Category Archives: Africa

Analysis relating to USAFRICOM AOR.

Drones in Africa: A Leap Ahead for Maritime Security

By CAPT Chris Rawley and LCDR Cedric Patmon

Technology adoption moves in fits and starts. The developing world cannot be forced into accepting new technology, but it can be enabled, and often in a surprising manner. A recent example is the leap in communications technology. During the 20th Century most of the world developed a robust network of terrestrial-based telecommunications based primarily on the ubiquitous land-line telephone system. Without this infrastructure in place Sub-Saharan African countries were largely left behind at the start of the information revolution. But at the turn of the new century something interesting happened. Rather than retroactively building an archaic phone system Africans embraced mobile phone technology. From 1999 through 2004 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa eclipsed those of other continents, increasing at a rate of 58 percent annually. Asia, the second fastest area of saturation, grew at only 34 percent during that time. The explosive growth of mobile phones and more recently smart phones across practically every African city and village has liberated economies and facilitated the free flow of information. This technology also enabled Africans to lead the world in mobile money payment solutions, bypassing increasingly obsolete banking systems.

Today, Africans have another opportunity to leap ahead in technology to protect one of their most important areas of commerce – their coastal seas. Africa’s maritime economy is absolutely critical to the continent’s growth and prosperity during the next few decades. On the edge of the Eastern Atlantic the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by eight West African nations, and is an extremely important economic driver. More than 450 million Africans derive commercial benefit from this body of water. The region contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves and has produced up to 5.5 million barrels of oil per day. Additionally, over 90 percent of foreign imports and exports cross the Gulf of Guinea making it the region’s key connector to the global economy.

Favorable demographics and industrious populations put coastal Africans in a position to prosper, but an increase in illegal fishing activities and piracy since the early 2000s has severely impeded this potential. The growth in acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea from 2000 onward points to the challenges faced by West African states.

According to Quartz Africa, illegal fishing activities in the region have a negative economic impact of $2-3 billion annually. “Fish stocks are not restricted to national boundaries, and that is why the solutions to end the overfishing of West Africa’s waters can only come from joint efforts between the countries of the region,” Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace’s Africa Oceans campaigner, said in a statement. Marine pollution, human, and narcotics trafficking are also major issues facing the region.

Due to the economic impact of illicit activities in and around West Africa a Summit of the Gulf of Guinea heads of state and government was held in 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This resulted in the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration on Gulf of Guinea Security. Two key resolutions contained in the Declaration were the creation of an inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa, headquartered in Yaoundé, and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa. Adoption of this agreement has laid the foundation for critical information sharing and resource cooperation that can be used to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

Though the Code of Conduct established an architecture for maritime security in the region, without enforcement on the water, diplomatic efforts are largely impotent. Key to enforcement is the ability to identify, track, and prosecute nefarious actors on the high seas and in coastal areas. So-called maritime domain awareness is gradually improving in the area, but current options for maritime surveillance are limited. The largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels capable of multi-day over-the-horizon operations, but even these vessels have limited enforcement capacity. Patrol vessels face maintenance issues and fuel scarcity. Shore-based radar systems at best reach out 30 or 40 nautical miles, but are plagued by power and maintenance issues. Moreover, a shore-based radar, even with signals correlated from vessels transmitting on the Automatic Identification System, only provides knowledge that a contact is afloat, not necessarily any evidence to illicit actions.

Latin American navies face similar maritime challenges to those in Africa and have learned that airborne surveillance is simply the best way to locate, track, identify, and classify surface maritime targets involved in illicit or illegal activity. A retired senior naval officer from the region related a study in the Caribbean narcotics transit zone to one of the authors that compared different surveillance mechanisms for the 11,000 square nautical mile area. The probability of detecting a surface target within six hours rose from only five percent with a surface asset to 95 percent when maritime patrol aircraft were included. Only a handful of coastal African countries have fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, but these aircraft face similar issues to surface assets with fuel costs and mechanical readiness resulting in limited flight time on station.

Drone Solutions to African Maritime Insecurity

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are known colloquially, provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance maritime security in a relatively inexpensive manner, similar to the ways mobile telephony revolutionized communications on the continent. Similar to the evolution of computing power outlined by Moore’s law tactical UAS are rapidly growing in capabilities while decreasing in cost. Improvements in sensors, endurance, and payload are advancing quickly. For any solution, acquisition cost, maintainability, and infrastructure required are key factors to be considered. The cost per flying hour of most UAS is negligible compared to their manned counterparts. Today’s fixed and rotary-wing systems, whether specifically designed for military use or for commercial applications, can be adapted for surveillance in a maritime environment without much additional cost.

A Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft is bungee launched in a midday demonstration flight. (© Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)

Because each country has unique requirements and budgets no single UAS solution is appropriate. Maritime drones can be based ashore or on coastal patrol vessels. One viable option for countries with limited resources involves services contracted by Western Partners, a model which has already been proven in the region for other applications. Alternatively, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct provides a framework for a possible shared model. This agreement can provide the timely sharing of critical information ascertained by maritime surveillance and reconnaissance systems to aid in the enforcement of the maritime laws and agreements in the region. Contractor-operated drones could be allocated across countries by leadership in the five Zones delineated by the Code. Multinational cooperation on maritime security has already been tested in the annual Obangame Express exercise and during real-world counterpiracy operations. Understanding that not all countries have the investment capability to purchase their own stand-alone systems, consideration could be given to sharing the initial investment costs between countries. The logistics of system placement and asset availability would have to be determined by the participating countries themselves but the benefit of such a program would positively impact the entire region economically, enhance interoperability, and assist in regional stability.

Drones are already being operated across Africa by Africans. Zambia recently purchased Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-poaching operations. There are also African unmanned systems flying surveillance missions over areas plagued by violent extremists groups. UAS are even being used to transport blood and medical supplies across the continent’s vast rural landscapes. Shifting these assets over water is a natural progression. One concern about using UAS is airspace deconfliction. However, this problem is minimized because there is little to no civil aviation in most parts of Africa. Additionally, most maritime UAS would be flying primarily at low altitudes over water from coastal bases.


The leap-ahead capabilities that unmanned surveillance aircraft could provide to coastal security around Africa are clearly evident. African navies with adequate resources should make acquisition of unmanned air systems a priority. Likewise, western foreign military assistance programs should focus on providing contracted or organic unmanned aircraft capabilities.

Captain Rawley, a surface warfare officer, and Lieutenant Commander Patmon, a naval aviator, are assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet’s Maritime Partnership Program detachment responsible for helping West African countries enhance their maritime security. The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone and do not officially represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization

Featured Image: GULF OF GUINEA (March 26, 2018) A visit board search and seizure team member from the Ghanaian special boat service communicates with his team during a search aboard a target vessel during exercise Obangame Express 2018, March 26. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)

European Answers for African Questions?

Maritime Security Topic Week

By Dirk Siebels


Maritime security challenges have received increasing attention in Europe in recent years. In 2014, the Council of the European Union adopted the first EU Maritime Security Strategy which includes a comprehensive definition of maritime security from a European standpoint. The EU understands it “as a state of affairs of the global maritime domain, in which international law and national law are enforced, freedom of navigation is guaranteed and citizens, infrastructure, transport, the environment and marine resources are protected.” In short, maritime security comprises much more than the traditional questions related to seapower and naval strategies.

Furthermore, the document underlines the EU’s capacity to engage with other organizations such as the African Union which “has a direct impact on its ability to safeguard its interests and to strengthen regional and international maritime security.” Africa matters, not only because of migrants boarding rickety boats in Libya to embark on a dangerous trip to Europe. At the same time, European and African governments often have different agendas, underlined by the many challenges to maritime security emanating from the African coastline.

Narrow Focus in the Indian Ocean

Counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean are a perfect example of a maritime security challenge. When attacks by Somalia-based groups became a major worry for the shipping industry, the international community quickly reacted. The EU launched its ‘Operation Atalanta’ in 2008, complemented by other task forces from various NATO countries and other countries like Japan and China, who deployed independently of the task forces.

The question of whether attacks by Somali pirates really justified the large-scale military response is open for debate. Nevertheless, European involvement in the fight against the perceived threat on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes underlined the importance of maritime trade routes for the continent. Almost without warning, European maritime security was suddenly threatened by men armed with AK-47s and RPGs in small skiffs rather than more traditional scenarios that military planners had always imagined.

Capturing suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia. Image courtesy of the European Union Naval Force. Somalia, 2012.

From a European perspective, the naval response to this non-traditional threat has been largely successful. Even though military officers and shipping industry representatives agree that the threat remains dormant and could resurface in the future, the number of attacks by Somali pirates dropped significantly within a short time. That success was made possible by unprecedented cooperation between naval forces and the shipping industry, as well as self-protection measures of merchant vessels, including the use of privately contracted armed security personnel. At the same time, the EU and other international organizations were heavily involved in capacity-building on land in Somalia.

