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Home Archive March 2011 Issue Issue Content The Lull Before the Storm: Maritime Piracy and Election Violence in the Niger Delta

The Lull Before the Storm: Maritime Piracy and Election Violence in the Niger Delta

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Violence and crime are persistent parts of Nigerian life. On one hand recognizable in its cyclical nature, on the other hand “everyday” violence is prone to trigger larger events. Examples of cyclical violence include the “Christmas bonanza” by criminal gangs in Lagos but also the quadrennial general elections. Since Nigeria’s return to nominal democracy in 1999, elections have been marred by fraud, corruption and violence. Maritime security incidents and attacks on oil and gas infrastructure in Nigeria have always provided a “fever graph” of such events in Nigeria. This article will explore the prospects for maritime security during the election year 2011. Necessarily, it will offer only a narrow view, excluding much of the sectarian or governance issues, which do not have a direct impact on maritime and offshore operations.

Before looking ahead, it is worth briefly reviewing the status quo: The Denmark-based maritime security intelligence company Risk Intelligence recorded 58 piracy-related maritime security incidents in Nigerian inshore and coastal waters for 2010. This compares with 91 incidents for 2009 and 114 incidents for 2008. These figures however disguise a more disturbing trend: As the amnesty program faltered, mid-ranking militants in the Niger Delta increasingly turned to offshore kidnappings-for-ransom. In 2010, 18 attacks involved kidnap-for-ransom, which compares to 8 kidnappings from rigs and ships for 2009 and 2008 respectively.

The drop in overall attacks follows the pattern set by previous pre-election years (2002 and 2006), in which overall militant and pirate activity seemed to dip before rebounding beyond previous levels following the elections.

The brunt of these attacks has typically been borne by the offshore industry and the tanker community. This is not surprising since they represent the most frequent and most vulnerable traffic in the area. The main targets of pirate attacks in Nigeria in 2010 were product tankers (11), supply ships (8), general cargo ships (6), crude oil tankers (5), and container ships, tugs and trawlers/fishing vessels (4 each). Two rigs/platforms and one FPSO (Floating Production, Storage and Offloading unit) were attacked in 2010. All other incidents involved small and local craft.

Drivers of maritime insecurity in Nigeria

Maritime insecurity in Nigeria is driven by different factors along different parts of the shoreline. Off Lagos and the South-West of Nigeria, piracy has traditionally been of a subsistence character with relatively small shore-based groups praying on ships as they approach Lagos. More recently, however, it appears that these groups have become more organized and more violent—to some extent copying the tactics of Niger Delta piracy. Maritime insecurity in Nigeria has to a great extent been impacted by developments in the Niger Delta—the upswing in regional insurgency with the rise of MEND in 2006 led to a steep increase in the number of maritime security incidents. Niger Delta insurgent groups have targeted shipping and offshore facilities to fund their activities, to make a political point and sometimes both. Maritime insecurity in 2011 will be borne out by what happens in the Niger Delta, which itself depends largely on the April 2011 elections and the developments in regional insurgency.

The April 2011 elections and the Niger Delta

Elections in Nigeria usually imply that political henchmen and armed groups receive ample funding from political candidates. Electoral work is likely to distract armed groups in the Niger Delta region from insurgent and pirate activity in the election run-up. However, some attacks may be sponsored to discredit political opponents and incumbents. Indeed, it is believed that cash-strapped politicians were involved in kidnappings in the lead-up to last elections in April 2007. But overall, maritime insecurity is likely to be lower in the first five months of 2011 due to the elections.

The presidential election is between incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and a number of northern political powerbrokers. Jonathan is from the Niger Delta and won the ruling People’s Democratic Party ticket on 13 January 2011. Northern contenders include former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and former military ruler Muhammedu Buhari. Former anti-corruption tsar Nuhu Ribadu is also contesting for the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which has its powerbase in the predominantly Yoruba South-West of Nigeria. The presidential election is mainly seen as a political contest between the Niger Delta and the north of Nigeria. Jonathan’s candidacy has been controversial because the north was expecting to hold the presidency for two terms (deceased President Umaru Yar’Adua only managed slightly less than one), just as southerner Olusegun Obasanjo held the post for two consecutive terms. Jonathan has used his access to government funds to buy political support, but Nigerian politics often throws up surprises.

At the regional level, the top tier of “ex-militants” such as former MEND commander Boyloaf and Ateke Tom are engaged in providing electoral services to politicians. For instance, Boyloaf is believed to be close to incumbent Governor Timipre Sylva in Bayelsa State. Sylva is running on PDP ticket against a former presidential adviser on militant amnesty, Timi Alaibe. Alaibe also has links with armed groups in the state.

Should Jonathan’s campaign fail, there is a risk of an upsurge in attacks in the oil industry—triggered by political networks in the Niger Delta. But regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, funding from politicians is likely to expire by May 2011, and armed groups will turn to predation on the onshore oil industry as well as targeting offshore installations and shipping. Consequently, there is likely to be a rise in offshore attacks from May 2011.

The fracturing of insurgency in the Niger Delta

The line between Niger Delta insurgency and piracy is a fluid one: Insurgent groups carried out attacks against offshore targets (including supply vessels, oil platforms and FPSOs) for commercial reasons during the MEND phase of insurgency (from 2006 to 2009). The amnesty program led to a reduction in the number of pirate attacks in mid-2009 as “ex-militants” were now funded directly, but since then mid-ranking insurgents have become increasingly discontent with their share of amnesty proceeds. Some thus turned to piracy in late 2010. The fracturing of insurgency is likely to continue to drive piracy off the Niger Delta in 2011. There are two significant fractures.

Firstly, a radical faction around the former South Africa-based arms dealer Henry Okah is intent on restarting insurgency. This faction sought to undermine the amnesty through bomb attacks in 2010, leading to a split with the mainstream of the “ex-militant” leadership. Jomo Gbomo (an email pseudonym used by MEND previously) claimed responsibility for two car bombs detonating near an amnesty conference in Warri on 15 March 2010. On 1 October 2010, Nigeria’s 50th Independence Day, two car bombs in Abuja killed at least 12 people and injured 17. Henry Okah was subsequently arrested in South Africa, accused of having masterminded the attack. The campaign manager for the Ibrahim Babangida presidential campaign, Raymond Dokpesi, was also briefly detained. Following another bomb threat on 15 October, Charles Okah (a younger brother of Henry) and an associate were arrested in Lagos. The Abuja bombings failed to bring about a collapse of the amnesty program, but caused some political damage to Jonathan and his presidential bid. The network around Henry Okah has been weakened in the Delta, but has continued to issue new threats in early 2011. One threat focused on the downstream petroleum sector, while another issued on 29 January threatened an all-out campaign against the oil industry. The circle of associates around Okah now carry much less clout than in the heyday of MEND, and its threats are not always credible. However, it remains fairly easy to instigate one of the many armed factions in the region to carry out onshore or offshore attacks.

Secondly, the top tier of “ex-militants” has not been sharing the spoils of the amnesty with the mid-ranking leaders and the rank-and-file. The latter are likely to take up arms and also to prey on the offshore industry to the extent that they can. Mid-ranking “ex-militant” commanders unhappy with the amnesty program are likely to take up arms in increasing numbers. This insurgent activity is unlikely to be as organized as that of MEND (following the arrest of Henry Okah), but it may prove no less disruptive.

Bonny River Convoy Source: Risk Intelligence

“Ex-militants” infuriated by the failure of the amnesty program and the perceived betrayal by government and leading militants may pursue increasingly violent and destructive tactics. Mid-ranking insurgents have access to ample arms and command significant capabilities onshore and offshore. A former Farah Dagogo deputy, Tamunotonye Kuna (aka Obese/Obeys) was involved in offshore attacks and kidnapping-for-ransom off southern Rivers State and towards Cameroon in late 2010. Kuna was arrested in late November 2010, but others are likely to follow his lead. There are residual capabilities among mid-ranking insurgents in Kalabari Ijaw in southern Rivers State, particularly among the former deputies of former Rivers State MEND commander Farah Dagogo. These capabilities extend to onshore attacks in the Kalabari Ijaw clan area; attacks on shipping in or approaching the Bonny River, and attacks on shipping and offshore facilities as far east as Bakassi and up to 60 nm offshore. Ateke Tom is also believed to have significant residual capabilities in the Okrika area on the eastern side of the Bonny River.

In Delta State, John Togo left the amnesty program in mid-November 2010. His group, the Niger Delta Liberation Force (NDLF), targeted onshore oil infrastructure in November and December in response to militant offensives against local communities. The military Joint Task Force (JTF) responded by carrying out raids on communities suspected of harbouring John Togo and his affiliates. On 1 December 2010, the community of Ayakoromor in Delta State was reportedly razed by the JTF. Since then, the NDLF has issued conflicting statements: As of February 2011 it appears that the faction will continue to be in on-off conflict with the JTF. Other “ex-militants” in Delta State are also disgruntled with the amnesty (and the role of former Delta State MEND commander Tom Polo) and may expand to offshore activities.

