/ 31 March 2010

With rusty ammo, Nigeria fights piracy

The gleaming Nigerian naval patrol boat heaved across the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean in search of pirates. Beyond the crisp white hull, however, crew members in cheap sandals manned machine guns whose ammunition had rusted in the chambers. And a computer-guided gun on the bow had no ammo at all.

This is the first line of defense against growing piracy off West Africa.

The patrol boat Burutu, which recently participated in a training exercise with the United States (US) military, is part of a force that patrols Nigeria’s 853km of coastline. But the navy appears overmatched as attacks on shipping continue and grow more violent, and militants resume strikes on oil platforms and pipelines.

The coastline of Africa’s most populous country is a target-rich environment. Barges and other vessels belonging to energy companies crowd the waters off the Niger Delta, one of America’s top sources of crude oil. At night off the megacity of Lagos, lights from scores of cargo ships twinkle like an archipelago as crews wait for weeks to unload at the city’s busy, mismanaged port.

About 10 pirates on Thursday night boarded a Turkish-flagged freighter waiting to unload its cargo. They stole money, mobile telephones and computer gear, Turkish maritime authorities said.

The crew apparently fought back and sent an alarm before the pirates clubbed them with Kalashnikov rifles and stabbed the captain. Two Turkish sailors and a Nigerian worker were injured.

“The Western African coast, especially around Nigeria, is a high risk area for piracy,” said Cyrus Mody, a manager at the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy worldwide. “It also one of the most violent places.”

The bureau reported 28 attacks off Nigeria during 2009 and believes at least another 30 pirate attacks went unreported, either due to companies worried about having higher insurance premiums or concerns about advertising their security weaknesses, Mody said.

Attacks have occurred elsewhere along the Gulf of Guinea that Nigeria shares with more than a half-dozen other countries. On Saturday, armed pirates off Cameroon’s coast near Nigeria kidnapped two sailors from a Ghanaian-flagged ship for ransom. In another attack in November near neighboring Benin by suspected Nigerian pirates, a Ukrainian sailor was shot dead. In other boardings, pirates stabbed and beat sailors, Mody said.

The former British protectorate’s navy includes several large ocean-cruising craft and smaller patrol boats that can travel up the Niger River in the delta to look for those attacking oil pipelines and stealing crude oil. The U.S. imported more than 1 million barrels of Nigerian crude oil a day in December, making Nigeria America’s third-biggest foreign source that month, so the US has an interest in seeing the Nigerian navy improve.

The US Navy has been training naval forces of West African nations to fight piracy, even though much of the world’s attention remains focused on Somali pirates operating off East Africa.

Commodore David Nabaida, a spokesperson for the Nigerian navy, said the navy will continue to patrol off of the Niger Delta and Lagos.

He said it is difficult to protect the more than 200 ships anchored in Lagos and questioned whether freighters were actually being robbed.

“Maybe ships do deals and sell their products, then say they were attacked by pirates so they can divert attention from whatever crooked deals they have done,” he said.

In a country permeated by corruption, it’s perhaps not unusual that the commodore harbors such suspicions.

The corruption that permeates every level of government in Nigeria may hamper the anti-piracy efforts. A retired Navy rear admiral was recently indicted for allegedly embezzling government funds. Nigeria’s elites often plunder the oil money that should be running and building up the country and some politicians even allegedly hire criminals and militants to help them rig elections.

The effectiveness of the Nigerian navy is also in question.

During the recent training exercise, the Burutu was motoring near the American frigate Samuel B Roberts. The US ship sounded a warning through its loudspeaker that the Nigerian vessel was on a collision course.

The warning continued even as the Nigerian patrol boat scraped along the side of the US warship, creating an ear-piercing metallic squeal. One US sailor cursed and threw a blue hard hat at the Nigerian sailors, who merely stared. –Sapa