Successful counter-piracy operations notwithstanding, maritime security in the Indian Ocean region has not been strengthened by a narrow focus during these operations. Whether through the EU or on a bilateral basis, European governments would have the capacities to provide assistance for sustainable projects in African countries. New European-built infrastructure, however, has not been linked to existing organizational structures, namely to the regional economic communities (RECs). Cooperation with security agencies in East Africa has also been limited. As a retired admiral from a NATO nation put it, “We have talked a lot about the region since our navies started operating in the Indian Ocean, but we have not talked a lot with people from the region.”

Failed integration of the RECs is arguably the most notable problem for the long-term sustainability of regional maritime security capacities. These organizations are the cornerstone for peace and security on the African continent. While ambitious plans for the African Peace and Security Architecture have not materialized yet, strengthening capacities within existing organisations would certainly be more sustainable than creating parallel structures in the context of counter-piracy operations.

EU NAVFOR piracy incidents (EU NAVFOR—Atalanta photos)

Somali piracy has never been high on the agenda of governments in East Africa. Attention for maritime topics in general remains limited but problems such as smuggling of drugs and weapons, the illegal wildlife trade or illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing are a much higher priority. In some countries, notably in Mozambique and Tanzania, security for the fledgling offshore gas industry is another important issue. European partners would be well-advised to take these priorities into consideration.

Broad challenges in West Africa

West Africa is another region where piracy has been the most headline-grabbing maritime security problem in recent years.i From a European point of view, these attacks are less of a threat since they do not take place close to a major international shipping route. Nevertheless, the EU became involved, underlined by the ‘Strategy on the Gulf of Guinea’ and the Gulf of Guinea Action Plan 2015-2020.’ Both documents highlight the EU’s strategic objectives in West Africa: a common understanding of threats, support for multi-agency institutions in the region, strengthened cooperation structures, and above all, the development of prosperous economies.

Practical measures, however, have been extremely limited. In October 2016, the Gulf of Guinea Inter-regional Network (GoGIN) was launched, a four-year, €9.3m project supported by the EU and the government of Denmark. The aim of the project is the allocation of funds to regional or national endeavors to promote maritime security and combat piracy. Like CRIMGO, its predecessor project, GoGIN will be implemented by Expertise France, the French development agency. The agency undoubtedly possesses a lot of regional knowledge in West Africa but it is also a vital tool for the French government to secure political influence, particularly in francophone countries.

Capacity building in West Africa does not have to include large-scale financial commitments by partners from Europe or elsewhere. Similar to East Africa, however, it requires a focus on regional priorities to be sustainable. In the past, European involvement in the provision of maritime security in West Africa has largely been limited to the fight against piracy and armed robbery and, on a more limited scale, against drug smuggling on maritime routes.

Similar to East Africa, however, the priorities of regional governments are notably different from those of the EU. For many countries in West Africa, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is the most important threat in the maritime environment, even though it is not a traditional security concern. Limited maritime situational awareness and almost non-existent law enforcement at sea are aspects that will not be changed overnight but even small-scale NGO projects have shown that improvements are possible even in the short term. European governments certainly have the necessary capacities to provide assistance, but political will is an entirely different question.

Even in areas that are more closely related to traditional maritime security threats, European involvement in West Africa is generally not based on long-term planning. Training courses and other projects are rarely coordinated among partners, availability of relevant personnel is not taken into consideration, and overall goals are unlikely to be based on the priorities of partners in West Africa. Such criticism is mentioned time and again in conversations with naval officers and law enforcement officials from West Africa but does not seem to reach Europe.


European maritime security may not be directly threatened by challenges off the African coastline, but they certainly have an influence on Europe. Addressing these challenges as early as possible would be important to prevent a possible escalation, yet that is true for security challenges in general. Due to the international nature of the maritime environment, however, a lack of security at sea is likely to have an impact on several countries, creating the need for multinational solutions.

The European Union is in a unique position to strengthen maritime security, both at home and abroad. In theory, the combination of civilian and military measures is the perfect fit for a broad range of largely non-traditional maritime security challenges, ranging from piracy and armed robbery at sea to IUU fishing. In practice, however, the EU’s potential is often wasted by concentrating on areas that are important for European governments while failing to address the agendas of partnering governments.

In the Indian Ocean, counter-piracy operations have been very successful but based on a very narrow mandate. Other challenges to maritime security in the region have hardly been addressed so far. This might change in the future; amending the Djibouti Code of Conduct in January 2017 certainly was a step in the right direction. The document was adopted by governments around the western Indian Ocean in 2009 but originally was only concerned with the suppression of piracy. It took signatories around eight years to broaden the document with the Jeddah Amendment, signalling their intention to strengthen the ‘blue economy.’

In West Africa, a similar document was already adopted in 2013 and the European Union has signaled its intention to support implementation. So far, however, that support has been sketchy at best, and one of the EU’s main goals, the development of prosperous economies around the Gulf of Guinea, remains elusive. Addressing maritime security challenges alone will not immediately lead to economic growth, but it would certainly be an important step. The focus on maritime security in the wider context of the ‘blue economy,’ however, is not a traditional task for navies in Europe and will require better coordination between a wide range of partners such as governments, NGOs, and law enforcement agencies outside the military.

Dirk Siebels works as an analyst for Risk Intelligence. His research areas include maritime security issues in sub-Saharan Africa and he presents regularly at academic and military research institutions on related topics. Before starting to work in his current role, Dirk served as an officer in the German Navy and worked as a journalist and PR consultant for several years. He holds an MA in International Studies from Durham University and is currently working on a PhD in maritime security at the University of Greenwich. The views presented here are those of the author.


i West Africa in this context includes all coastal and island nations between Senegal in the north and Angola in the south. These countries are members of ECOWAS or ECCAS, the two regional economic communities for West and Central Africa, and have adopted the Yaoundé Code of Conduct to strengthen maritime security in the region.

Featured Image:Italian Frigate Scirocco Rescues Somali Fishermen (EU-NAVFOR)

Dangerous Waters: The Situation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait

By James Pothecary


On 25 October 2016, the Spanish-flagged merchant tanker Galicia Spirit came under fire when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) was fired at it from a small speedboat that had interdicted the vessel. The tanker was then attacked with small arms fire. The merchant vessel escaped catastrophic damage, and was able to continue its journey onward. However, only two days later, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker Melati Satu was attacked in the same area, also with RPGs. The Tuvalu-flagged Melati Satu’s crew sent out a distress call, were rescued by a Saudi Arabian naval vessel, and were subsequently escorted to safety. Both ships had been traversing the Bab el-Mandeb strait between south-western Yemen and north-eastern Djibouti. This small waterway must be negotiated to access or egress the Egyptian-controlled Suez Canal, which sits at the northern end of the Red Sea.

In a related development, throughout October this year there were several attacks on U.S. warships in or near the Bab el-Mandeb from sites along the Yemeni coastline. The USS Mason and USS Ponce both came under attack by assailants of unconfirmed origin, forcing the warships to deploy anti-missile countermeasures and prompting U.S. forces to launch cruise missile strikes against targets in Yemen.

The Question of Responsibility

The most prominent non-state armed group (NSAG) operating in Yemeni territory contiguous to the Bab el-Mandeb is the Houthi rebel movement, which is opposed to the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur. It is not definitively known whether the speedboats that attacked merchant shipping were rebel forces or pirates. Furthermore, although the attacks on U.S. warships came from rebel-held territory and the U.S. responded by attacking rebel installations, Houthi officials denied involvement. However, Houthi forces had previously claimed responsibility for a 1 October 2016 missile attack on HSV-2 Swift, a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-flagged vessel, which was extensively damaged in the incident, and rendered inoperable. Due to the similarity of the tactics involved, as well as the fact these attacks occurred off the Yemeni coast, Allan & Associates (A2) assesses that Houthi forces were likely responsible for the attacks on vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

Footage of attack on HSV-2 Swift

Security Risks: The Threat to Shipping

The attackers’ identities are of secondary importance, however, compared to the risk that the attacks themselves represent. The implications of a declining security environment in the Bab el-Mandeb are substantial. The strait is one of a few strategic maritime choke points worldwide, a narrow but vital waterway that sea traffic must be able to navigate for maritime trade to function effectively. The Bab el-Mandeb is, at its narrowest point, only 29km across, and therefore even small craft launched from the Yemeni coast will be able to interdict all traffic passing through it. Almost all maritime trade between Europe and Asia, approximately USD700 billion annually, passes through this narrow waterway. Any security threats in this location would disproportionally affect global maritime trade routes and the security of sea lines of communication. As maritime shipping is approximately 90 percent of how the world’s goods are transported, interference at these choke points is a serious threat to international business.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait (Google Earth)

In April 2015, the United States Energy Information Administration estimated that 4.7 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum passed through the strait daily in the previous year. All traffic through the Suez Canal, the quickest route for European shipping to reach Asia, must pass through Bab el-Mandeb to reach the Gulf of Aden, and subsequently the Indian Ocean. In March of this year alone, 1,454,000 metric tons of shipping, carried on 80,495 vessels, transited the Suez Canal. A security threat in the Bab el-Mandeb, therefore, will have serious economic consequences for global trade, and could pose significant problems both for merchant fleets and for the companies that rely on their goods and commodities. Shipping lines must either re-route away from the Red Sea for Europe-Asia routes, or continue to use the strait at increased cost and risk. 

Business Risks: The Dilemma of Re-Routing

The quickest alternative route for European-Asian traffic, circumnavigating Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, would add at least 3,000 nautical miles to shipping. The additional time it will take to cover this route means vessels can fit in fewer trips, and therefore earn less revenue than they could otherwise in the one-year outlook. Although this cost is somewhat offset by the currently low price of crude oil, this still represents a substantial business risk to shipping companies, which could see their revenues and profits decline. Even with low oil prices, additional costs will have to be borne by maritime companies due to wage payments for at-sea staff, and increased distances will increase the amount of shipboard and dockyard maintenance required to keep vessels seaworthy.

However, even if merchant vessels brave the strait, they will still face substantial additional costs. These range from higher insurance premiums, to the cost of close-protection deployments on-board, and possibly additional payments to employees to compensate for the heightened levels of risk. Furthermore, if future attacks manage to cause substantial damage or loss of life on a civilian vessel, maritime logistics operators will be at risk of legal consequences on the grounds of failure to ensure adequate duty-of-care for their crews. Until the situation in the strait normalizes, merchant shipping must cover increased costs regardless of whether they choose to traverse the Bab el-Mandeb.

Ancillary Risks: The Limits of a Naval Response

The economic and security risks to shipping companies are compounded by the difficulty naval forces will have in neutralizing the threat in the Bab el-Mandeb. That said, major naval powers have seriously responded to the escalating threat in the strait. The U.S. Navy has already reinforced its presence in the surrounding area, and it is likely that the U.K. Maritime Component Command, which controls operations in Middle Eastern waters, will deploy additional assets to the region imminently.

The use of speedboats, which are quick, difficult to detect, and hard to interdict, presents challenges to even major naval powers operating in the region. Furthermore, the use of coastal sites to launch attacks on U.S. warships complicates military responses as the extremely poor security environment in southwest Yemen means that small teams could easily strike shipping and disappear before naval units can respond. 

If it is confirmed that Houthi rebel forces are behind the incidents, any concerted naval action in the area will face determined resistance. Unlike the Somali pirates of the late 2000s, Houthi fighters are ideologically motivated, trained, battle-hardened, and well-armed. Moreover, they have freedom of movement in areas of south-western Yemen under their control. While international naval power, supported by air power and special forces, will likely be able to contain the threat, full elimination of Houthi capability is an unrealistic objective without substantially more committed resourcing

Therefore, the difficulties of a naval response preclude an easy solution to the crisis and therefore increase the risk facing civilian merchant shipping operators. This is because it is unlikely a military solution will be sufficient in itself to quickly neutralize the attackers and restore security.

Security Recommendations for Merchant Shipping

A2 recommends that maritime logistics and security managers consider the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden a high-threat area until the situation stabilizes, and this should be immediately communicated to relevant bridge officers. Shipping that continues to ply this route in the interim should undertake mitigatory strategies.

This includes increasing ship speed, when possible traversing only during daylight hours, enhancing all watchkeeping procedures, and ensuring damage-control crews are kept on stand-by. Contact with international naval forces in the area should be maintained at all times. Maritime security officers should be considered while close to Yemeni waters. Security officers could be taken on-board at Egypt, Madagascar, the Maldives, or Oman depending on shipping route, to keep costs minimal. Maritime operators should also ensure ship crews are trained on actions to take in the event of coming under RPG or small-arms fire.

Mohamed Dahir/AFP/Getty Images
A militant stands by on a beach as a commercial vessel transits nearby. (Mohamed Dahir/AFP/Getty Images)

Slow vessels with low freeboards which lack the ability to evade potential attack should consider re-routing. This will include small pleasure craft as private individuals are very unlikely to have the training or resources to mitigate the potential threat. Due to the additional transportation time involved with this approach,render re-routing a last-resort measure, however.

A2 reminds managers considering deploying armed security personnel to obey all relevant national legislation pertaining to the ownership and use of weapons by civilians in order to avoid potential legal reprisals from national coastguard and law enforcement agencies.


The situation in the strait is likely to escalate, leaving both naval and civilian vessels at risk. The seriousness of this is compounded by the trouble naval forces will have in effectively responding to the asymmetric threat. Shipping companies therefore must make a cost-benefit analysis between continuing to use the strait or re-routing around the African coastline and consider the risks of each approach. A2 recommends maritime logistics entities consider the above security advice, and prepare for  further deterioration in the security environment of the Bab el-Mandeb. 

James Pothecary is a Political Risk Analyst specializing in the Middle East with Allan & Associates, an international security consultancy which provides a range of protective services including political and security risk assessments, security policy design and crisis management response.

