First convictions under Nigerian piracy law, experts remain dubious

A Special Force of the Nigerian navy tries to arrest pirates in exercise operation codenamed Grand African NEMO (Navy Exercise Maritime Operations). Credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

Three men have been the first to be convicted under Nigeria’s piracy law on 11 August, however, the lenient sentencing will do little to deter or decrease the ever-growing piracy numbers in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) security experts maintain.

A court in the Port of Harcout, Nigeria fined three men NGN20 million (USD52,000) each under the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act for the hijacking of tanker Elobey VI on 21 March, off Equitorial Guinea, and subsequent ransom of the crew for USD200,000.

However, Dirk Siebels, senior analyst, Risk Intelligence said he feared is the convictions are a lax implementation of the anti-piracy law. “When you look into the anti-piracy bill, it also includes harsh sentences for anybody who is convicted of piracy or related crimes. While that is a lot of money in Nigeria [the USD52,000 fine], it is much below the potential fines and no prison sentences were handed out by the judge,” Siebels told SAS.

Lars Bergqvist, maritime security advisor LB Marine Consultancy, was astonished at the leniency in the sentencing and compared the ruling to others issued to Somali pirates who received life sentences in certain cases. “Now the Niger rebels/pirates have a price tag over how much it will cost to be released if they are caught. It will probably be accounted for when deciding the next ransom sum,” Bergqvist told SAS.

Siebels explained that there are existing laws in Nigeria under which suspected pirates could have been tried, and the SPOMO Act is nothing more than a “good piece of PR” for the Nigerian government. While Siebels has not accessed the full court documents yet, he suspected the men were not even convicted of piracy. “Rather they were found guilty of facilitating the ransom payment which would have been a criminal offence even without the anti-piracy bill,” he said.

Both Siebels and Bergqvist agree that the latest conviction will do little to deter piracy in the region. The GoG continues to be a global leader in piracy, making up 91% of global kidnappings according to the International Maritime Bureau Q2 piracy results. The region also accounts for 70% of incidents in which a gun is used in an attack, making it the most violent as well.

Nigeria has increased its naval efforts and carried out several joint exercises with international navies. The USD195 million ‘Deep Blue Project’ was launched in 2019 to combat the increased piracy threat in GoG waters. The Nigerian Navy has also increased its collaboration efforts with the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), who are the ‘Deep Blue Project’ leaders and aided the handover of several suspected pirates in GoG waters.