West Africa piracy rivals Somalia's
HSV 2 Swift - Pirate attacks off West Africa's coast have increased to levels that rival those seen in Somalia, insurers say, prompting maritime agencies to discuss setting aside their rivalries to fight the rising threat.
The International Maritime Bureau says Nigeria and Benin reported 18 pirate attacks in the first half of 2011. While smaller than figures attributed to Somali pirates, analysts say the number of attacks off Nigerian waters is under reported because some ships carry illegal oil cargo and others fear their insurance rates will rise.
"I believe we are nearly at a crisis here and if it's a crisis, there has to be action," said Rear Admiral Kenneth JAC Norton, deputy chief of staff for strategy, resources and plans for US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, headquartered in Naples, Italy.
Officials from Nigeria's Navy, its maritime industry and other groups met this week with US officials aboard the HSV 2 Swift off Nigeria's coast to discuss maritime issues, including formulating anti-piracy strategies.
The US and other Western nations have an anti-piracy armada patrolling the waters off East Africa, but there is no West African counterpart, leaving Nigeria and its neighbours to stop the growing swell of attacks on their own.
A big problem, those involved say, has been a lack of co-operation.
"Instead of inter-agency co-operation, what we have been getting is inter-agency rivalry," said Captain DO Labinjo, who represents a Nigerian ship owners' association.
London-based Lloyd's Market Association, an umbrella group of insurers, earlier this month listed Nigeria, neighbouring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.
As a result, shippers may be subjected to more checks and higher premiums, said Neil Smith, head of underwriting at Lloyd's Market Association.
That could mean additional costs for oil-rich Nigeria's shipping industry, which exports crude crucial to the US market.
It also can affect commercial shipping coming into Lagos' busy Apapa Port and the thriving used-car market based in Cotonou, the commercial capital of Benin.
Even as Nigerian agencies attempt to co-operate, the fast-changing patterns of pirates are testing their capabilities.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has over the last eight months escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings, cargo thefts and large-scale robberies, according to the Denmark-based security firm Risk Intelligence.
West African pirates also have been more willing to use violence, beating crew and shooting and stabbing those who get in the way. Analysts believe many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive.
Robbers appear to be targeting chemical and oil tankers sailing through the region.