Feature Image: HSV-2 Swift exhibiting damage after being struck by an anti-ship missile launched from the Yemeni coast. (PLG WAM)

Who are the Niger Delta Avengers?

By Dirk Steffen


The Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) are Nigeria’s “new” Niger Delta militancy phenomenon. They have issued challenges to the Nigerian government, international oil companies, and the military. Within a span of less than 3 months they are believed to be primarily responsible for reducing Nigeria’s oil production from a (theoretical) 2.2m barrels per day to around 1.4m barrels per day by the end of May 2016. They have mainly targeted Nigerian state and international oil companies’ pipeline infrastructure with explosives attacks. The spectre of their involvement in maritime piracy and kidnappings has been raised as well.

There is very little evidence-based information on the NDA. Even the Nigerian security services are not totally sure what they are up against, although the group has made stock demands for Niger Delta autonomy, greater participation in the oil wealth, and cessation of environmental destruction. Former militants, the government, and other stakeholders variously blame former militant leader Tompolo, the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), former President Goodluck Jonathan, and other ex-militants for being behind the group. The NDA themselves reveal little, except for their geographic origin: Warri South West local government area (LGA) in Delta state. So far they have run rings around the Nigerian military, avoiding direct confrontation and eluding arrests.

Although the area of operations west of Warri between the Benin and Forcados Rivers is a coastal strip only 30nm long and 30nm deep, it is a militarily challenging riverine and inshore environment of mangrove swamps and wetlands with no road infrastructure.

nda 2016
Militant activity against oil and gas infrastructure and military units in the Niger Delta in 2016 (purple) up to early June and other maritime security related incidents. Source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence.

The NDA in the present form emerged in or around January 2016 and publicly claimed its first attack on 10 February on the Bonny Soku Gas Line, in Bayelsa state.

The NDA espouse the following military and political objectives:

  1. Cripple the Nigerian economy (‘Operation Red Economy’)
  2. Force the government to negotiate on their demands in a ‘sovereign national conference’
  3. Re-allocation of Nigerian ownership of oil blocs (in favour of Niger Deltans)
  4. Autonomy/self-determination for the Niger Delta

Some 21 attacks/clusters of sabotage took place against oil and gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta between 15 January and 10 June 2016. The NDA have directly claimed responsibility for 13 attacks/clusters of attacks between 10 February and 1 June 2016, nine of which were in the Warri/Escravos/Forcados area and four in the Brass/Nembe area. They have also retrospectively claimed responsibility for four further attacks between 15 January and 9 February (three in Warri/Escravos area and one in the Brass/Nembe area). Of the 17 attacks claimed by the NDA, 15 were in swamp/inshore areas, one was coastal (Forcados export pipeline on 10 February) and one was close offshore (Chevron Okan field valve platform). No one has been killed in the attacks on the oil and  gas infrastructure; all targets were unmanned and unguarded. The NDA have not claimed responsibility for any kidnappings so far.

The hitherto unknown “Red Egbesu Water Lions” (Egbesu is an Ijaw war deity) claim association with the NDA and have also claimed responsibility for one attack in Bayelsa state (South Ijaw LGA), but there has been no reciprocal “acknowledgement” by the NDA. Two attacks (on 20 and 22 May –against the Escravos-Lagos gas line near Ogbe-Ijoh and Brass-Tebidaba pipeline), during the grace period of an NDA ultimatum are unclaimed. Additionally, on 9 June 2016, a Nigerian Petroleum Development Company crude oil pipeline line in Warri South West LGA was blown up by unidentified attackers.

“General Ben” of the Concerned Militant Leaders (CML) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of five crew members from the LEON DIAS on 31 January 2016; he later also claimed association with the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement (denied by IPOB and the Nigerian Army) and with NDA (not acknowledged by the latter). The NDA have not carried out (or claimed responsibility for) any maritime attacks, although they issued a warning to ship operators on 22 April 2016. In total, 15 individuals have been arrested so far by the Nigerian military in connection with the attacks, but their association with the NDA is unproven.

Burning pipeline in the Niger Delta. Photo:


The Nigerian government’s initial plan to simply disrupt the criminal godfather system in the Niger Delta by removing corrupt personnel and terminating the funding means for this relationship (amnesty payments and security contracts to demobilised ex-militants) has failed in the short term. While the rise of the NDA is directly linked to this, it was not a guaranteed outcome of the government’s planned “post-amnesty” policy at this point. Many former militants seem to be content keeping their heads low for the time being.

