Feedback
News

'Fishing for crime': Desperation, lack of opportunities behind Nigerian piracy, experts say

Suspected pirates are paraded aboard a Nigerian naval ship after their arrest in August. Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters, file

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- Anger and frustration that Nigeria's huge oil wealth has not improved the lot of most average citizens is fueling the sort of criminality that led to the kidnapping of two American oil workers off the country's coast last month, experts say. 

"There is a lot of anger within the local communities [where these oil companies operate] that the rush for 'black gold' has not led to an improvement in [people's] economic conditions," said Leke Oyewole, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's special adviser on maritime services. Oyewole spoke to NBC News after U.S.-flagged oil supply vessel C-Retriever was targeted in the Gulf of Guinea in late October.

According to maritime news website gCaptain, the ship's American captain and chief engineer were abducted. U.S. officials told NBC News at the time that the working assumption was that the pair had been kidnapped for ransom. 

U.S. sailors and Nigerian special forces fighters on a bilateral training exercise.

"You need to see some [foreign] compounds," Oyewole said. "The oil company compounds could easily be comparable to living conditions in London or America, but immediately outside their fence local people are living in slums in most cases."

"The people are angry the waters they use are polluted, so they’re angry with them and often attack them and kidnap the workers."

Piracy and kidnapping off Nigeria -- 70 percent of whose export revenue comes from petroleum -- and neighboring Benin has gotten so bad that the region was deemed as dangerous as the waters off Somalia on Africa's east coast, according to London-based Lloyd's Market Association, an umbrella group of insurers.

The country is now considered the world's number one kidnap hotspot, according to security firm NYA. Meanwhile, the number of attacks off its coast are growing, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre. The organization recorded 28 attacks last year -- almost three times the number in 2011.

Nigeria's problems with piracy and generalized criminality got especially bad after the oil industry destroyed traditional jobs, said Dr. Freedom Onouha of the Nigeria National Defense College.

“For a very long time people survived on the waters, particularly on fishing, so this is what is at the very heart of maritime security,” he said. "The oil companies came in and this had significant consequences on the environment in terms of oil spills and pollution, which killed the natural resources of the Niger Delta -- destroying original livelihoods."

1:44

“Instead of becoming fisherman, they turned to criminal fisherman who are fishing for crime,” he said. “When young men are not finding legitimate employment or being handsomely rewarded... they're drawn to violence, because the other opportunities are limited or they do not exist.

"And the oil is not providing job opportunities for them," he added. 

There is also the problem of militancy, according to Joseph Hurst-Croft of the British and Niger Delta-based charity, the Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN). He believes the roots of modern Nigerian piracy can be traced back to a wave of militancy in the early 2000s when people protested about a lack of oil revenues being invested back into local communities.

"This quickly evolved into criminality," he said. "These young armed men realized there were rewards."

Problems with piracy, kidnapping and oil theft got so bad between 2005 and 2009 that it began to affect the entire oil industry. 

So current president Jonathan, who was vice president at the time, negotiated an amnesty that saw over 30,000 militants pardoned. Financial aid was offered to train the men in a variety of professions ranging from electricians to doctors.

Youths display arms and ammunition surrendered during a Nigerian arms amnesty in 2009. Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images, file

Instead of solving the problem of criminality, the government's move only exacerbated it, Hurst-Croft said. 

The amnesty “showed that people get bought off and gave the impression that violence pays,” he said.

But the main problem with the program was that while it worked for those participating in it, it did nothing for the vast majority of men who still saw few ways out of the crushing poverty they had been born into.

“So the challenge will be maintaining and improving overall conditions that make it possible to stop the criminality,” Onuoha said.

And until a sustained anti-corruption and economic improvement campaign's are launched to stop piracy off Nigeria, Hurst-Croft said he fears piracy problems may continue or grow worse.

“Do you go after Al Capone or do you go after the guys in the prohibition bars," he added. “At the moment it seems like the guys in the bars.”

NBC News' Ronke Philips and Sohel Uddin contributed to this report from Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Henry Austin reported from London. 

Related: