Nigeria is no stranger to maritime disorder. In the mid- to late-2000s, the political and criminal insurgency waged by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) cost the country an estimated $1.5 billion in lost annual revenue through oil theft, attacks against petroleum infrastructure and piracy. A measure of peace arrived in 2009, when the government in Abuja introduced an amnesty program that provided skills training and cash stipends for some 26,000 former militants and rewarded their leaders with lucrative security contracts.
By 2011, however, a new kind of maritime crime was emerging in the region: the short-term hijacking of oil tankers and subsequent theft and black market sale of their multimillion-dollar cargos. Though the syndicates responsible are based in Nigeria, the first tankers targeted were in the waters of neighboring Benin, where at least 20 such vessels were attacked in 2011 (.pdf). The following year the new piracy model had moved to the littoral of Togo, where the International Maritime Bureau recorded 15 similar attacks in 2012. The pirates have now extended their operations further westward into the waters of Côte d’Ivoire, where two tankers have already been hijacked and pilfered this year.
While large-scale cargo theft is new to the region, the Niger Delta has also witnessed a resurgence in kidnappings. In the past four months, six vessels have been boarded and 24 expatriate sailors taken hostage for ransom. Meanwhile, the use of hijacked vessels as offshore motherships has allowed pirates to conduct attacks up to 90 nautical miles from the coast, well outside the range of local security forces.