(Mumbai) Amid the thronging arrivals at Mumbai’s main airport, five men – each clad in t-shirts and tracksuit bottoms – shuffle forward. Their fresh faces and fashionable attire give no hint at the ordeal they’ve endured. For 70 days, the men – seafarers by trade – had been at the mercy of a pirate gang half a world away. Their ship had been stormed by armed thugs off the coast of Nigeria in mid-April, and the five were taken ashore as hostages. As happy as their deliverance is, the incident points to a deeply worrying trend – the explosive growth of piracy in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.

The waters between the Ivory Coast and Cameroon witnessed 112 pirate attacks last year, up from 28 in 2014. So far this year, there have been 30 reported incidents. And these numbers may be well below the true figures, experts warn, with chronic underreporting from ship owners fearing costly investigations. Nevertheless, this turbulent stretch of sea is now, statistically speaking, the global hotspot of piracy. 

That’s according to the One Earth Future group, which produces an annual report on maritime security. “Alarmingly high,” is the surge in violence on waters around Nigeria – whose coastline dominates the Gulf of Guinea – said the group’s piracy expert Lydelle Joubert. The ever expanding range of armed raiders, most of whom are Nigerian, and their increasingly unpredictable attack patterns is cause for great concern too, she added.  

The swell of seaborne violence in West Africa comes as piracy in both East Africa and Southeast Asia – previous centres of maritime crime – has fallen dramatically. Somalia’s Gulf of Aden was once synonymous with piracy, but concerted efforts have seen illegal activity all but dry up, with just three incidents reported there last year (down from a staggering 236 in 2011). Likewise, in the waters around Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines attacks fell some 60% between 2014 and 2018.

This curbing of pirate activity was, by and large, achieved with greater transnational cooperation. In response to the spike in violence off the coast of Somalia, international navies began a policing operation. Fearing this show of power, bandits shifted their focus to the busy shipping lanes of the Malacca Strait and South China Sea. There, too, they were met with concerted state action though, with joint Malaysian-Indonesian task forces rounding up the perpetrators with relative ease.     

But such sweeping crackdowns don’t come cheap. Estimates from the Oceans Beyond Piracy group suggest some $3bn was spent securing Somali waters in 2012 alone. Shared among several nations, this figure may be manageable. But unlike Somalia, Nigeria is a functioning state with reasonable expectations of sovereignty – a flotilla of foreign battleships off its coast would not play well in Abuja, it’s fair to assume. “We cannot have imposed solutions,” said Dakuku Peterside, head of Nigerian maritime regulation, recently.     

The onus is therefore on private shipping companies to beef up their own countermeasures. Defensive water canons, razor wire and impregnable safe room style enclosures can all be utilised in the event of a pirate attack. This “hardening” of ships is a company’s best bet in mitigating risk, says maritime analyst Cormac McGarry. “Any cases we’ve seen where pirates have failed to get on board the vessel is because of hardening and protective measures,” he added. 

But for lasting change, the issue needs to be addressed at its roots – that means on land. The Niger Delta area suffers chronic lawlessness – criminal gangs and militant groups are rampant – and dismal economic prospects, despite its prodigious reserves of oil. Unemployment hovers at around 25%, with over half of households in the lowest income bracket. Regional groups feel thoroughly disenfranchised, viewing far-off federal powers more as plunderers of local resources than benevolent overseers. 

“It is like paradise and hell. They have everything. We have nothing,” said Eghare W.O. Ojhogar, chief of the local Ugborodo community. “They sign agreements with us and then ignore us. We have graduates going hungry, without jobs. And they bring people from Lagos to work here,” he added.

Little wonder so many turn to a life of piracy. Local authorities, seemingly acknowledging this, have introduced youth unemployment schemes hoping to channel young people away from crime and into agriculture, ICT and construction sectors. But some believe a harder approach is required. Around 300 suspected pirates have been arraigned in Somalia in recent years – Nigeria, to date, has recorded zero piracy prosecutions. 

This must change, says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), who are pushing for stronger anti-piracy legislation and mock trials to train up the country’s prosecutors. Other groups, such as BIMCO – the largest international shipping association – are demanding revisions to Nigerian law to permit private armed guards aboard commercial vessels.  

Whatever form it takes, corrective action is required. Fewer attacks were recorded on Nigerian waters in the first quarter of 2019 than the year prior, and the eventual liberty of the five Indian sailors was achieved through sustained international cooperation. This positive direction cannot be allowed to falter. Much of Africa’s wealth is tied to the seas that surround it – 90% of the continent’s exports travel by water. The short-term financial gain of disenfranchised pirate gangs comes, therefore, at the expense of wider prosperity. It’s for the good of Africa’s people – not colossal shipping corporations – that piracy must be stamped out.