Nigerian waters were the most deadly in the world during the first half of 2004 according to a new piracy report. Analysts blame the proliferation of weapons in the oil-rich Niger Delta region where armed gangs trade stolen crude.
The Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said on Monday that half of the 30 deaths recorded in pirate attacks around the world between 1 January and 30 June occurred in Nigerian territorial waters.
In terms of the number of attacks, Nigeria ranked third with 13 attacks, behind Indonesia (50) and the Malacca Straits (20).
"Both the increased number of attacks in this area and the degree of violence being used is of grave concern and we will be putting pressure on the Nigerians to step up anti-piracy measures," IMB director Pottengal Mukundan said in a statement.
Industry watchers, like Gbenga Olumide of oil research firm Rigs Concerns, say Nigeria's growing prominence for piracy can be traced back to oil, the country's economic lifeblood and the large-scale theft of crude oil which is sold to vessels offshore.
"The trade has in turn funded further arms procurement and been behind the spawning of a wide range of criminal activities, including sea piracy," Olumide told IRIN on Tuesday.
Gangs, armed with automatic rifles and increasingly with rocket-propelled grenades, cruise along in speedboats and barges, finding cover in the maze of creeks and rivers intertwined with mangrove swamps that make up the delta where the River Niger empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
According to Olumide, their activities have drawn illegal oil buyers and arms traders to the Gulf of Guinea coast off Nigeria, making the region, which has always had high volumes of shipping traffic including oil tankers and general goods vessels, more dangerous.
Self-styled rebel leader, Asari Dokubo of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, is one of the militants who wants to end the federal government's stranglehold on the 2.5 million barrels of oil produced each day in the region.
In an interview with IRIN this month he admitted to availing himself of crude from the pipelines of oil multinationals to fund his struggle. And he confirmed the presence of illegal arms dealers along the coast, saying he had enough weapons at his command -- AK47s, general purpose machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades -- to equip 2,000 men.
"We are very close to the international waters and it's very easy to get weapons," Dokubo said.
Industry analysts say that decades of corruption and mismanagement by successive Nigerian regimes has left the oil-rich Niger Delta one of the most impoverished regions across the country. Massive unemployment is just one of the manifestations with a myriad of knock-on effects.
"The consequences of unemployment are numerous," said a recent report commissioned by oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell and written by WAC Global Services. "Youths become involved in criminal activities (e.g. illegal oil bunkering, thuggery, kidnapping, piracy, etc.) and recruited into crime cartels and armed militias."
The report estimates that the 10 percent of Nigeria's daily output or 100,000 barrels stolen every day is worth about US$1.5 million and would buy enough weapons to sustain a force of 1,500 youths for two months.
Emeka Okoroanyanwu, editor of Lagos-based Maritime Quarterly, told IRIN that waters within and just outside Nigeria's territory posed problems.
"Many of the attacks occur on the high seas as ships approach Nigerian waters," he explained. "An equally large number of attacks occur within Nigerian waters as well and ship captains are complaining."
Okoroanyanwu said one almost certain consequence would be higher shipping costs for Nigerian and other Gulf of Guinea destinations as shippers begin to factor higher insurance premiums into their pricing.
The IMB said it had issued a warning to ships in the vicinity of Nigeria and advised seafarers to be on their guard.
The maritime group also noted that security problems on land were diverting the resources of the Nigerian authorities from security at sea.
"The IMB believes the increased ferocity and number of attacks is linked to law and order problems ashore that criminal gangs of pirates are using to their advantage, knowing that the authorities are under pressure and so unable to respond adequately to attacks at sea," it said.
But Nigerian security forces say that without their crackdown on militia groups and other armed gangs in the Niger Delta over the past year, the tally of piracy deaths would have been considerably higher.
Security officials told IRIN that navy troops patrolling the coastal wars in four ships donated by the U.S. Defence Department had impounded more than 20 ships in the past year and arrested 90 people, including 37 foreigners, accused of dealing in stolen crude oil.
A military spokesman, who did not want to be named, said that troops had been successful in destroying several criminal gangs operating in the Niger Delta following an incident in April in which gunmen attacked a boat belonging to ChevronTexaco, killing seven people, including two American oil workers.
"Troops have killed at least 30 pirates in gun-battles in the past two months and dismantled their infrastructure, including sophisticated communication equipment," he said but declined to provide further details.