Mid-ranking “ex-militants” in southern Bayelsa State also retain capacity. The area has been under the overall control of Boyloaf, but with a least a dozen lower-ranking insurgent leaders there is a high risk of local splits. These local groups have largely been active in the shallow offshore, but they have a significant offshore range, contingent on weather conditions.

Insurgency, piracy and the energy sector

When it comes to attacking Nigerian energy infrastructure—whether for political or for commercial gain—maritime and offshore targets have frequently taken a back seat over attacks on the pipeline system and swamp-based drilling and production facilities. This was a matter of convenience for the many years that MEND planned and executed a disruption campaign, and many of its constituent groups piggybacked on the strategy for the purpose of self-enrichment. Maritime targets were relatively easy targets but required specialized skills, and only high-value targets, such as FPSOs (SEA EAGLE and BONGA), were rewarding in terms of publicity and the disruption they caused to Nigerian oil production.

The fragmentation and radicalization of Niger Delta militant groups will require a re-evaluation of the maritime security situation. As former MEND affiliates in southern Bayelsa State and Rivers State run out of funds from the amnesty program, they will have to activate their dormant skills in search of new revenue streams.

Armed groups and factions in the Okrika and Kalabari Ijaw areas of Rivers State, the Southern Ijaw and Ekeremor local government areas in Bayelsa State and around Forcados all share good maritime assault skills, with experience gained in numerous MEND-directed raids. Where it had often been MEND’s policy to kidnap to demonstrate that they had the ability (as well as to collect a ransom), these unfunded groups are now applying the tactic to purely commercial ends.

Piracy used to be largely a subsistence business in Nigeria. With the influx of trained and experienced militants, tactics and results are already changing rapidly. Pirate attacks, predominantly in the Niger delta, take the shape of well-organized militant raids, involving multiple boats, each carrying up to ten individuals including heavy machine guns and RPGs. Attacks are pressed home against armed resistance, whether embarked or on security boats. The legacy of fighting in Eastern Nigeria and the continuous violence in the Delta have given an advantage to the militants-turned-pirates facing less motivated soldiers who will swiftly surrender in the face of a determined attack.

On the other end of the scale are attacks involving insiders in operations. These are the key to the illegal bunkering activities. They too will be hard fought over by those elites involved in the election campaign and their troops. Many tanker operators, especially those carrying refined products, may find themselves at the butt-end of this development as the criminal organizations branch out and expand to include carriers in their scheme that have so far escaped notice or have not been complicit in the illegal bunkering activities.


Both tanker shipping and offshore assets will continue to make up the bulk of targets for militants and pirates operating in the Nigerian maritime domain. As in previous years, around 50% of all maritime attacks will likely be offshore-related; of the remaining 50%, half will be against tankers. However, overall numbers are likely to increase for the reasons given above. Product tankers will suffer multiple disadvantages. Previously, they were targets of opportunity due to their low freeboard and their need to navigate very constrained waters in the Niger Delta. Now, there is an added incentive of kidnapping their crews—tankers have, on balance, better trained and more valuable crews than other vessels, which makes them attractive to kidnappers. In addition to that is the potential for stealing their cargo as a part of an ad-hoc or planned illegal bunkering operation.

It remains possible, but unlikely, that the militants will launch another offshore “spectacular”, like the attacks against SEA EAGLE in 2006 and 2007 or against BONGA in 2008, unless the fragmented militant groups re-form into a “new MEND”. The current radical faction appears to have been weakened significantly. The radicals claiming to speak on behalf of MEND are no longer greeted with an advantageous environment. Niger Delta politicians have leverage in Abuja, and the leadership of former affiliate insurgent groups have embraced the amnesty program, even if for economic reasons. And radical factions—to the extent that they form an operational unit—seem to be more set on creating a media spectacle, occasionally using terrorist tactics. For this, the shore side environment is more conducive.

The Nigerian military has proven in combat that it can achieve local and temporary control of the inland waterway if needed. The Bonny River convoys, although managed by a private company, are a testimony to this limited success. On the other hand, the brutal actions of the Joint Task Force in Gbamaratu Kingdom in Delta state in early summer 2009—as a prelude to amnesty—have both failed to bring lasting peace and have further alienated the Delta minorities from the Nigerian government and what they perceive as their stooges in the state and local governments. A comprehensive solution and pacification of the Niger Delta, military or otherwise, thus seems further away than ever.

Contributor Thomas Horn Hansen is an Analyst and Dirk Steffen is the Director of Consultancy at Risk Intelligence in Denmark.



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