Tag Archives: Nigeria

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: Punch.ng


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.

Sea Control 117 – Niger Delta Pirates Declare War?

seacontrol2Niger Delta violence returns as oil prices plummet and both the Nigerian government’s ability and willingness to pay off former militants decreases. As the Nigerian Navy moves to counter this new violence, a largely unknown group called the “Niger Delta Avengers” has responded by “declaring war” on the Navy. Dirk Steffen, who recently published a CIMSEC article on this development, joins us to discuss the current situation in the Gulf of Guinea, the militant threats, government capabilities & intentions, as well as the methods and background of these pirate operations. 

This is not the podcast to miss! It won’t make you an expert like Dirk, but he’ll have given us enough information to pretend to be one by the end of the podcast.

DOWNLOAD: Niger Delta Pirates Declare War?

A Niger Delta Militant Group Declares War on the Nigerian Navy

By Dirk Steffen

Many suspected it as the intensity of pirate attacks off the Niger Delta increased inexorably in the course of April, with 15 attacks between 1 and 21 April 2016. There is a contest going on between those termed by the authorities as “sea criminals” and the Nigerian Navy, which is tasked to suppress them.


After a period of détente following the Nigerian general elections in April 2015, the Niger Delta is once again stirring. Former militants had made their support of the new President Muhammadu Buhari (elected in April 2015) conditional on the continued payment of “amnesty stipends” and retention of inflated security contracts. Predictably, in the face of drastically reduced oil revenue, President Buhari’s only choice was to reduce those payments, make the remainder more accountable, and let the security contracts worth hundreds of millions expire. Additionally, he went after those godfathers who had systematically abused the amnesty under the previous presidency.

The issue of a court order against the figurehead ex-militant leader Tompolo (formerly the leader of the Niger Delta insurgency in the western Niger Delta) has further stoked the flames of discontent. While Tompolo remains a fugitive, new groups and former followers vie for preeminence in replacing him within his many criminal schemes and networks, using his persecution by the government as a justifying argument.

Attacks offshore the Niger Delta 1-21 April 2016. Brown icons: kidnappings, red icons: armed robberies; orange icons: failed attacks. Source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence.
Attacks offshore the Niger Delta 1-21 April 2016. Brown icons: kidnappings, red icons: armed robberies; orange icons: failed attacks. Source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence.

As attacks against shipping and pipelines increased in 2016, with 40 vessels attacked 74 individuals kidnapped off Nigeria alone this year as of 21 April 2016, the Nigerian Navy sprung into action. Sorties in response to attacks as well as the successful tracking and boarding of the hijacked tanker MAXIMUS (11-19 February) suggested that the Nigerian Navy was prepared to take up the challenge. Having demonstrated its effectiveness against the pirate modus operandi of hijacking product tankers in order to steal the cargo, the Nigerian Navy inadvertently redirected criminal energies to a more opportunistic and less predictable sea crime: kidnapping for ransom. This form of crime was traditionally (between 2006 and 2010) much practiced by smaller militant groups with less resources and without sponsors or patrons necessary for the more sophisticated and operationally vulnerable hijackings. Now it appears it has become a free-for-all for seaborne criminals in the Niger Delta. After a wave of inshore kidnappings in January 2016, attacks offshore the Niger Delta out to 120 nm increased throughout February and March. Virtually all of these were carried out by only speed boats without mother ship support and seem to have reached a temporary climax in April.

Challenge and Response

On 15 April 2016 the Nigerian Navy responded by launching Operation Tsare Teku (Haussa for “Protection of the Sea”) with a force consisting of NNS OKPABANA, NNS KYANWA, NNS SAGBAMA and NNS ANDONI as well as 3 other ships held in reserve. The Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta had previously banned 200 hp outboard engines – the propulsion of choice for the heavy speed boats of Niger Delta-based pirates and militants, and on 19 April the Navy impounded 26 boats equipped with such engines in Warri. On 22 April the Navy re-iterated the ban of 200 hp engines.

Nigerian pirates taunting the crew of a tanker in the Agbami oil field in broad daylight in April 2016. Note the 200 hp main outboard engine and white “battle” flag traditionally used by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (2006-9).
Nigerian pirates taunting the crew of a tanker in the Agbami oil field in broad daylight in April 2016. Note the 200 hp main outboard engine and white “battle” flag traditionally used by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (2006-9). Photo: Source withheld. 

Within hours a group called the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) responded to these actions. The NDA had already claimed responsibility for the hijacking of the tanker LEON DIAS on 29-31 January and the subsequent kidnapping of 5 crew members. They also claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on pipelines including the Forcados export pipeline in February 2016. In a statement issued on 22 April they finally threw down the gauntlet:

“We are hereby calling on the Nigerian Navy to desist from such unlawful acts and recede the call for the ban on 200HP outboard engines as refusal to heed this warning of ours will spun us to declare a war on the Nigerian Naval Force. This war will aide us achieve nothing but expose the Nigerian Navy to the biggest embarrassment in the history of the force. It is also a promise from us that we shall make the waterways unsafe for any vessel or petroleum tanker if you fails to listen to our warning and still go about harassing and killing our people in the guise of escorting vessels along the Niger Delta creeks.”

The NDA are most likely a “mouthpiece” for a yet unorganised number of armed groups in the Niger Delta, but that makes them no less of a concern. Like the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) they may quickly turn into a rally point in case of an exaggerated military backlash. This presents the Nigerian Navy with a conundrum: while the suppression of acts of piracy falls squarely into the Navy’s remit, they have in fact inherited a legacy problem for which they are not well prepared.

Capabilities and limitations of the Nigerian Navy

The focus of Nigerian Navy operations since 2006 has been the fight against insurgents (between 2006 and 2009) and against illegal bunkering on the creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta. The Navy forms part of the inter-agency Joint Task Force who currently prosecute a riverine campaign called Pulo Shield in the Niger Delta. For reasons of prestige, both the Navy and the Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (NIMASA) have long downplayed or denied the threat of piracy in Nigerian waters, engaging in semantic games that re-defined piracy (legally correct, but misleading) as “armed robbery” inside territorial waters or as “community issues.” At international and regional conferences, the previous Director General of NIMASA, Patrick Ziakede Akpolobokemi (now indicted for fraud along with his associate Tompolo), routinely grandstanded about Gulf of Guinea piracy without even uttering the word “Nigeria.”

The result is a Nigerian Navy that is geared towards riverine law enforcement operations, but that lacks a credible coastal enforcement capability in spite of recent acquisitions of four Offshore Patrol Vessels in 2015 (NNS OKPABANA, NNS CENTENARY, NNS SAGBAMA, NNS PROSPERITY) and measurable increases in tactical proficiency. The Achilles heel is the lack of true Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), insufficiently networked assets and ineffective command centers. The territorial organization into Western, Central and Easten Naval Command is suitable for riverine operations, but less so for the centralized approach required for MDA and counterpiracy.

The Nigerian Navy is also heavy on shore-side organisztion, draining resources away from the fleet. Many small and medium-sized Nigerian Navy patrol boats are idle due to lack of spares, crews, and fuel. An investigation has been launched into the Navy’s past lopsided procurement practices, but in the current situation, this only adds insult to injury. From a material point of view, the Nigerian Navy’s situation has been dire for a long time. In August 2015 the new Chief of Naval Staff Vice-Admiral Ibok-Ete Ekwe Ibas conceded that “the Nigerian Navy [… ] is unable to fulfill its constitutional obligation of defending and protecting the country’s territorial waters because more than half its fleet is broken down.”

A more or less permanent presence at sea by the Nigerian Navy is provided only by those patrol boats providing oil field security – contracted to private companies, but manned mostly by Nigerian Navy personnel. Under a Memorandum of Understanding between these security companies and the Navy, the patrol boats should remain available for “national security” purposes and share MDA information with the Navy. Contracted escort vessels have been detached from their commercial duties in the past to intervene in ongoing pirate attacks, but the reality is this arrangement deprives the Nigerian Navy of operational reserves and flexibility – such as would be necessary for an operation like Tsare Teku.

The privately contracted patrol boat NNS WARRIOR provides riverine escort to a merchant vessel in 2016. Photo: source withheld.
The privately contracted patrol boat NNS WARRIOR provides riverine escort to a merchant vessel in 2016. Photo: source withheld.

Operation Tsare Teku

Of the four vessels now assigned to Tsare Teku only OKPABANA and SAGBAMA can provide meaningful surveillance and pursuit capabilities. KYANWA is an elderly buoy tender (ex-USCGC SEDGE, WLB-402 – laid down in 1943) with a top speed of 12 knots and ANDONI is a locally built patrol boat with only standard sensors and a top speed of 21 knots. Only OKPABANA has a helicopter flight deck, but no organic helicopter. As in the MAXIMUS case, the Nigerian Navy would rely on the two Air Force ATR-42 Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft for aerial reconnaissance. However, both aircraft are stationed in the north of Nigeria where they take part in the campaign against Boko Haram.

Three more vessels are slated to join the operation: NNS CENTENARY, NNS BURUTU and NNS ZARIA. Of those three only the recently acquired CENTENARY has a helicopter flight deck and an above average command and communications suite. BURUTU and ZARIA are both Singapore-built fast patrol craft that are suitable for EEZ patrolling and would be a valuable addition as fast responders – provided they join the effort.

Effectively, thus, the current offshore surveillance and deterrence element of Tsare Teku relies almost entirely on NNS OKPABANA, a former US Coast Guard HAMILTON-class cutter (ex-USCGC GALLATIN, WHEC-721) that has been in near constant use responding to incidents since January and taking part in the AFRICOM exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS/SAHARAN EXPRESS 2016 as one of the mainstays of the Nigerian Navy. The 48-year old vessel is now increasingly struggling with mechanical problems.

The Nigerian Navy offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA during Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. Photo: German Navy/Steve Back.
The Nigerian Navy offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA during Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. Photo: German Navy/Steve Back.

Wisely, the Nigerian Navy has therefore geographically limited the objective of Tsare Teku to what Ibas identified as the two major “hot spots” of pirate activity: the sea area off Brass (located on the southwestern tip of the Niger Delta in Bayelsa state) and off Bonny (the entrance to the sea ports of Onne and Port Harcourt in Rivers state on the south coast of the Niger Delta). While the Bonny area will be relatively easy to secure due to the converging traffic and proximity of pirate attacks to the Bonny River Fairway Buoy, pirate attacks off Bayelsa have been more dispersed and out to 120 nautical miles from the coast – often at night. This will present a challenge and attacks on Chevron’s Agbami oil field on 7 and 10 April show that the criminals have little respect for a weak naval presence. On 7 April, two tankers waiting to load at the terminal were attacked. NNS OKPABANA responded and was in the field on 7/8 April. However, just 2 days later, pirates attacked another tanker in the same location. Ultimately, it fell to the field security vessel to provide a timely response.


Attacks have abated since 21 April, but the cyclical, or surge-like, nature of attacks is typical for Niger Delta offshore violence. A number of hostages have been released over the past few days and more will be freed in the near future. All other things remaining equal, once the funds generated from the ransoms have been distributed and loyalties assured, a resumption of attacks should be expected.

In the short term all the Nigerian Navy will be able to provide is a sticking plaster. Just like in Somalia, the problem will not be resolved at sea. However, unlike Somalia, Nigeria actually has the sovereign power (and increasing political will, it seems) to address both the symptoms and the causes on shore. The control of inshore waterways and community engagement will form a part of the ongoing operation Tsare Teku. However, its success will also depend on the Nigerian Navy getting its own house in order. Ibas pointed out in 2015 “that most of the operations designed to eradicate the oil bunkering syndicates operating in the country’s waters were still achieving limited success because some navy officers and other security personnel were involved in the illegal activities.”

From an operational point of view, the best course of action for the Nigerian Navy in the short term (apart from a joint effort ashore) would be to fold the contracted field security and patrol vessels into a comprehensive scheme for merchant vessel protection, rather than allowing a large number of these vessels to be absorbed into one-on-one escort/security missions or “waiting for business.” This would not necessarily clash with commercial interests of oil companies operating convoys to and from their offshore installations. The idea here could be to coordinate and promulgate convoy schedules and open them for general shipping (much like the “national” convoys in the Gulf of Aden became open to ships flying all flags), thus maximizing the efficiency of existing operational naval vessels. Corridors could be extended in some cases or linked using other Nigerian Navy vessels or by sharing contracted patrol boats. This would have the added benefit of enabling the contracted patrol boats to pursue and apprehend attackers under the Nigerian Navy’s Rules of Engagement rather than having to remain purely defensive in accordance with the more restrictive Standard Operating Procedures of private security companies, which only allow a defensive posture.

Searching, sweeping, and deterrence patrols are likely to produce minimal results given the fleeting nature of the threat, the size of sea area, and the complexity of the Niger Delta coastline. Instead, the most valuable assets – like OKPABANA, CENTENARY, and the Sea Eagle fast patrol craft should be held in readiness as fast response assets. The low number and limited response radius of the vessels (for as long as the OPVs do not routinely operate helicopters on their missions) would probably not make it efficient to use them “on station” in the transit corridors in the way this was done in the Gulf of Aden. Continuous sea time would also aggravate the already precarious maintenance issues of some vessels.

In summary: the Nigerian Navy will be on the defensive in the short term for whatever comes at it from the creeks of the Niger Delta. This is not as ignominious as it sounds since command of the sea (however limited in geographic scope) is by definition a defensive strategic objective. Initially however, the Nigerian Navy will also contend with serious constraints ranging from a lack of awareness of what plays out in Nigerian waters outside the coverage of coastal radar stations and the Automated Identification System (AIS), as well as insufficient assets (or readiness of those assets) to effectively police the offshore littoral. The Nigerian Navy, even if it wishes to engage the merchant marine – as recently suggested by Vice-Admiral Ibas, will not initially benefit from the support of the merchant marine. Past experiences of naval officers’ connivance with criminals, corruption, extortion, and bullying at the hands of the Nigerian Navy have undermined industry’s trust in the Nigerian Navy. It will take time and fence-mending to reassure the international shipping community so that they will provide the indispensable data the Nigerian Navy would need in order to maintain MDA and effectively co-ordinate shipping in a piracy-threat area. Until then, operations like Tsare Teku will be largely symbolic. It may make life a little more complicated for the pirates, but not unduly so in the foreseeable future.

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: NNS KYANWA alongside NNS THUNDER at Apapa Naval base (Lagos) in 2014. Photo: Dirk Steffen

West African Navies Coming of Age?

By Dirk Steffen

On 11 February 2016, fourteen Nigerian and Ghanaian pirates in two speedboats attacked the product tanker MAXIMUS (ex-SP BRUSSELS) 70 nm south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. They hijacked the ship with the intention to steal part or all of its 4,700 metric tonne diesel fuel cargo, sailing it to a position ca. 300 nm south of Lagos, Nigeria over the next few days. The case ended with an opposed boarding of the tanker by the Nigerian Navy, which left one pirate dead and six apprehended; the remainder fled on their support vessel, taking two crewmembers of the MAXIMUS as hostages.

What began as just another product tanker hijacking developed into a model case for regional maritime security cooperation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct. The first asset to track the hijacked tanker was the Military Sealift Command’s expeditionary fast transport vessel USNS SPEARHEAD, stationed in the region for training and exercise support as a part of the African Partnership Station. SPEARHEAD identified the hijacked ship and shadowed it for two days as it sailed from Ivorian into Ghanaian waters. Then the CTF 63, Capt. Heidi Agle, handed over to the Ghana Navy, which continued to shadow the ship until it crossed the extension of the maritime boundary to Togo, about 200 nm offshore at that point. While Benin and Togo were not able to mobilise vessels to that distance from the shore, Nigeria was.

USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).
USNS SPEARHED leaving Douala in March 2015 (Photo: Dirk Steffen).

On 17 February the MAXIMUS, now re-named MT ELVIS-5 by the hijackers, had reached a position about 300 nm south of Lagos, roughly north-west of the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. While an unknown mother ship had probably supported the actual attack on the tanker, another vessel, the small Cambodian-flagged tanker DEJIKUN, was likely used by the pirates in an attempt to steal part of the MAXIMUS’s cargo. The DEJIKUN was tracked heading south from Lagos on 16 February, arriving in the general area of the MAXIMUS on midday of 18 February.

The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).
The hijacking of the product tanker MAXIMUS and the tracks of the pirate support vessels between 8 and 19 February 2016 (source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence).

Close on her tail was the Nigerian offshore patrol vessel NNS OKPABANA followed by NNS SAGBAMA. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Navy’s Chief of Training and Operations (CTOP), Rear Admiral Henry Babalola, obtained permission to operate in Sao Tomé and Principe waters although the MAXIMUS was technically in international waters (albeit inside the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone). What followed on 19 February were eight hours of negotiations via VHF before a Nigerian Navy boarding team from NNS OKPABANA boarded the MAXIMUS in the evening of 19 February. The pirates briefly offered resistance, before one of their number was killed and the remaining six on board the MAXIMUS fled into the engine room where they eventually surrendered.

Both from an operational point of view, especially with regards to regional co-operation as well as from a tactical perspective, the mission was a success. None of the MAXIMUS’s crewmembers were injured, although several pirates escaped with two hostages onto the DEJIKUN. The ship was later found drifting off Benin, abandoned by the pirates who had also taken the hostages with them.

Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).
Nigerian Navy SBS team (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back).

The liberation of the MAXIMUS was lauded as a model of regional co-operation under the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, even though Sao Tome and Principe, a nation with virtually no maritime security capacity, never reported to Nigeria or to the relevant Zone D reporting centre in the region (contrary to the official statements) when the MAXIMUS or DEJIKUN entered her waters. Nigeria eventually asked for permission to pursue the MAXIMUS into the Sao Tome and Principe exclusive economic zone under a bilateral agreement, which in the end achieved its objective, but also exposed some of the still extant weaknesses in the regional framework and capacities.

While diplomatically relevant, the message that the operation sent to the criminals was equally important: Gulf of Guinea states are increasingly willing and able to suppress maritime crime. It may only have been a beginning, but it may well be that the prospect of a forceful naval intervention has upset the plans of would-be tanker hijackers at a time when the economic situation in Nigeria is becoming increasingly conducive to the theft and smuggling of fuel into the country.

For the navies of the region, especially the Nigerian Navy, success may become self-reinforcing. The Nigerian Navy has long labored under its dismal performance and reputation relative to its assets and manpower potential. It remains beset by corruption and inefficiency, but it appears that the change that the Buhari presidency has brought over Nigeria may have begun to affect the navy as well. The Nigerian Navy had already responded with some alacrity to the brief hijacking (turned kidnapping) of the LEON DIAS on 29-31 January, the attempted kidnapping of crewmembers from the SAFMARINE KURAMO on 5 February near Bonny River Fairway Buoy and more recently, assisting the BOURBON LIBERTY 251, which had two crewmembers kidnapped on 23 February 2016. In all cases, the Nigerian naval vessels arrived well after the attacks, although in the case of the SAFMARINE KURAMO the attackers had to abandon their attempt to extract the crew from their citadel and were forced to leave the ship. While not entirely satisfactory to those involved, it is progress over previous years. Before, the navy hardly ever responded to distress calls at all, and when they did, it more often than not created bad blood between them and the merchant marine community through heavy-handed practices.

It is likely that the response to similar incidents will remain hit-and-miss for some years to come, especially if the circumstances are less favorable than in the MAXIMUS case. The MAXIMUS episode benefited from the presence of the USNS SPEARHEAD, which was conveniently deployed in the area for the upcoming African Partnership Station’s OBANGAME EXPRESS 2016 exercise (17-25 March 2016) as well as from some serious tactical mistakes made by the pirates. However, amongst other contingencies, the OBANGAME EXPRESS exercise series rehearses responses to precisely this type of scenario. In a way, the incident therefore reflects the journey the navies of the regions have made since the inception of OBANGAME EXPRESS and it will surely provide interesting input for the upcoming iteration of the exercise. The Nigerian Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok- Ete Ekwe Ibas, has credited OBANGAME EXPRESS with meeting its objectives. His challenge will now be to follow up and maintain, as he said, the “resolve of the navy to deploy more ships to maintain the current record of sea patrol in order to tackle maritime security challenges.”

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 exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014 and 2015 both 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.