March 14, 2013

West side story

One size does not fit all, shipping is belatedly realising- or pretending to- and Nigeria is not Somalia. As the increase in violence against seamen in and around the Gulf of Guinea rises exponentially, our self-proclaimed experts have started saying what a sixth grader could have told them two years ago during his lunch break- different strokes will be required, compared to Somali pirates, for the folk in operating in and around the Gulf of Guinea.

What is sickening in all this is that the atrocities against seamen in West African waters will be allowed to increase just as they were off Somalia, before the armed guard solution was ‘found’ by the same self-styled experts- a solution that many of us were saying for years was the necessary evil needed to fix the problem. While we were beating that dead horse, though, everybody was busy raking in the moolah- and I am not talking about the pirates here. What makes me livid is that the same thing will be repeated off West Africa; shipping and the rest of the world will sit on their hands while the violence against seamen escalates. The sick joke will be retold at the sailor’s expense again.

I am not going to repeat what I have written on the subject before; instead, if I may, I would like to forecast-  for the ears of the few who still want to solve problems instead of using them for personal or financial advancement- and hang the seamen- what I broadly see happening off West Africa in the near future.

·         Officials in authority and law enforcement in corrupt regimes like Nigeria will expand further into businesses linked to piracy. The notorious functionaries in the oil industry there will follow suit. Anarchy was the big issue in Somalia; corruption will be the thorn in the international community’s flesh on the other side of Africa, whenever it tries to engage in the region. West African countries do have functioning governments, unlike Somalia. The problem is that many are riddled with corruption, and so the end result is the same. All this will mean, just like Somalia, that there will be no easy solutions on the ground.

  • Regulations against armed foreigners in West African waters- some of which are already in place- will not be eased easily. Security companies are already working around the problem somewhat by using foreigners as advisors instead of armed guards, I know, but there is not much evidence around that the system is working. I think that there will be just enough obstruction from the system to make any serious initiatives unworkable.

  • Violence against crews and ships will increase even further, because West African pirates are after cargoes, because they cannot take hijacked ships to safe havens and because they will become emboldened since they have the backing of powerful people ashore. This has already started happening, as anybody who reads the news knows. Alarmingly, pirates off Nigeria don’t seem to be wary of getting into prolonged fire fights with armed guards on ships; the Somali’s, on the other hand, used to break off attacks and seek other targets much more readily. In the end, many more crew are going to get killed- and we will let it happen. Just like we did in the Indian Ocean.

  • More and more Nigerian youth from the impoverished Niger Delta- that is, paradoxically, swimming in oil- will be drawn to piracy. Reasons include well-armed criminal gangs in the region who are flush with money- some reports say that up to 10% of Nigerian oil worth millions is looted every day. Warlords need foot-soldiers to sustain their operations. Also, Nigerian domestic initiatives- including financial packages- to wean away men from these gangs do not apply to youngsters just coming of age, so they are broke and unemployed, and, therefore, cannon fodder for the recruiters in the gangs.

  • The criminals will have the money, the resources, the connections and the motivation to expand piracy up and down the coast. (They are already using at least one mother ship). Shipping, on the other hand, seems to have access to none of these. The dice are loaded against us- just as they were off Somalia.

But forget what the enemy is doing or will do, I say. Concentrate on your actions instead. What are we doing? What is shipping doing?

The short answer, as usual, is precious little.

Today, we should laugh in the faces of our suited-booted experts who are telling us, just as they did off Somalia, that citadels and BMPs are the big elements that will combat West African Piracy. We should slam the door in their faces and burn the root cause analyses and the thick reports produced that are typed by the inexperienced with manicured fingernails.

Regular sufferers of this column will know from a few years ago that my short solution to Somali piracy was armed guards. Today, my short solution to West African piracy is this: Send in a multinational naval force to West Africa tomorrow. Next week, ask all the countries in the region to start vigorous law enforcement measures against pirate gangs and their backers ashore, and immediate legal prosecution of those caught. Simultaneously, ask the same countries politely to amend laws to ensure ships can be armed and protected effectively, and by whatever nationality they choose.

Concentrate on Nigeria. Promise them equipment to beef up their maritime security apparatus. Not money, please, but equipment. And training.

Another week later, if they don’t listen, throw a ring of steel in and around the Gulf of Guinea- it is hardly as large as the Indian Ocean. Nothing moves in or out. A mini-blockade, if you will. Simultaneously, provide armed guards on all vessels, using the United Nations’ rubber stamp if required. Ask Nigeria- less politely this time- to cooperate or face incremental economic sanctions.

That should solve everything by the end of next month, I think, and put a lot of suited booted experts out of business.

For those of you who will scream, “But Nigeria has oil! What about the economic impact on the world- don’t you know there is a recession going on!!?” I will only say that you need to read somebody else’s column if you want to make an omelette without breaking eggs.


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