USS Hershel “Woody” Williams has been training the Nigerian Navy to tackle piracy in the region as the IMB cautions vessels to stay far from shore. But will the serious threat to global trade and seafarer safety really get better until the root causes are properly addressed?
2020 was prolific for piracy at sea. Year-on-year, piracy was up 20%, with increasingly sophisticated and violent attacks recorded. According to the IMO, 130 crew were kidnapped in 22 incidents, with over 90% in the Gulf of Guinea, the global piracy hotspot.
Stay out at sea: IMB
According to the IMB, there were 21 pirate attacks off Gulf of Guinea and Gulf-adjacent nations, spanning nearly every state from the Ivory Coast to Angola, in the first half of 2021. To try to mitigate this, IMB is recommending vessels stay at least 250 nm from land at all times.
Numbers are thankfully down so far this year, with the Davide B and Mozart incidents the most notable. But piracy in the region, said the IMO, remains a “serious and immediate threat to global trade and the safety of seafarers”.
The US Navy is helping to improve things - but in a limited way that is unlikely to have long-term results. It recently deployed its mobile command centre USS Hershel “Woody” Williams to the Gulf of Guinea, where it conducted a short training exercise with the Nigerian Navy.
Nigeria’s Navy is among the top five in Africa and has substantial “green water” capability – in naval terminology, this is the area spanning a country’s littoral zone and extending outward to the edge of its territorial waters.
Its flagship frigate NNS Aradu, constructed at Germany’s Blohm and Voss shipyard in 1980, is exceptionally well-armed for a vessel of its size, and is equipped with a formidable complement of armaments including ship-to-ship missiles, torpedoes, and 127mm naval guns.
Unfortunately for Nigeria, NNS Aradu is ageing, and plans are being drawn up to replace it.
In 2012, Nigeria took delivery of an old US Coast Guard cutter, now renamed to NNS Thunder. Its complement of arms is significantly lighter, with a single 76mm gun, and a Phalanx CIWS 20mm autocannon.
While Nigeria’s navy certainly has some vessels capable of dealing with pirate attacks, the size of the task the West is asking it to perform is seriously daunting.
Root cause of piracy
Why is piracy so rife? Poverty and inequality are root causes, particularly in Nigeria. A country with enormous mineral wealth and the world’s 11th largest oil producer; nevertheless, unemployment is around 20%, with another 20% underemployed, according to the World Bank.
In the Niger Delta, more than half live without running water, electricity, or medical care; but its population is reminded of the wealth their land bears for others when massive amounts of oil – at least 135,000 barrels since 2011 according to Amnesty International – leaks from pipelines, polluting rivers, and destroying farms.
Many pirates claim justice is on their side. One of the largest militant gangs in the region, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), conducts kidnapping operations in the Gulf of Guinea; but rather than opportunistic fortune-making, this is contiguous with a campaign on land to terrorise oil workers, vandalise pipelines, and cut off supplies for oil conglomerates.
$2 billion lost to illegal fishing
It is a similar story in Somalia, East Africa, whose shorelines had been looted dry by illegal foreign trawlers, leaving the ecosystems barren, and a generation of competent seafarers out of work, out of food and desperate, in an environment where weapons are easily procured. Over time, it became clear to stakeholders that the situation would not change until problems on land were addressed. Piracy could yet, of course, re-emerge.
This time, with the visit of USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, it appears that the systemic causes of piracy are at least being considered. West Africa loses about 800,000 tonnes of fish a year, worth almost US$2 billion in gross revenue, to illegal activities by foreign and domestic vessels, destroying livelihoods and removing vast seafood protein from the region, US diplomat Pierangelo told Bloomberg.
But if Nigerian waters were safer during the all-too-brief US visit, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams has moved on and Nigeria is left to cope on its own. Navies cannot be everywhere at once; and armed guards are expensive and fraught with complications. Bringing guns aboard a ship, no matter how well-trained their handlers, will always pose a risk.
But it is not surprising that gangs, willing to die for the chance of wealth, cast off from some of the world’s most destitute shores.
Until the plight of such peoples can be addressed, piracy will never go away.
Charlie Bartlett is a maritime freelance journalist.