It was apparent that Niger Delta armed groups, lavishly supplied with weapons and ammunition by political parties in the run-up to the 2015 national elections, were fighting amongst each other. New groups and alliances were emerging, and continue to emerge, as the former militants’ networks were weakened through the absence of patronage and funds by the previous government of President Goodluck Jonathan. This development began to take shape in mid-2015, as privileges and contracts were gradually removed by the government. By January 2016 new groups, like the CML or the re-invigorated Niger Delta People Democratic Front (NDPDF) became noticeably more public, vying for influence and public attention. Threats of resumption of violence abounded whenever the topic of the reduction or termination of the Presidential Amnesty Programme was raised by the government.

The emergence of the NDA can be seen in this context and is likely linked to the collapse of Tompolo’s influence in his home area of Warri South West LGA in Delta state. Tompolo had been one of the major profiteers of the amnesty payments and inflated security contracts with the Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (NIMASA). In January 2016, the Nigerian government made an example of NIMASA’s senior officials and their sponsor, indicting them to appear before court on no less than 40 counts of fraud.

Whether the NDA are Tompolo’s former foot soldiers, clients, constituents or rivals that were kept low through his “security” activities in Delta state is uncertain, but the constant reference to Tompolo and Gbaramatu Kingdom (a traditional chieftaincy) sufficiently defines the geographic location to make the NDA a local phenomenon – for the time being. The overwhelming number of attacks carried out in the Warri South West LGA (and the neighbouring Burutu LGA) also supports this assumption. Nigerian intelligence and military, encouraged by statements of former militants like Boyloaf, seem convinced that Tompolo, who is a fugitive since the court order was issued against him on 12 January 2016, is involved in NDA activities. While this is possible, it is also highly unlikely since he would have nothing to gain from such an involvement in his current predicament.

A circumscribed geographic location allows a rough estimate of the personnel strength of the NDA. Based on historical patterns of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) insurgency (2006-9) and camp sizes in the area, a core strength of not more than 100 fighters, most likely of Ijaw extraction, would seem likely. The NDA assign them to “Strike Teams” although this, like during the MEND insurgency, seems to be a largely propagandistic element. The NDA also claim “mixed ethnicity,” being at least Ijaw and Itsekiri. This is, at least in theory, plausible, since Warri lies at the crossroads between the Ijaw, Itsekiri (both reside in the coastal area) and Urhobo communities. Organisations of all three ethnic groups have vigorously denounced the NDA.

The NDA have an active communication strategy that appears to work well. For the time being, they are shaping the information battlefield with the Nigerian government falling behind. The NDA utilise two primary outlets: their website and a Twitter account. They also send emails to an email distribution list, but it would seem to be a backup. The NDA fashion themselves very much like a MEND 2.0. Their spokesman is “Brigadier­-General” Mudoch Agbinibo (recently promoted from the rank of “Colonel”), a jibe against the Nigerian military, whose Director of Information is Brigadier-General Rabe Abubakar. Whereas MEND revelled in reports of successes against the Nigerian military, however, the NDA have gone to great lengths to stress that they have not caused a single military casualty so far (even if a number of attacks on military outposts have been blamed on them). They prefer to deride the security services for their inability to prevent attacks that are being carried out under their noses.

The NDA strategy benefits from the group’s relative smallness. Unlike MEND, the NDA do not rely on compromises (MEND fragmented early in its life due to a disagreement over payments of ransom money from the Wilbros kidnappings in 2006), have a unified command, a target-rich but small operating environment, as well as trained personnel – better trained than MEND ever had thanks to the amnesty programme, and something the NDA credit themselves with. The NDA are active in only two localities: Warri South West LGA (including the fringes of the adjacent Burutu LGA) and the Brass Nembe LGA. Their actions are typically seen to follow government action, more recently preceded by more or less specific threats and usually followed up with multiple attacks against oil and gas targets. Reactions by traditional chiefs in Gbaramatu Kingdom suggest that there is no consultative process or even tacit agreement; the NDA rely solely on   themselves. This has allowed the NDA to escalate the conflict to an intensity rarely achieved during the MEND insurgency. This aggressive strategy may cut both ways in the way of classic insurgency theory. It can alienate the population it is meant to inspire and subsequently deny a larger popular following for the NDA, possibly leading to the creation of competing militant groups. It can also generate a bumbling military backlash against (most likely) uninvolved communities and leaders thus generating a popular following for the NDA by driving disgruntled individuals into their arms – or those of their more violence-prone rivals.

