PORTO-NOVO, Benin, Aug. 15 (UPI) — Pirate attacks off the coast of West Africa are increasingly sharply in a region that is becoming a major oil-producing zone and trading hub.
Security and shipping analysts say the number of attacks is underreported and that, left unchecked, the emerging crisis could soon rival the Somali piracy scourge off East Africa that now extends deep into the Indian Ocean.
Nigeria, the main oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, and Benin, its tiny eastern neighbor, have reported 27 attacks this year.
Piracy in these waters and the Gulf of Guinea, which runs along the Atlantic coasts of a dozen countries from Guinea to Angola, has gone from low-level robberies at sea to hijackings, cargo seizures and major holdups over the last eight months.
So far, there have been no hijackings for ransom, the primary tactic used by the Somali pirates.
But London’s maritime insurance market has added Benin to its list of high-risk zones for shipping, on a par with the Gulf of Aden off Somalia on the other side of the continent.
Benin is the maritime access point for land-locked states such as Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso and its economy depends heavily on shipping.
“Dozens of ships are already fleeing our shores because of fear of these pirates,” Maxime Ahoyo, commander of Benin tiny navy, said last week.
The Gulf of Guinea, the center of the West African oil boom, is the main focus of the pirate gangs, who are becoming increasingly organized. Oil tankers are prime targets.
Earlier this month, Lloyd’s Market Association, a London umbrella for a group of insurers, listed Nigeria, Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as lawless Somalia, where there has been no central government since 1991 and anarchy has flourished.
That could signal higher insurance rates for Nigeria’s shipping agency, which exports crude oil across the Atlantic to the United States. The West African oil fields, many of them offshore, are crucial to U.S. efforts to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil imports.
Within the next few years, as much as one-quarter of U.S. oil imports will come from West Africa. So any serious threat to supplies could have an impact in the United States.
The International Maritime Bureau’s reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says 12 tankers have been attacked in Benin’s water since March.
The area was relatively free of pirates until late 2010, although the maritime marauders have been around since the 1980s.
One reason for the sudden growth of piracy in the region is the lack of naval combat forces and the absence of any maritime security cooperation among the countries, many of them impoverished and politically volatile, along the coast.
Even so, West Africa’s waters are nowhere near as dangerous as the Gulf of Aden and the busy trade routes and tanker lanes of the Indian Ocean.
The IMB, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, reported 163 attacks or attempted attacks by Somali pirates in the first half of 2011.
These attacks, carried out by gangs that have become increasingly sophisticated, with international sponsors and financiers and are capable of long-range operations, cost the international community up to $8.3 billion a year, says Geopolicity Inc., a consultancy that specializes in economic intelligence in the Middle East and Asia.
That could escalate to $13 billion-$15 billion by 2015, it cautioned in a recent analysis of the piracy threat.
The Somali pirates continue to intensify operations despite the presence of NATO and EU naval task forces deployed in the Gulf of Aden two years ago.
There are no such forces operating off West Africa, so security and shipping analysts expect the piracy problem to escalate sharply.
As it is, they say the crisis is undoubtedly far more serious than the number of attacks that are actually reported.
Some ship owners are reluctant to report such incidents to avoid having insurance premiums hiked, particularly if illegal cargoes are involved.
In other cases, many attacks that take place within the territorial waters of the littoral states aren’t considered acts of piracy under international law and thus aren’t recorded as such.
“In Nigeria, it’s estimated that approximately 60 percent of pirate attacks go unreported,” the London security firm AKE Ltd. says.