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  • Writer's pictureShaun Robertson

The Origins of Nigerian Piracy

When piracy in the Gulf of Guinea started to become a problem for the region, it mostly centred around Nigeria, resulting from poverty, insurgency and the oil industry. Whilst piracy has been a problem in Africa for hundreds of years, the large-scale organised problem began with the insurgent movement in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. This article will overview how large-scale piracy started in the 2010s in the Gulf of Guinea.

The conflict between insurgents and the federal government began in the 1990s when the government permitted oil companies for exploration and drilling.

This created resentment from the local communities from the Niger Delta that no money was returned to the local area for development, and a lack of care for oil operations resulted in damages to various aspects of the area. The Niger Delta was already a poor area, with less than 30% of residents having access to clean drinking water with critical infrastructure, social programs and security lacking, according to a UN report.

Youth unemployment was also the highest in Nigeria, with the oil industry's expansion having little help for employment in the local region due to specialised jobs. Furthermore, oil spillages affected farming, water supplies and fishing, which were all vital for local communities’ sustenance. When unrest began in the region, the federal government attempted to do something by creating the Niger Delta Development Commission in 2000 to give the people the desired investment. However, the NDDC was, and still is, corrupt, with payments being embezzled since its creation until now. An estimated 480 billion Nigerian Naira, or roughly 843.8 million British pounds, was allegedly embezzled in one payment in 2022 alone. As a result, the people of the Niger Delta took matters into their own hands.

"Oil spillages affected farming, water supplies and fishing, which were all vital for local communities’ sustenance."

The Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) was formed in 2005 to organise an insurgency against the federal government after attacks on the oil industry, and government had been taking place for years. The goal was to combine different criminal and political elements under one loose leadership structure to steal oil revenue from the Niger Delta and use it for local purposes. These attacks consisted of armed attacks against oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta, attacks on government forces and the kidnap and ransom of both of these parties.

"The NDDC was, and still is, corrupt with payments being embezzled since its creation until now."

Illegal refining and oil bunkering were also common tactics of the insurgents in their earliest form. Oil companies first tried to secure their new infrastructure by bribing the insurgents or giving protection payments, but the attacks soon continued. The retaliation of the Nigerian government did not help local support for the insurgents, as the burning of homes and shooting of civilians took place. These incidents are not isolated, as over 200 civilians were killed in retaliation for the death of a Nigerian military member after an attack from Boko Haram in the north of the country.

As the situation escalated, the oil industry moved more of its operations to the sea and the coast, resulting in oil rigs, long oil pipelines for oil transfer, and less need for sea traffic in the Niger Delta waterways. In spite of this, the insurgents followed, and the attacks moved into the territorial waters of Nigeria, marking the start of the wave of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

The government attempted an amnesty with MEND after an attack on a floating production, storage and off-loading unit in 2008 which put into perspective the effect which the insurgency was having on energy security and the economy of Nigeria. However, these negotiations broke down after heavy-handed tactics from the government. MEND would eventually disband in 2012, but unrest still continues in the Niger Delta today, with oil bunkering and illegal refining being more prominent than piracy, according to recent reports.

Today it is unclear how much piracy takes place as a result of insurgent activities, although groups in the Niger Delta also partake in piracy. The success of the insurgent business model of piracy has spread to where other groups in the Gulf of Guinea have taken on attempts at piracy, from petty robbery to hostage-taking and cargo seizures.

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