Poverty isn’t the only cause. An abundance of money is driving it. But in whose hands?


After a fall in maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa in recent years, a worrying rise is showing no signs of abating on the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. What and who is to blame for this dangerous uptick in crime?

The majority of pirate attacks occur within the Gulf of Guinea, 95% of global kidnappings of seamen occur there and the IMB reported an increase in 40% of incidents in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year. Much of the focus has been on Nigeria because of several high profile incidents involving local militias such as the ‘Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta’, who have fought against corruption and exploitation of the region’s oil reserves by the federal government and multinational companies. 

“The vast majority of reported attacks are not thwarted, thereby increasing the viability and accessibility of such an enterprise”

Despite these political movements ceasing their involvement in piracy, the Gulf is becoming even more dangerous for international maritime trade. Not only have attacks increased, but the pirates have ameliorated their technology. They are able to arm themselves with AK-47’s and sail even further out to sea to target unsuspecting freight ships. In July of this year, pirates attacked a tanker 196 nautical miles southwest of Bayelsa in Nigeria, before kidnapping 13 crewmen. The willingness to travel these long distances poses a huge obstacle for shipping companies wishing to circumnavigate the important route around West Africa.

Old Style Piracy 

In many ways the pirates are still relatively unsophisticated. In addition to kidnapping crewmen for ransom, these groups participate in ‘Oil Bunkering’ which involves siphoning off the valuable resource from tankers into makeshift containers on their own boat. This is then sold internationally on the black market. However, the process is frequently subject to mishap which can result in huge oil spills which plague the West African coastline. 

The obvious cause of the exponential rise in piracy is the impoverished coastline communities of Nigeria. With an estimated 14.2% youth employment in the country, it is not hard to imagine that the riches afforded to them by raiding oil tankers could be particularly enticing, albeit perilously dangerous. The unfortunate irony is that their illicit activity is likely hurting the wellbeing and future of their law-abiding neighbours. With increased oil spills, the fishing industry has been hit and the prospect of further development of the coast dashed as a result of the danger associated with the region. 

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But poverty is not the only reason for the continuation of this criminal enterprise. Many public officials who are responsible at various levels for keeping a stern eye on criminal activity in the Gulf have been paid off by pirate groups. Whether this be custom officials or the military, corruption is rife in Nigeria (which ranks 144th in the global Transparency index). In some cases officials have been known to provide pirates with insider information about ships that are passing through. Whilst poverty is a motivator, corruption certainly facilitates the booming clandestine industry. However, it is important to note that economic inequality is frequently cited as a leading cause for corruption in a society, so these factors shouldn’t be seen in complete isolation from each other. 

Mismanagement of security forces is also a pertinent factor which plagues the region. Despite several successful anti-piracy operations by West African navies, these have not occured as a result of a collaborative effort between the countries that share this coastline. The vast majority of reported attacks are not thwarted, thereby increasing the viability and accessibility of such an enterprise. A coordinated response by the militaries of Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and the other basin countries would act as a strong deterrent for those considering a life of crime on the high seas. 

Whilst potentially not as pressing as the other factors outlined above, the political sentiment of aforementioned militia groups such as MEND and NDA may still be a motivator for young pirates. The perceived injustice of foreign international companies profiting from the natural resources of the local population whilst they themselves suffer impoverishment in the slums of Lagos might well be what triggers the creation of these pirate bands. 

In the short term, cracking down on corruption and implementing more coherent security measures in the region will likely improve the safety and stability of the Gulf in a similar fashion to the East African coast in the early 2010’s. However, in the long term perhaps the international community and the Nigerian government should see piracy as a symptom of much larger systemic problems which impact the very core of the country’s institutions and governance; the out of control poverty and infrastructure crisis that plagues it’s coastal communities.