Marine insurers in London recently added Benin to the list of areas deemed to be at high risk of pirate attacks. Just west of Nigeria along the Gulf of Guinea coastline, the re-classification of this West African nation of 9.3 million people highlights a growing threat in the region.
For years, the failed state of Somalia has been the pre-eminent pirate threat to shippers navigating the open waters around the continent. This remains true today. Globally, the number of pirate attacks increased 36% in the first half of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010, according to the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center. And it was Somali pirates that carried out 60% of these 266 total attacks (not to mention many of those that have gone unreported).
But the depth of the problem in East Africa does not mean shippers can turn a blind eye to the growing risk in the Gulf of Guinea. There have already been at least 26 reported pirate attacks in the Gulf in 2011, according to the IMB. Between March and July, the IMB lists 12 attacks on oil tankers off the coast of Benin alone-an area where zero were reported last year.
Arguably worse than the number of attacks is the success rate of the pirates. Of the 15 attacks occurring directly off of Benin's shores, 13 were successful, according to the International Chamber of Commerce. This contrasts the trend on the other side of the continent. While Somali pirates carried out more attacks than ever in the first six months of 2011, they were only able to hijack 21 ships during their 163 attacks. In the first half of 2010, they hijacked 27 during just 100 attacks.
This lower rate has been credited to the international naval presence now stationed in the area-something that doesn't exist in the Gulf of Guinea where shippers have only the navies of Nigeria and Benin to defend the waters.
As for attacks this year off the coast of Nigeria, which has been no stranger to maritime crime throughout its oil-rich Niger Delta, three ships were boarded by pirates, two were fired upon and one escaped an attempted attack. This may be just scratching the surface, however. "In reality, the seas around Nigeria are more dangerous than the official reports suggest," states a report from the International Chamber of Commerce, which "is aware of at least 11 other incidents that were not reported to the Piracy Reporting Center."
Many believe it is Nigerian bandits responsible for the uptick in attacks near Benin as well. In August, pirates attacked two Panamanian tankers but were unsuccessful due to the arrival of a Benin naval vessel. "When we arrived on the scene we succeeded in chasing off 10 pirates, all Nigerians, who managed to break in but hurt no one," said Commander Maxime Ahoyo.
This lends evidence to the wide-held belief that, as Nigeria has ramped up security, the waters off of Benin have become a more attractive location for Nigerian criminals. And this has only further raised fears that, without an international naval presence, the Gulf of Guinea will remain a Whack-a-Mole haven for pirates who look for the point of least resistance and ambush ships as they arrive.