The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Falling oil prices spark a rise in kidnappings by West African pirates

Men are detained in May 2015 for allegedly hijacking vessels in the oil-rich Bayelsa waterways of Nigeria. (Tife Owolabi/European Pressphoto Agency)

Half a decade ago, attacks by pirates from Somalia were so common — and so costly, in lives and money — that a naval task force with more than two dozen vessels from European Union countries, the United States, China, Russia, India and Japan banded together to restore order to one of the world's busiest shipping routes. Those cooperative efforts largely succeeded, as have recent patrols in and around the similarly bustling Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, where pirate attacks have fallen steeply in the past six months. In 2015, there were 17 pirate attacks near Somalia, down from 151 in 2011.

But on the other side of the African continent, a new hot spot is emerging. The Gulf of Guinea, a body of water tucked into the curve where West Africa meets Central Africa, is now the most dangerous region in the world for seafarers, according to a new report by the nonprofit organization Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP).

The pirates in these waters are mostly from the Niger Delta, an oil-rich part of Nigeria that has seen two decades of violence as militias fight over control of land and resources. Before 2015, they mostly targeted oil tankers, siphoning the black gold by the metric ton and ferrying it back to the mainland, where they sold it on the black market. But the price of crude oil has fallen precipitously since mid-2014, which means that human hostages are now more valuable than their once-precious cargo.

The OBP report says that kidnapping for ransom became the region's "most pervasive piracy model" last year, and that trend has only escalated in the first quarter of 2016. "In most kidnapping incidents the pirates board the vessel after firing at the bridge to suppress any opposition and intimidate the crew, and then proceed to isolate the ranking officers and engineers, who net the highest ransoms," the report said. "The same pirate gangs responsible for these attacks are likely the same groups responsible for kidnapping and violence in the Niger Delta."

In most cases, victims were brought to small islands in the delta where local militias have bases and held for two to three weeks.

Known ransoms have reached as high as $400,000 in the region, which is actually lower by orders of magnitude than the average ransom paid to pirates off the coast of Somalia, which the BBC reported at almost $5 million. Yet in a video made by OBP, the group claims that as many as 70 percent of kidnapping incidents in the Gulf of Guinea go unreported and that all but a few ransoms are paid through secret back channels. The gulf is a major transit point for cocoa and metal in addition to oil. Not one of the very few pirates who have actually been caught has been prosecuted, the report says, so crews don't report incidents out of fear that they will again come face-to-face with their captors on subsequent trips.

The lack of prosecution is indicative of a larger issue: Nigeria and its neighbors are struggling to keep their seas under control without outside help. Unlike pirate hot spots in the Indian Ocean, where nations with powerful navies have coordinated an aggressive response partly because of their own business interests, the Gulf of Guinea suffers from a lack of global strategic importance. Pirates from Somalia and Southeast Asia are near two of the most crucial shipping routes on Earth, whereas the Gulf of Guinea largely serves traffic in and out of the countries that surround it. Last month, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea agreed to create a combined patrolling force, but it will, of course, be far smaller than those in the other regions.

A maritime security consultancy called Gray Page said of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea that "it is often more difficult to communicate a threat incident to local security forces in the region than it is to naval forces operating against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. In some cases ... they have been unwilling or unable to assist (for example, stating that their patrol vessels have limited range or asking for a payment to ‘hire’ assets, such as a patrol vessel or aeroplane)."

Since the beginning of this year, the number of people kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea already equals the total for all of 2015.