At a shipping conference in Copenhagen last Tuesday, intelligence experts voiced a curious hypothesis about pirate attacks in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea: The attacks, they said, will increase as Nigeria gears up for general elections scheduled for February.
"The ransoms are used for the elections," Hans Tino Hansen, managing director of Risk Intelligence, explained, referring to the cash pirates demand for captured ships and their occupants.
According to Hansen, the relationship between elections and piracy in Nigeria "is sort of a feudal system" that has long existed. Some politicians are accused of covering up and protecting pirates in exchange for a cut of their revenue, which is then used to finance election campaigns.
Alex Vines, who leads the Africa program at Chatham House in London, offered a similar interpretation of piracy statistics. "There also needs to be further investigation into the use of oil theft as a campaign finance mechanism," he said, pointing at another source of income for Nigerian pirates apart from ransom payments.
Piracy costs the international community as much as $28 billion each year, according to the Danish Shipowners Association. This figure includes public and private costs incurred from loss of merchandise, securing cargo ships and routes, ransom payments, and decreased volume of trade due to the threat of piracy.
But are claims that Nigerian politicians finance piracy credible — and if so, is there a solution? Let's take a look at the numbers and what other researchers say.
Piracy does tend to increase ahead of elections
Using data collected by the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau, we visualized the number of reported attacks, highlighting the years with major general elections since 2003. With the exception of 2011, the trend does seem to match the described pattern. In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, for example, piracy has rapidly risen.
The ICC maritime bureau — an authority on piracy-related subjects – echoed Hansen’s explanation for Nigerian piracy in 2008: "The motives for the attacks are at least partly political in Nigeria," the bureau's analysts said in a report.
But how do experts explain the piracy decline in 2011?
There are three possible reasons. In 2009, the Nigerian government granted amnesty to many militants in the Niger Delta whose groups had been blamed for attacks in the Gulf of Guinea region – both offshore and on land.
This picture — showing some of those militants — was taken in 2006, one year before the 2007 general elections, when piracy spiked.
The amnesty might have caused a temporary decline in violence, because it entitled 26,000 ex-militants to a monthly allowance of about $400. But attacks surged after it became clear in 2011 that the amnesty funds were mismanaged and that many political promises would never be fulfilled.
"The mismanaged allocation of amnesty funds is a likely driver behind [the] significant rebound in maritime piracy since 2011,” Bryan Abell, a former fellow at Stanford University, wrote in an article this year. He specifically referred to the central Niger Delta and surrounding areas. According to him, Nigerian politicians have more interest in arming their political supporters "to intimidate rivals” than in paying them to disavow violence.
Vines offered another explanation: In 2011, many politicians were running for a second term in the Niger Delta. "This year, however, a number of governors have reached the end of their constitutionally permitted second term. Hence, the campaign will be much more competitive."
Another explanation for the decline in 2011 could simply be flawed data. The ICC International Maritime Bureau takes into account only reported incidents, but many attacks are never made public. The bureau concedes that "the real number of pirate attacks is at least twice as high as the official figure."
There is lots of money to be made in the Gulf of Guinea, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Simple robberies bring in about $10,000 to $15,000 per attack — potentially amounting to $1.3 million annually in recent years. Another target is oil, which accounts for 80 percent of Nigeria's budgetary revenue. It could generate as much as $30 million per year for pirates and militants.
Why we should care about piracy in Nigeria
What happens in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, can have an enormous regional impact. Many experts believe that Nigerian piracy is unique for several reasons. It accounts for 71 percent of all incidents in West Africa, according to Risk Intelligence, and the methods used by Nigerian pirates are highly profitable. "Pirates that succeed to hijack a product tanker and transfer the cargo into another tanker may earn up to $6 [million] to $8 million in an operation that takes maybe six to seven days," Hansen said. Lengthy ransom negotiations are less common among Nigerian pirates.
While pirates’ profits are high, the political will to tackle piracy is low. Nigeria is currently fighting the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the north of the country. Fatalities from non-criminal violence — a term that includes attacks by terror groups and communal or political actors — have rapidly risen since 2010. Given the growing Boko Haram threat, combating piracy is a low priority.
What’s more, despite problems in the gulf and the country’s north, Nigeria has recently increased its crude oil production, and this summer the World Bank cited positive economic prospects for the country.
But some experts say piracy is linked to other endemic issues that need to be addressed to further boost Nigeria’s economic outlook.
"Piracy, for example, can only be fought if corruption were seriously tackled," said René-Eric Dagorn, a geopolitics professor at Sciences-Po Paris.
Referring to ethnic and religious cleavages that have led to bloodshed in the past, Dagorn added: "Apart from state building, we also need 'society building' — and this will take longer than only a couple of years."