The seizure last week of a U.S.-flagged oil industry vessel and its American captain and chief engineer off the West African coast signalled the supplanting of Somalia in East Africa by Nigeria as the chief source of African piracy.
What is particularly shameful about this fact is that Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, whereas Nigeria has not only had a government since independence in 1960 but also a sizable navy, including aircraft. A functioning government enforcing law and order onshore is the essential element in preventing piracy.
In the absence of such a government in Somalia and in the face of the increasing frequency of piracy waged against ships off its coast, the international community mounted a 29-nation naval task force, including extensive, expensive participation by U.S. Navy vessels, to put Somalia-based pirates out of business. It worked, more or less. The movie “Captain Phillips” is a dramatized chronicle of the 2009 capture by Somali pirates and rescue of a U.S. container ship by the U.S. Navy and Special Operations forces.
The focus of Africa’s piracy problem now has shifted to the western coast. On Thursday the C-Retriever, owned by a Louisiana-based company, was captured near the Nigerian port of Brass, where the Niger River delta empties into the Gulf of Guinea, in the Atlantic Ocean, and the two Americans were taken hostage.
The danger to ships passing the Somali coast in the Indian Ocean has been reduced to some degree by international patrolling, strict prosecution of captured pirates and increased use of private security guards on ships. The situation onshore in Somalia is still absent law and order, in spite of the presence of 17,000 African Union peacekeepers, U.S. drone strikes and other efforts to bring Somalia under organized governance.
Piracy organized from Nigeria is another kind of problem. That nation of 170 million, with considerable oil wealth, is riddled by corruption and tolerance of lawbreaking that includes a lack of willingness on the part of its government to crack down on the pirates based in its chaotic Niger River delta area. The Nigerian government even forbids oil companies there to employ private guards.
Nigeria must put the pirates out of business, on land and on the sea, unless it would like to relinquish authority off its coast to an armed international force. Piracy cannot be allowed to continue in the 21st century, with Nigeria joining dismal Somalia in the disorganization and corruption that make it possible.