Experts dubious over security benefits of piracy trials underway in Nigeria

Members of the Nigerian Navy patrol the Niger Delta. Credit: Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty Images

Arrested at sea by the Nigerian Navy, 10 suspected pirates are awaiting trial in Nigeria under the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act. Security experts, however, remain dubious that this event will have a wider impact on maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG).

The SPOMO Act was signed into law in June 2019 by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, as part of the governments’ proactive approach to combating piracy in the region. Nigeria is the first country in the GoG to have passed a specific anti-piracy law and the move was well received by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime who operates in the area.

The 10 suspected pirates were apprehended while onboard the fishing vessel, HAILUFANG 11, 140 nm south of the Lagos Fairway Buoy, Nigeria. The Chinese vessel was licenced to fish in Cote D’Ivoire waters. All 18 crew members were rescued when the vessel was intercepted by a detachment of the Nigerian Navy special boat service.

The move was heralded as a shining example of inter-agency cooperation and activity by Bashir Jamoh, director general of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). In a press statement during the handover of the suspected pirates Jamoh thanked president Buhari for signing the act into law and the collaborative efforts of NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy.

Dirk Siebels, senior analyst Risk Intelligence told SAS that he feared the act is only symbolic. He pointed out that for suspected pirates to be tried under SPOMO they need to have been arrested at sea, and these cases are extremely rare.

Siebels also noted that the crimes committed in the majority of vessel attacks, can be tried with existing legislation. For example, where seafarers are kidnapped from merchant vessels for the purpose of collecting a ransom. “Tackling maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea does not require new laws, but better enforcement of existing laws and regulations,” Siebels told SAS. “This has been a major issue for many years, not only in Nigeria, and it extends beyond piracy to other maritime security issues such as illegal fishing or smuggling of various goods”.

On the other hand, Lars Bergqvist, maritime security advisor LB Marine Consultancy, told SAS that he believed that the act could help curb piracy if suspected pirates are charged and given long sentences. He drew on Somali piracy in East Africa as an example, where around a thousand were put on trial. Although he noted that most of them were apprehended in international waters and so could be brought to trial in the state which the ship belonged to, or a special piracy court in Kenya.

“Only time will tell if Nigeria will have the same success,” said Bergqvist, “the problem is that Nigeria is not only dealing with pirates, but also insurgent groups from the Niger Delta that may use piracy for economic reasons”.

As reported previously by SAS, the economic conditions in West Africa have been exacerbated by the global economic crisis. Hampered by low oil prices and clamp down of the black-market criminal organisations have turned to kidnap and ransom of crew members to supplement their income stream.

The SPOMO act may be seen as a natural progression of the Yaounde Code of conduct, introduced in 2013, and the Lomé Charter, 2016, which required Nigeria to increase securitisation of its waters and provide supporting legislative frameworks.

Munro Anderson, partner, Dryad Global, went so far as to describe the act as a “paper tiger” to SAS. “However successful, prosecution and lengthy jail sentences alone are highly unlikely to impact the current trend of piracy in the short to medium term,” explained Munro. “Deterrence is well known to be measured not in the likelihood of conviction but in the likelihood of being caught”. Munro stresses that the success of counter piracy measures rely on the abilities and resources of the Nigerian Navy.

Siebels concurred, stating that “better law enforcement on land and at sea as well as an increasing responsiveness by navies across the region are likely to lead to improvements in maritime security in the coming years, even though these will not happen overnight”.

Although the Nigerian Navy has already become much better at responding to incidents than in the past the spike in piracy attacks and instances of kidnap for ransom are at an all-time high in West Africa. The latest quarterly piracy report has not yet been released by the International Maritime Bureau, however the trend seen in the first three months of the year is expected to continue with 47 reports of piracy in the GoG compared to 38 for the same time period in 2019.

“Nigeria as well as other countries across West and Central Africa are hampered by a lack of financial and human resources that are available for improving capacities of law enforcement agencies as well as the judicial sector which has often been a bottleneck in the past, highlighted by various cases during which suspects have been arrested but not put on trial,” concluded Siebels.