, the presence of the foreign vessel appears to have prevented pirates from carrying out a successful attack.

It is possible that the action by the Esbern Snare last November had a direct impact on driving down the rate of reported piracy incidents in the region, which are currently at their lowest rate for more than a decade.  The action by the Italian vessel will also have likely reinforced doubt in the minds of the pirate group leaders as to the viability of their operations in a significantly more hostile environment.

If the Chinese were to join the fight against Gulf of Guinea piracy from a permanent base in the region, it would likely also have a significant effect on pirate actions in the region.  China would almost certainly offer to provide an aggressive counter-piracy capability in the region as part of a hearts and minds campaign to portray their presence as being benign/benevolent.  

Of course, such action would support China’s economic interests in the region and assist in securing its own strategic interests and trade routes.  

In response it is likely the West would want to match any Chinese capability and presence in the region with the net effect being a (hopefully) more secure Gulf of Guinea for commercial shipping, which can only be regarded as a good outcome. 

With all the above being said pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have proven themselves to be extremely resilient over many decades and maybe an international naval presence in international waters will simply push the PAGs to return to operating closer inshore in sovereign waters, e.g. the rivers and tributaries of the Niger Delta.

Resurgent trouble in the North-West

Incident Details

At approximately 20:00 hrs local time on Monday, 28 March 2022, a train travelling from Abuja to Kaduna was attacked in a complex attack using an improvised explosive device to bring the train to a halt, followed by the use of small arms fire and a subsequent boarding of the train by the attackers.  

The attack took place between Dutse village in the Chikun Local Government Area (LGA) south of Rigasa Station and north of Katari in Kaduna state approximately 45 minutes out from the Rigasa terminal in Kaduna.  Reports indicate an unconfirmed but significant number of people were killed by the attackers including the train driver.  An unknown number of passengers were also abducted and taken into the bush.  Numerous videos and eyewitness accounts of the event have been posted on social media, which show the incident to be very violent in nature with the attackers firing indiscriminately into carriages packed with people. 

According to eyewitness accounts, the locomotive passed over the explosive device which then detonated under two carriages full of people.  Once the train was halted, the attackers killed the driver and entered the train.  They moved through some carriages firing randomly into the passengers.  Anecdotal information indicates the attackers also shot people trying to run away from the scene.  Among the fatalities was an unnamed member of staff from the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and a female doctor who was due to emigrate from Nigeria on 01 April.  She tweeted that she had been shot in the abdomen and asked people to pray for her.  It was later confirmed that she died from her injuries.  

The train, which was carrying at least 970 passengers, had an armed detachment of Nigerian soldiers on board and this armed detachment reportedly confronted the attackers until they (the soldiers) ran out of ammunition, at which point they surrendered.  Other security forces reportedly didn’t arrive at the scene for almost three hours, by which time a number of passengers had been abducted by the attackers.  The security forces marshalled the surviving passengers together and marched them to waiting buses on a nearby road, from where they were moved into Kaduna, reportedly arriving at around 03:00 hours on 29 March.

The following morning the Kaduna State Commissioner in charge of Internal Security, Samuel Aruwa, stated that security forces had taken control of the scene and that passengers who had fled the train in the night had been rescued from the adjacent forests and rocky outcrops where they had sought safety during and after the attack (noting that this has not been confirmed yet by other sources).

Context

Kaduna State is becoming increasingly lawless, with numerous attacks on rural communities resulting in dozens of deaths and abductions.  For example on Sunday, 20 March 2022, 36 people were killed and more than 200 houses burnt in an attack on 4 communities in Kaura Local Government Area (LGA) of the state.  More recently, on Friday, 25 March, 50 people were reportedly killed when armed men invaded 9 communities in Giwa LGA.  

Perhaps most concerningly, this train attack comes just days after as many as 200 armed men on motorcycles breached the perimeter of the Kaduna airport in daylight hours, killing a security guard.  

This recent attack on the rail line further limits the means by which travellers can transit between Abuja and Kaduna with the parallel road route already considered as very high risk.  Indeed, reports indicate that even people travelling with armed protection teams are not safe from attacks by armed groups and kidnappers, who frequently pose as members of the security forces and who have even established their own illegal vehicle checkpoints from which they rob, rape and abduct travellers.  This apparently intractable problem is what has driven many travellers to use the train line instead of risking the road route.

This recent attack on a train line is not the first.  In October 2021, passengers were left stranded in the bush when a train was stopped due to the tracks between Dutse and Rijana being destroyed by an explosion. The attack also damaged the fuel tank of the locomotive and damaged the windscreen of the driver’s compartment. No fatalities were reported, but passengers were left stranded without security. The line was reopened after a two-day interruption of services with media reports claiming that the attack was carried out by members of Islamic State in the West African Provinces (ISWAP) and Ansaru.  On 22 October, media reported that the security forces had been in possession of intelligence two days prior to the attack forewarning of a threat to the railway, but the security forces failed to act on the intelligence thus enabling the attackers to carry out their plan. Later, on 12 November, in a wide-ranging review of internal security operations around the country, The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Faruk Yahaya, announced the deployment of troops and Nigerian Air Force helicopters to patrol the route of the railway.

The north-west of Nigeria is now considered the most unstable area of the country, with kidnappings and community invasions occurring more frequently and involving more fatalities than any of the other geopolitical regions of the country.  It is estimated that armed groups numbering up to 30,000 operate out of rural areas and have gained control of villages and parts of the countryside in Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Niger, Kaduna and Kebbi states. The situation in the region and elsewhere in the country drove the Northern Advocacy for Peace (NAP) movement on Wednesday 23 March 2022 to call on President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately sack the service chiefs over the resurgence of bandit attacks on communities in the region.

The increasing violence of the attacks in the region are an indication that at least some of the bandits are receiving training and support from ISWAP in the north-east of the country.  The increasing frequency of attacks within a 150-mile radius of the capital is of great concern and potentially signals a similar increase in violence in the mid-belt states in coming months.  Worryingly, the north-west is now reported to be home to several different elements of Islamist groups including Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM); Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb; a splinter of Boko Haram popularly referred to as ISWAP; and the Fulani herdsmen of West Africa.

Frustratingly for the Federal Government of Nigeria, the issue of security for the rail line had already previously reached the attention of the Nigerian House of Representatives, who just 6 days before this latest attack was debating solutions to the security challenges facing the line, including considering building a $500 million fence along the line’s route to keep people away from the line.  In a statement they said, “The House is aware that the Abuja-Kaduna Railway is a standard gauge that runs through nine Stations from Idu Station to Kuchibon, Asham, Jere, Gidan, Rijana, Dutse, Kakau and terminates at Rigasa in Kaduna. The House is also aware of the need to provide perimeter fencing to avoid accidents that could arise from human beings or animals crossing rail tracks and install a digital security system to enable the operators to know when there is an impact on the rail, and consequently get the needed help”.  The statement went on to say that the aim of the fence was to prevent vandals and wildlife from endangering the operations of the railway and also to mitigate the threats posed by angry communities along the line’s route.  Additional to this, on 06 January 2022, the Federal Ministry of Transportation also commissioned six patrol vehicles to support the operations of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps and the Transport Police of the NRC in an effort to increase the level of security on the rail line.  It also announced that it has been looking at surveillance apparatus and fibre optic equipment to further improve security.  

Conclusions

It is too early to say whether the railway is becoming a strategic target for Islamist groups in the north of the country, however, it is, without doubt, an important commercial artery connecting the capital with Kaduna – often regarded as the gateway to the North.  The sustained, high-level interest in the security of the rail link between the two cities is testament to its commercial importance and the volumes of freight and the number of passengers using the route will continue to make the line a prime target for attack.  

 

It is also likely that the line will now take on a political significance as opponents and critics of the President seek to capitalise on this high-profile attack that calls into question his leadership.  Indeed, as we enter the 12-month point before the 2023 elections, security is sure to once again become a hot topic politically and this latest attack will certainly not help the ruling party’s chances at re-election.

With regards to the attackers they are sure to be emboldened by their success, and after their attack at Kaduna airport last week, it is possible they will seek to mount ever more daring attacks against political and commercial targets in the north in the future.  Sadly, as ever, it will be ordinary Nigerians who will feel the greatest impact of such attacks.

Addendum

Within 24 hours of this Deep Dive being written, and as predicted above, the gangs of armed men in Kaduna State have mounted further attacks and operations along the major transport axis between Abuja and Kaduna.

On 29 March, a group of armed men attacked Gidan Railway Station along the Abuja-Kaduna railway line. Gidan is located south of the location of the attack the previous evening.  Unconfirmed reports attributed to a senior railway union person, explosives were once again laid on the line, forcing the southbound train to halt.  There are no reports that the attackers then boarded the train or whether they were still present when the train arrived.

In a separate incident, on the morning of 29 March, gunmen blocked the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, in the vicinity of Gawu Village (unlocated), which is in Niger State.  They reportedly abducted a significant number of motorists and killed six Nigerian Army soldiers from Zuma Barracks in Suleja as they moved into the area in response to the incident.

In further news about the impact of the attack on 28 March on the Abuja-Kaduna train, it emerged that Muhammad Amin Mahmood, a candidate for the Northwest Zonal Youth Leadership in the recent National Convention of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was shot during the attack.  

Other notable victims included the Secretary-General of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Barrister Musa Lawal Ozigi, who was among the eight killed and 25 injured confirmed by Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi on 29 March.  Other reports indicate that the death toll is nine people.

A former deputy governor of Zamfara State, Malam Ibrahim Wakkala, also sustained a gunshot wound to the leg, while the Managing Director of the Bank of the Agriculture (BoA), Alwan Ali Hassan, and his niece, were reported to be among the passengers missing from the train.

The attackers have been described by passengers as being young boys between 18 and 20 years of age.  They were also said to have been wearing turbans and “didn’t look like Nigerians”.  They were reportedly shouting “Allahu akbar” during the attack.

South Korea – Increasing Focus on Security in the Gulf of Guinea

Attack on Korean owned Vessel

At approximately 2315 hrs UTC on Monday, 24 January 2022, the Marshall Islands-flagged product tanker MT B Ocean was boarded while drifting approximately 59 NM SSW of Abidjan (Click to read the full report).  Between nine and eleven pirates armed with guns boarded and hijacked the tanker.  All crew members were taken hostage and held initially on the bridge before being moved to the crew mess area.  All communication and navigation equipment was switched off and the bosun was instructed to paint over the vessel name written on top of the bridge (This is possibly a reference to the IMO number that all vessels are required to have on the uppermost level of the superstructure). 

The pirates were heard communicating with a probable mother vessel before they then navigated the tanker using their own GPS equipment to rendezvous with another vessel.  While en route, the bosun was told to prepare the manifold where the ship-to-ship transfer (STS) operation commenced.  Once the tanker had rendezvoused with the second vessel, the chief officer and bosun were told to commence ship-to-ship (STS) operations.  After approximately six hours, the cargo transfer concluded, and the second vessel departed.  Before leaving the tanker, the hijackers stole crew cash, personal belongings, and ship’s properties.  The Korean owners, Ocean Marine Holdings Co Ltd care of manager SK Shipping Co Ltd of Seoul, South Korea, operated the vessel as a bunker vessel.

History of Attacks on Korean interests

South Korea, although not the most frequently impacted nation by piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, has a growing presence in the region and an increasing frequency of being victimised by maritime criminals in the area.  The following are some of the events relating to S Korean assets and interests in the region:

2013 – 03 February.  Oil Product tanker MT Gascogne, hijacked off Ivory Coast.  Lost contact with the vessel since 0800hrs UTC on Sunday, 3 February, off Cote d’Ivoire 70nm south of Abidjan. Luxembourg flagged and French-owned, the vessel was on charter to South Korea’s SK Shipping.  The vessel and 17 crew were released on 06 February. 200 tonnes of its cargo of diesel fuel was stolen, and two crew members were injured.

2016 – 11 February.  Combined chemical and oil tanker MT Maximus was hijacked by 6 armed pirates off Cote d’Ivoire approximately 76nm South of Abidjan. Five crew reportedly kidnapped as the remaining crew secured in the safe room. On 17 February, MAXIMUS was lying more than 200nm off the Nigerian coast.  It was suspected that she was waiting for a receiving tanker to arrive at an RV position.  The next day at around midday it was reported that she was alongside another tanker some 60nM off the coast of Akwa Ibom.  The vessel’s crew of 18 comprised of mariners from India, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Sudan, and Ghana.

2018 – 26 March.  Two Ghanaian flagged fishing vessels Marine 711 and Marine 707 were attacked by Nigerian sea pirates while operating 27 nm from South Cape Saint Paul/Anloga, Ghana.  The attackers left the vessels on 28 March taking five mariners with them (Captain, Chief Officer, Chief Engineer of Korean nationality, other two are Ghanaian and Greek).  On 28 Mar 2018, the Owners confirmed that the fishing vessel has been released and it is sailing to a safe port. Three crew members were reported missing. 

2020 – 03 May.  Senegalese-flagged fishing vessel Amerger VII 36nm off Libreville, Gabon.  Three crewmen were kidnapped – two Senegalese and a South Korean.  On 6 June, pirates released the six hostages after receiving a ransom.

2020 – 24 June.  Ghanaian flagged fishing vessel, FV Panofi Frontier was boarded by an unknown number of attackers approximately 60nm South of Cotonou.  Two skiffs were seen in the vicinity. The attackers kidnapped six crew (five South Koreans and one Ghanaian) and escaped. The 5 South Korean victims were released on Friday, 24 July 2020 in Nigeria.

2021 – 19 May.  Ghanaian flagged tuna fishing vessel FV Atlantic Princes was boarded 65nm South of Tema resulting in the kidnap of 5 crew – Captain- Korean, Chief Officer- Chinese, Second Officer – Chinese, Chief Engineer – Chinese, Bosun – Russian. 

2021 – 31 May.  Ghanaian flagged fishing vessel FV Iris S, IMO number 8210493, was attacked by armed men in two speedboats, forced to stop, and then boarded 108nm South Cotonou.  Stole ship’s and crew property as well as kidnapping five members of the crew; Captain, Chief Officer, Second Officer, and Chief Engineer – all S. Korean and the Engineer – a Filipino.  

 

Expanding Economic and Security Ties between South Korea and Nigeria

South Korea has significant economic interests in the region, primarily in the energy and construction sectors, which in the case of the latter, Nigeria accounts for more than half of South Korea’s foreign construction sales in Africa. (Read more here)

In August 2021, during a visit to the region, South Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Choi Jong Kun, said maritime safety in the Gulf of Guinea “is a very important issue to us”.  While briefing journalists in Abuja on the outcome of his visit to Nigeria he went on to say “I met the (Nigerian) transport minister, Rotimi Amaechi and he informed me of what the Nigerian government is doing to ensure maritime security.  Transnational security is a very important issue to us, especially safety in the Gulf of Guinea”.(Read more here)

Confirming that South Korea would be hosting the Korea-Africa forum in December 2021, he revealed that he anticipated an expansion of cooperation between his country and African states, saying discussions and collaborations would expand in many areas, including economy, trade, and culture.

Furthermore, The Nigerian Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, stated on 22 August 2021 that the Federal Government of Nigeria will collaborate with the Republic of Korea on some aspects of the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure also known as the Deep Blue Project (Read more about it here).  A statement also signed by Eric Ojiekwe, Director, Press and Public Relations quoted the Minister as saying. “We met in my office and discussed quite a lot that has to do with maritime relationships, especially the Deep Blue Project. We concluded to collaborate, and he promised some support and assistance from the government of the Republic of Korea”. 

The First Vice Minister, expressing concern about the expansion of maritime kidnapping in the region, went on to confirm his country’s interest in the Deep Blue Project.  Referring to his country’s strong fishery and maritime presence in the region, he stated that South Korea was concerned about the security risks posed by operating in the region, saying “So, we want to partake in securing our fishing industry in the Gulf of Guinea whereby cooperating with the Government of Nigeria. That we will do”.

Promising to support the Nigerian government in tackling maritime insecurity, the diplomat disclosed that the Korean government would host a joint commission with Nigeria in October 2021 in Seoul, Korea, saying “We want the Minister of Transportation to be part of the Joint Commission so that in Seoul, we will talk about maritime security on the Gulf of Guinea.”

Further evidence of the growing importance of the region to South Korea can be seen in their recent donation of a security vessel to Nigeria’s Deep Blue Project, noting the transfer of this vessel is currently delayed due to financial constraints within the Nigerian Maritime Administration & Safety Agency (NIMASA).  

 

Summary

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a cause for great concern among all seafaring nations but particularly among those with significant economic interests such as South Korea.

With investment in the energy sectors increasing in the region (particularly in the LNG sector which is increasing in significance due to events in Europe), potential opportunities for South Korean companies will continue to increase.  With this however will also come pressure for countries such as Nigeria to ‘raise their game’ with regards to dealing with piracy.   

Indeed, now that South Korea has joined the ever-growing list of countries offering assistance to combat the region’s security challenges from piracy, the pressure to address the fundamental and underlying causes of the piracy problem in the region, especially in Nigeria, will be greater than ever.  

Gulf of Guinea Maritime Crime – 2022 Expectations

In the last quarter of 2021, Arete released two deep-dive analyses of the maritime security situation in the Gulf of Guinea over the 2021 period.  These analyses covered some of the key takeaways, events, and incidents of the 2021 period namely;

  • The significant reduction in reported maritime crime and piracy incidents across the region, particularly in coastal waters off Nigeria;
  • The continuation of boardings and thefts in anchorages;
  • The continued shift to deepwater operations, outside Nigerian territorial waters and EEZ, with Pirate Action Groups (PAGs) using medium-small to medium-sized vessels as mother ships;
  • The focus on the kidnapping of mariners, with numbers of victims per attack being generally higher than in previous years;
  • The increasing recognition of the strategic importance of the region among extra-regional nations;
  • Linked to the above, an increasing international naval presence in the region;
  • The launch of the NIMASA / Nigerian Navy Deep Blue project;
  • The disruption and capture of suspected pirates by the Danish Navy.

So what will change or emerge in 2022?

There are a number of key factors that can affect the way the maritime security situation in the Gulf of Guinea may evolve including;

  • Where – Where will the pirates go next and what is the geospatial trend?
  • What – What will the pirates focus on, and will they develop a new business model?
  • When – When will the pirates strike, i.e. are current trends likely to change?
  • Who – Who will be the main actors in the region going forward?

Firstly, let us consider the likely geographic hot spots in 2022.  Historically, the pirate gangs have concentrated their activities in certain areas until such time as the security environment changes and those areas become high(er) risk for the pirates to operate in forcing them to shift to a new area.  

Such a shift was seen in 2011 when pirates moved from targeting vessels and oil platforms in the shallow waters of the Niger Delta fan, a littoral shelf lying south of the Niger Delta, to targets in the adjacent waters of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.  This shift was met with a robust response by the Cameroonian security forces resulting in the pirates then shifting their activities to the waters off Benin, Togo, and Ghana.  

This see-saw shift repeated itself a number of times until the pirate groups changed their modus operandi to the use of mother ships which enabled them to operate in deeper waters further offshore.  This also allowed them to operate far further from their main bases in the Niger Delta and the Bakassi Peninsula.  This model has persisted today as exampled in 2021 where gangs are witnessed operating off Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao Tome and Principe.  

Recent operations by warships from outside the region have changed the operating environment in the central and eastern Gulf of Guinea and therefore it is possible that the early months of 2022 will see a switch across to the waters to the west of Nigeria – potentially as far west as Ivory Coast or Liberia, i.e. where the security environment is more permissive and the offshore industry is ramping up, presenting an increasing number of potential targets of opportunity.

It has also been postulated that pirate groups will be scared off the high seas and into the riverine systems of the Niger Delta, e.g. the November 2021 attack on a work crew from AGIP in Bayelsa State is already being viewed as evidence of this hypothesis (noting we do not believe this to be the case as per our previous #AreteDeepDive which you can read here).  The action by the Danish Navy in November 2021 has also generated much speculation about whether patrolling by international navies will drive the pirates from the seas into the riverine areas of the Niger delta.  

Ultimately it should be appreciated that pirate groups have suffered setbacks in the past, notably in Cameroonian waters in 2010 and more recently in 2020.  Nigerian pirate groups are resilient and readily adapt to changes in their operating environment and this single event is unlikely to dampen their enthusiasm to pursue the rich pickings to be gained from large-scale kidnap for ransom operations.

Thus, our assessment is that any spike in activity in the riverine environment will more likely be driven by other factors, i.e. relating to onshore issues, rather than due to a step-change in the security environment offshore.  Ultimately, Nigeria is suffering from escalating inflation, placing further pressure on populations that are already victims of grinding poverty.  Other socio-political drivers are also generating a worsening security environment throughout the country and the Niger Delta is no exception to this trend. (Read more about this here)  It is established beyond doubt that riverine crime and other crimes on coastal waters are driven by such factors, so in a situation where people are suffering increasing hardship it is likely that crime levels will escalate including in the maritime domain.  

One interesting development in the last few days has been the freeing of the suspected pirates taken on board the Danish Frigate (read the story here), noting the Danish authorities were unable to find a single country in the Gulf of Guinea that was prepared to take them into custody.  This led to calls from several international maritime organisations and shipping bodies for Gulf of Guinea states to take responsibility for punishing pirates in their own courts. Read more about the incident by clicking here and here, (noting a fourth detainee was treated in a Ghana hospital before being taken to Denmark where he appeared in court on 07 January 2022 – Read the full story by clicking here.). The outcome of his trial will likely determine the future of international action in the region in 2022 (this will be analysed in further Arete Deep Dives).

Read More: Gulf of Guinea Piracy, a symptom not a cause

In summary, it is assessed from events last year that the tempo of pirate activity will likely escalate in the first half of 2022.  The attacks will likely occur more than 150 nautical miles from Nigeria’s coastline and will occur to both the east and west of Nigerian waters.  The pirate groups will test the capability of the Deep Blue project and possibly also the resolve and reach of international navies operating in the region.  The resolve of western navies will also have been affected by the inability of the Danish authorities to convince a regional state to prosecute the three suspected pirates on one of their frigates potentially lessening the international community’s motivation to involve themselves in piracy matters in the region in the future.  Indeed, this failure will likely embolden the pirates and generate uncertainty among the western navies operating in the region.

On this basis, it is believed the pirate groups will maintain and possibly increase the tempo of their activities.  Whether that tempo will be maintained throughout the year will become evident.  The geographic concentration of activity will also be revealed in time and will potentially swing between two or more areas. 

Over the last two years, pirate groups have proven their methodology and logistic systems in the taking, holding, and releasing of large numbers of kidnap victims.  It is likely they will continue to develop these capabilities and is therefore possible that we will see single pirate action groups taking even larger numbers of victims in each deployment. 

Conversely, the long-awaited Deep Blue Project has been operational for six months now.  However, we have yet to see the full effectiveness of the multiple systems and capabilities deployed under the project’s umbrella.  If the Deep Blue Project proves to be successful, we will likely see it push the pirates into more peripheral areas and make it harder for other criminal gangs to operate in coastal waters.  

In past years, pirate action dropped off in the middle four months of the year as sea conditions made small boat operations untenable.  However, the shift to the use of mother ships has given the pirates the potential for all-weather, year-round capability.  This will likely remain unchanged in 2022.

The major pirate groups in the region, believed to number between four and six, will remain predominantly sponsored, led, and manned by Nigerian nationals.  That notwithstanding, we have seen such groups operate out of neighbouring countries with the support of Nigerian diaspora fishing communities (noting the Cameroonian authorities clamped down very heavily on such activity in Cameroon).  However, Nigerian fishing communities also exist in other regional states, and it is possible these communities will provide support to the pirate groups, adding further reach and endurance to their operations.

Conclusion

Piracy is a lucrative and proven business model in the region.  The more serious and most well-organised gangs are unlikely to be deterred by the launch of the Deep Blue Project or the presence of international warships in the region as the risk vs reward still mainly swings in their favour.  

Therefore, it is likely that piracy will expand across the region in 2022 and the risk of kidnap will continue to remain very high for mariners in waters as far as 300 nautical miles from the Nigerian coast.  Finally, the inability or lack of will among regional states to prosecute the suspected pirates captured by the Danish Navy could further increase the risk of piracy in the region.

Gulf of Guinea Maritime Insecurity: Are Local Waters Safer?

2021 has witnessed a reduction in the overall level of reported maritime criminality in Nigerian waters, but is this reported decline a reality or simply an illusion?  

Arete examined this question in detail in our #AreteDeepDive piece on 28 October 2021, where we deconstructed the various trend indicators and their underlying factors as highlighted in the ICC IMB ‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for the period 01 Jan 2021 – 30 Jun 2021’ report.  Click here to read it.

Our assessment and analysis showed that while there was indeed a reduction in reported piracy activity levels, the figures being quoted by various sources were possibly more a reflection of the systemic weakness in information gathering and ‘careful management’ of reporting of piracy and maritime crime by local agencies, as opposed to a genuine reduction in piracy activity levels (noting of course that a drop in incidents in Nigeria may also be due to a shift in the modus operandi of the pirate groups operating out of Nigeria, i.e. their now operating outside of Nigerian territorial waters and EEZ).

Since October’s analysis, we have witnessed several interesting developments in the overall security operating environment in the region, particularly in the Niger Delta.  Key among these developments have been;

  • Multiple attacks on and abductions of oil workers in the riverine environment in Bayelsa State;
  • The action by the Danish frigate led to the deaths of four pirates, the wounding of a fifth, and arrest of others;
  • Reports by the Nigerian Navy of widespread arrests of vessels carrying stolen crude oil; 
  • A report that Nigeria’s ports and anchorages have witnessed 27 attacks against vessels in the third quarter of 2021. 

As is usual in the region, national and international media reported each of these developments according to their own interpretation and knowledge of the events and their significance, and the political or social leanings of the publication and individual journalists involved.  

Given this, the aim of this latest analysis is to examine the events highlighted above and try to place them in the context of the overall pattern and evolution of security in Nigeria, its territorial waters, and beyond in the wider Gulf of Guinea.

 

Bayelsa and the Riverine / Onshore Context

On 27 November 2021, criminals, labelled in the Nigerian media as “sea pirates”, attacked workers of the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) at the Obama Manifold.  It is claimed they killed seven workers and two members of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC).  

The next day, they abducted four people working for NAOC in the Okoroma and Ogbokiri-Akassa communities in Bayelsa State, read it here.  The attackers also reportedly shot dead two other workers as well as a member of the NSCDC.  The boat driver, an indigene of Okoroma community, was reported missing after the incident while two other members of the NSCDC were declared missing but later found alive.  It was also reported that gunmen abducted four people from the Imbikiri community in two separate attacks earlier in November.

While it has been suggested on local social media that these incidents might be evidence that pirates who traditionally operate offshore are now focusing their efforts in the riverine areas of Nigeria – implying that the threat offshore is now diminished – this assumption needs to be taken with a strong degree of caution.  

Firstly, it is too simplistic and inaccurate to characterise that every group in the Niger Delta has the capability and intent to operate offshore. Indeed, the proliferation of small arms in the region means that armed criminal gangs are ubiquitous with many operating according to numerous, diverse ‘business’ models – including ones that only sees certain gangs operating in the riverine areas alone.

Many of these gangs that operate solely on the rivers and in the riverine communities have no need to operate offshore given the profits gleaned from conducting armed robbery against passenger boats, extorting protection money from communities, acting as protection teams for gangs stealing crude oil from pipelines (and escort the barges carrying stolen crude) etc.  

In short not all gangs operating in or out of Nigeria are ‘sea pirates’ (as the media portray them) meaning the increased attacks in the riverine areas does not necessarily indicate that the gangs operating offshore have ‘gone away’ or changed their modus operandi at all.

Furthermore, and examining this incident against a historical context, it must also be noted that the area where these incidents took place is particularly active in terms of organised theft of crude oil and also that for one reason or another NAOC is targeted more than other operators in that part of the Niger Delta.  

Indeed, and as reported by the local media, there may be other drivers that might have triggered the attacks, including dissatisfaction with contract delivery and payment of local youths working on NAOC security contracts.  This is a credible assertion.  

Historically, attacks on NAOC people and infrastructure in the region has frequently been attributed to issues with contract award, rollout or delivery.  It is perhaps interesting that Total Exploration and Production Nigeria (TEPN), which also operates in the area, suffers far fewer attacks on people and assets.  This would seem to support the hypothesis that NAOC’s problems are specific to that company rather than generic attacks on the industry as a whole.

Summarising all of the above it is assessed that the spike in activity in Bayelsa is very likely part of a cycle of activity that is linked to NAOC operations and is not a reflection of a change in the modus operandi of all pirate gangs that traditionally operate offshore. 

 

International warship operations in the Gulf of Guinea

In a widely reported incident, on 24 November 2021, the Danish naval vessel HDMS Esbern Snare encountered a speedboat with a number of armed men on board.  Read about the incident here. The skiff was also carrying equipment characteristic of piracy operations in open water.  In the ensuing encounter, a warning shot was fired by the Danish crew, which was responded to by the pirates with a volley of shots from assault rifles.  The warship crew opened fire, killing four pirates, and capturing four others – one of whom was seriously wounded.  The injured man was treated on board the ship and all four detained on board.  They are now facing a trial in Denmark. Read the fuller story by clicking here.

The incident sparked a significant debate about jurisdiction, sovereignty and rules of engagement.  Amid the debate about the legality of the engagement, there arose several questions among social media commentators concerning the impact of the incident.  Some of the key questions asked were:

  • Would this act as a strong deterrent to Nigerian based pirate groups and force them to operate closer inshore (or even move their operations to the riverine areas as theorise above)?
  • Will this incident drive pirate gangs to arm themselves more heavily and act more aggressively in the future?
  • Will this encourage pirates to attack international warships in the hope they will survive and then face trial in the vessel’s home nation – with the hope of being allowed to remain in the country after sentencing?

Clearly, these questions remain unanswered at the present time, but they do raise significant concerns for the shipping industry.   Indeed, it is guaranteed that pirate gangs operating in the region will be carefully assessing what the presence of foreign warships in the region now means for their operations and criminal business models.   Whilst the presence of international warships may deter some individuals, it is highly unlikely that well-organised pirate groups will cease operating.  

One key point of this incident is the fact that the Danish vessel was responding to an intelligence report relating to an elevated threat of piracy in a specific area.  The value of good intelligence is heavily underlined by this, and it is likely that the Nigerian Navy and NIMASA are now considering how their own intelligence capability measures up to that which drove this event (noting the country has invested heavily in the Deep Blue Project, which ironically is designed to undertake the kind of interdiction operations the Danish vessel was undertaking).

Another key point is this incident occurred despite a series of Nigerian Navy exercises that culminated in the 04 November Exercise Grand African NEMO 2021, which saw participation of 13 naval vessels as well as elements of four foreign navies. Read about the exercise by clicking here.

What is clear is that the Gulf of Guinea’s strategic significance to a number of states beyond Africa is increasing, and with as many as six foreign naval vessels operating in the region currently, the Nigerian based pirates appear to now be facing a significantly elevated threat to their own operations.  What is yet unknown is whether the Danish incident will affect foreign navies appetites to undertake operations in the Gulf of Guinea moving forwards.  

 

Illegal Bunkering and the Export of Stolen Crude Oil

On 07 December, media reported that the Nigerian Navy had intercepted four wooden boats laden with 16 thousand litres of illegally refined diesel, click here to read the story. This is just the latest report highlighting an enduring aspect of the kaleidoscope of criminality that endures throughout the Niger Delta region.  Earlier in the year, other reports reflect the scale and scope of the illegal refining as well as the industrial levels of theft from Nigeria’s pipeline networks in the region.  Arrests and seizures were made in Rivers State in September, read about some of them by clicking here. and in May 2021 the Nigerian Navy said it had intercepted about 128,612 barrels of crude oil valued at about N2,598,219,624 (approximately USD $6.24 million at today’s exchange rate) and 15,317,150 litres of AGO valued at over N3 Million (USD $7,200) between January and May.  

This level of criminality is sustained by poverty and weak security along the region’s pipelines and rivers.  The arrests and seizures represent a very small percentage of the overall levels of theft from the pipeline networks and well-heads in the region, but it goes some way to illustrate the diversity of security challenges and the degree of overstretch faced by the country’s security forces including the Nigerian Navy.  

What is also clear is interdicting this type of criminality impinges heavily on the Nigerian Navy’s ability to secure the country’s riverine and maritime environment as scarce resources and over-tasked assets are stretched.  The knock-on from this is the creation of greater operating space and freedom to operate for the piracy gangs that remain operating offshore.

The above being said the Nigerian Navy response to this persistent criminality is becoming more robust and proactive.  On 12 December 2021, the Navy reported that it had deployed 10 warships, two helicopters, and elements of the Nigerian Special Boat Service and other military units in an exercise in the Onne area of the Bonny River.  

This deployment, like that of Grand African Nemo 2021 last month, is focused on the riverine and inshore environment.  The Navy statement revealed that exercise participants will conduct anti-piracy operations, protection of offshore oil and gas facilities, fleet manoeuvres and communication and gunnery as well as Maritime Interdiction Operations, including, vessel board search and seizure, opposed boarding, search and rescue and operations to curtail the activities of pirates/sea robbers, oil thieves, pipeline vandals and illegal bunkerers.    This ambitious program includes tactics and techniques that have recently been practiced alongside Royal Marines from the British Royal Navy’s HMS Trent, a Batch 2 River-class offshore patrol vessel, read about it by clicking here.

 

Persistent Crime in Nigeria’s Ports and Anchorages

On 08 December 2021, NIMASA revealed that there had been a total of 27 security incidents involving ships in various ports and anchorages in the country during the third quarter of the year.  This is an interesting revelation as the vast majority of these incidents had previously gone unreported.  Whilst no details of the nature of the incidents was given, they are likely to include illegal boardings and theft.  Such attacks represent lucrative chances for opportunistic thieves who live and work in and around the ports and anchorages.  They are relatively low risk enterprises as most historical data shows the perpetrators escaping and remaining at large after the events.   Very few crews will tackle boarders directly due to the safety concerns for themselves.  This leaves the thieves free to escape when detected.  Whilst they do contribute to the overall levels of risk facing seafarers and shipping companies, these attacks are separate and distinct from the sea piracy that occurs on open waters in both the nature of the crime and the perpetrators involved.  However, some analysts include them in piracy statistics, which can be misleading.

Whilst the human impact of such incidents is low, the financial impact on the shipping companies is potentially significant.  Any vessel that is declared a scene of crime will incur additional costs if forced to remain in the port where the incident occurred.  The impact on insurance premiums, and other costs (replacement of equipment and stores etc), is cumulative though and the overall levels of criminality drive up insurance premiums – but only if the incidents are reported or a claim made.  It is likely that, for these reasons, many incidents remain unreported, and the true rate of crime in ports and anchorages is much higher than that reported by NIMASA.

 

Further Incidents Deep Offshore

On 13 December, it was reported that at 14:27 hrs UTC a Liberian flagged container vessel was attacked and boarded by armed men in a position approximately 48 nautical miles southwest of Luba on Boko Island, Equatorial Guinea, and due south of Opobo in Rivers State. Read the news report by clicking here. 

The vessel managed to send a mayday message and a helicopter responded from the Danish warship HMDS Esbern Snare, which was in the area.  On arriving at the vessel under attack, the helicopter crew observed a speedboat alongside the vessel with both pirates and abducted crewmembers on board.  After throwing unidentified objects into the water, the speedboat departed to the north with the helicopter shadowing from a safe distance until it returned to the warship.  

As soon as the pirates had departed, the warship received a message that a crew member had been injured during the attack on the merchant vessel.  Images seen by Arete analysts confirm other reports that the attack was very violent with the injured crewman receiving gunshot wounds to his lower leg.  He was evacuated to the Danish warship where he received medical treatment.  The warship remained on station and assisted in a search for two missing crew members.

Elsewhere in the region, in the early hours of 13 December, two vessels reported being approached by a small boat with armed men on board while they lay at anchor in the Owendo Anchorage in Gabon.  

In the first incident, 5 men armed with assault rifles boarded a cargo vessel.  The crew took refuge in the citadel.  Nothing was reported stolen. 

In the second incident, 12 armed men were seen on board a boat, which approached to within 15 metres of the unnamed tanker before being deterred by an alert crew shining lights on the boat.  

These three incidents, when taken together, underline the fact that the pirate gangs have not retired, adopted a new modus operandi or shifted their operating footprint.  The threat remains extant throughout the Gulf of Guinea and all shipping companies should continue to operate accordingly. 

 

Summary

The maritime and riverine environments in Nigeria remain high-risk operating environments for shipping companies, seafarers, oil company employees, and local commercial boat operators and their customers.  

Indeed, this analysis shows the multi-faceted nature of the environment with its different layers of actors and diverse forms of criminality.  What is clear is the pirate gangs have not gone away despite the IMB reporting a decrease in the number of reported incidents. 

It is also evident the ‘sea pirates’ remain focussed on deep water interdiction and undertaking hijack operations with the primary intent of kidnapping crew and thus remain a potent threat to all mariners in the region.  

Finally, the oversimplification of the threat picture by the media more often hinders, not helps, shipping operator’s decision making and thus, as always, we advise key stakeholders to seek the advice and assistance of professional risk management experts such as Arete to help keep vessels and crew safe while operating in the Gulf of Guinea, particularly in Nigeria.