It is well known that criminal gangs can affect legitimate economic activity. Bribery, theft and kidnapping can all deter development and persuade investors to look elsewhere. Yet recent events in Benin have shown how the operations of a relatively small number of pirates can harm an entire national economy. An African Business investigation into piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has revealed the vulnerability of international shipping to attack and the susceptibility of small countries to organised crime.
As discussed on page 46, piracy has become increasingly associated with Africa over the past five years. Between 50 and 100 Somali pirate gangs have preyed on shipping over an ever-wider area of the Indian Ocean, from the Maldives in the east to Madagascar in the south. The number of international vessels seized and crew members taken hostage has propelled the problem onto front pages around the world. Yet a parallel explosion in pirate activity off the west coast of Africa has attracted far less global attention because few non-Africans are taken hostage for an extended period of time.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) lists five African countries as being particularly susceptible to pirate attacks: Somalia in the east and Benin, Cameroon, Guinea and Nigeria in the west. Until 2011, most attacks were committed in Nigerian maritime waters by criminal gangs that are also involved in oil theft and kidnapping in and around the Niger Delta. Fishing boats are also targeted for robbery but many such attacks are not reported and so do not appear in the official figures, while some pirate attacks on tankers and cargo vessels have also not been officially recorded.
This can be because fishermen have little confidence in the local police or military, or because vessel owners or users are involved in illegal activities themselves, from illegal oil bunkering to non-payment of taxes. Others fear that the increase in their insurance costs will outweigh the benefits of making a claim.
The IMB estimates that the real number of pirate attacks is at least twice as high as the official figure because of underreporting. The oil and fishing industries are particularly responsible for underreporting. The Nigerian navy estimates that there are 10 to 15 attacks every month and that the figure can range as high as 50. Although the number of recorded pirate attacks fell in Nigeria during the course of 2011, the total number of attacks in the region increased as a result of a spate of violent incidents off the coast of Benin.
Most pirate attacks in West Africa in 2010 were relatively low-level armed robberies but 2011 saw many...