The risk of the NDA losing “control” over the insurgency is very real and their first competitors and rivals for public attention (and a seat at the negotiating table) have manifested themselves in late May and early June 2016. Some may also have simply spotted an opportunity for self-enrichment through extortion in a failing security environment. The elitist and purposeful strategy employed by the NDA clearly does not appeal to all. In late May and early June 2016 the Bayelsa-based Joint Niger Delta Liberation Front (JNDLF), for example, issued threats against the military in a more provocative manner (including pronouncing a no-fly zone for the Nigerian Air Force); unknown gunmen attacked an army houseboat near Warri on 1 June, killing as many as 20 persons in the process, and the Monty Pythonesque-named New Delta Suicide Squad (NDSS) went public with a bid to extort private oil and gas facility operators or face acts of sabotage.

The NDA have emphatically denied being involved in any of these activities or organisations. This denial is likely to be credible, since the NDA would view such activities as a distraction from their operations and agenda and a dilution of their own role in Niger Delta affairs. They are also likely acutely aware that the killing of soldiers in May 2009 was used as an excuse by the Nigerian government to launch a massive military operation in Gbaramatu Kingdom that effectively ended the MEND threat in Delta state. 

Nigerian Government Strategy

 The government’s strategy to quell the resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta, and the NDA in particular, seems two-pronged following the failure of the strategy aimed solely at dismantling the godfather networks and marginalising corrupt and criminal elements that had become pre-eminent in the Niger Delta under the previous presidency.

While president Muhammadu Buhari declared on 13 April that he would crush the Niger Delta insurgency like he crushed (of sorts) Boko Haram in the North-East, he is sufficiently alert to reality to understand that this is a necessary threat that needs to be issued, but military action alone will most likely not be the main thrust of his counter-insurgency strategy. At least not initially, although a concentration of forces in the Warri area is already becoming palpable. The Nigerian Navy shifted its focus from the suppression of piracy to counter-insurgency, re-deploying its vessels assigned to Operation ‘Tsare Teku to the area. Like the government and the rest of the security forces, the Navy had been caught on the back foot by the sudden intensity of the NDA’s pipeline bombing campaign. Intelligence on the group remains sketchy and a severe constraint on focused counterinsurgency operations.

P 263 Suncraft Manta escort for HAM
Small naval craft like this Nigerian Navy Suncraft Manta will find themselves re-directed toward a counter-insurgency effort in the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta, where the Mantas played a role in the 2009 offensive against Tompolo’s Camp 5. Photo: Dirk Steffen.

As oil production plummeted in May 2016 as a result of the pipeline attacks, Buhari quickly reversed his previous policy of marginalising former militant leaders. Although some former militants had even joined the president’s camp, the majority were agitating against the planned reduction and discontinuation of the amnesty programme; it seemed to come down to a pecuniary issue for them. As such, it was comparatively easy for Buhari to do an about face at the end of May and hold out the prospect of a “re-engineered” amnesty to those ex-militants (with further prospects of enrichment for them). While this has cost his anti-corruption drive some credibility, it was a pragmatic solution for containing the NDA threat and preventing it from spilling over into the areas controlled by those former militants. The “rehabilitated” ex-militants also dutifully obliged by denouncing the NDA. The success of the overall strategy now very much hinges on the degree of influence of those ex-militants and stakeholders that Buhari can marshal for his ends. There is also a time constraint. Buhari’s sworn political enemies are currently in disarray. He therefore needs to succeed before his political detractors can rally local support to sabotage the process. He also needs to succeed before NDA attacks further drive down oil production and government revenues, thus impacting on the Nigerian state’s ability to deliver basic services to its population.

stingray army
Small riverine craft like this Suncraft Stingray landing craft of the Nigerian Army will carry the brunt of any joint military and inter-service effort against the NDA. Photo: Deutsche Welle/M. Bello.

Because diplomacy without force is like music without instruments, Buhari also made it clear that if all else fails he will use force. It should be remembered that in spite of all criticism (and the very real limitations) of the Nigerian military, it was the military offensive against the militant camps in Gbaramatu Kingdom in May/June 2009 that forced Tompolo, then the most powerful “General” of MEND, to the negotiating table and that cleared the way for the relative success of the Presidential Amnesty Programme by the late President Yar Adua. The cost to the local population was high – more than 1,000 persons were believed to have been killed and 30,000 were made temporarily homeless. The message Buhari could be sending to the communities, as warships and ground attack helicopters assemble in the area, is: give up the NDA or risk a repeat performance of 2009.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in the African Partnership Station exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014, 2015 and 2016 at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Featured Image:  Fighters of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) prepare to head off for an operation against the Nigerian army in the Niger Delta on September 17, 2008. MEND declared full-scale ‘oil war’ against the Nigerian authorities in response to attacks by the Nigerian military launched against the militants. “Our target is to crumble the oil installations in order to force the government to a round table to solve the problem once and for all”, said Boyloaf, leader of the militants (now, in 2016, an ally of the government). AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI.