Nigeria is not Somalia – Look for Pirates Somewhere Else


There is a tendency in discussions of the recent “crisis” of piracy in West Africa to address it alongside or in opposition to Somali piracy.  Typically, an author will point out that maritime security off Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea are different, while nevertheless lumping the two together as a phenomenon that is moving west.  The implication is that there is some sort of a connection between the two locations, with piracy being a disease that spreads of its own accord within Africa, rather than being a manifestation of local actors acting in response to distinct local incentives and conditions.

A prime example of this pattern was in June when the New York Times reported the “marked shift in patterns of maritime piracy,” pointing out that in 2012, “the number of ships and sailors attacked off West Africa exceeded those assaulted by pirates based in Somalia, on Africa’s east coast.”  At War is Boring Peter Dörrie offers the disclaimer that “there are important differences between East and West Africa,” while also saying that the “world’s attention is shifting to the Gulf of Guinea and especially the territorial waters of Nigeria.”  According to Cardiff University’s Christian Bueger, “West African criminal actors watch the news” and “have learnt from Somalian pirates to some degree.”  At Foreign Policy, Admiral James Stavridis, the retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and current Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University (and guest contributor here at WOTR), states that “the game is shifting west,” recommending a solution modeled on what was employed off Somalia, as “NATO and the European Union should offer to work with the nations of western Africa to counter piracy operations there.”

Despite being treated by the press or the blogosphere as being related or similar, what is going on in the Gulf of Guinea actually has little in common with Somali piracy other than that they both involve African states and happen on the water.  A major problem with treating Somali piracy and the current rash of oil theft and kidnapping occurring off West Africa, as related phenomenon is that what is happening in the Gulf of Guinea is in many cases not technically “piracy.”  According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea piracy is an act that can “only occur beyond the limits of the territorial sea, which in most cases extends 12 nautical miles from the coastline.”  Attacks off West Africa described as piracy often occur in the territorial waters of Nigeria or its neighbors, not on the high seas.

As of 22 October, of the 30 attacks recorded by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in or near Nigeria in 2013, 20 occurred against vessels underway or in the vicinity of offshore oil infrastructure, with the other ten occurring in port, at anchorage, or in inland waters.  In 2013, IMB has also recorded seven attacks in Togo, four in Cote d’Ivoire, and two in Gabon, with most of the attacks occurring in port or at anchorage.  Even though many of these attacks are not in Nigeria’s territorial waters and therefore technically occur on the high seas jurisdiction-wise, they are well within the Nigerian Economic Exclusion Zone and are related to shipping involved in the Nigerian offshore oil industry.  All Nigerian oil and gas is owned by the state.  Nigeria treats its sovereignty as it relates to its mineral wealth very seriously, and any foreign counter-piracy operations would happen within its sphere-of-influence.

The distinction between “piracy” and “maritime crime” occurring within a state’s territorial waters is important because of who has jurisdiction to respond or prevent it.  Under international law, any state is theoretically capable of acting against piracy on the high seas.  In West Africa, however, the problem is often one of the criminals operating within the territorial waters of a state or its neighbor.  A partnership where Nigerian-based criminals on the water can be pursued by capable maritime security forces across borders may work, but would require both cooperation between regional states and capable maritime security forces working together.  The International Crisis Group, however, has assessed that “maritime cooperation” in the region is “hampered by political tensions and distrust of neighboring states toward Nigeria.”

While the various Gulf of Guinea states agreed to a multi-national framework for a regional counter-piracy earlier this year, it is unlikely that Nigeria would tolerate outside naval intervention.  Sovereignty concerns also hinder the employment of other potential countermeasures, such as embarked armed private security personnel (something credited by many as one of the most effective deterrents to Somali piracy) since approval to carry arms in Nigerian waters is dependent on the Nigerian government.

The differences between Somali piracy and Gulf of Guinea maritime crime can be explained by the different type and amount of state power in each case.  Despite the existence of a recognized government in Mogadishu and the self-declared breakaway states of Somaliland and Puntland, state power is absent throughout most of Somalia.  Piracy there is a maritime extension of anarchy, another version of a warlord’s checkpoint on the water.  What has happened in the Gulf of Guinea instead results from non-anarchy manifested in a state-tolerated system that incentivizes illicit behavior.

According to a recent report by Chatham House, oil theft and “bunkering” is rife in a system “easily… exploited by organized criminal interests.”  An estimated ten percent of Nigeria’s oil is stolen, and the “vast majority of the thefts actually see the oil taken out of the country.”  Despite the stereotype of “youths in canoes breaking into pipelines,” oil theft is conducted and enabled by a “complex criminal web that includes foreign oil traders, shippers, bankers, refiners, high-level politicians and military officials.”  The solution to widespread oil theft is not necessarily a tougher crackdown against Niger Delta gangs, but wholesale reform, unlikely in the near future as “there are doubts whether anyone capable of curbing it really has the will to do so.”

The comparison between Somalia and Nigeria may demonstrate how commonly held assumptions regarding the impact state failure has on maritime security may be overstated or false.  For much of the last decade, the conventional wisdom has been that “failed states” or “ungoverned spaces” are breeding grounds for illicit activities like terrorism, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and piracy.  However, academics like Stewart Patrick have argued that illicit actors may in fact find that “weak but functioning” states are more attractive environments to operate in than failed states, as weak states, despite their problems, are linked with the global economy, better enabling illicit actors to profit from their activities.

It is also much more difficult for external actors to interfere in the internal affairs of a weak state than a failed state.  Without a functioning government, there has been nothing to stop foreign intervention in Somalia against terrorists or pirates when states have deemed necessary (such as the Ethiopian and Kenyan invasions, occasional raids against pirate camps by Western militaries, and an African Union-sponsored peacekeeping force).  Ultimately, there is nothing stopping a foreign power from using military force against pirates in Somalia if they desire, but a similar course of action in Nigeria would be precluded by the fact that there is a functioning government in Nigeria, even with the Abuja government’s limited ability to assert its authority in the Niger Delta.


Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the Navy staff at the Pentagon.  He is a regular contributor to the Center for International Security’s (CIMSEC) NextWar Blog. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.


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