Pirate attacks off West Africa's coast have increased to levels that rival those seen in Somalia, insurers say, prompting maritime agencies to focus on setting aside their rivalries and cooperate to fight the rising threat.
The International Maritime Bureau says Nigeria and Benin reported 18 pirate attacks in the first half of 2011. While smaller than figures attributed to Somali pirates, analysts say the number of attacks off Nigerian waters is underreported because some ships carry illegal oil cargo and others fear their insurance rates will rise.
"I believe we are nearly at a crisis here and if it's a crisis, there has to be action," said Rear Adm. Kenneth J. Norton, deputy chief of staff for strategy, resources and plans for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, headquartered in Naples, