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

NBC News - 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.

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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.

“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.”

“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.

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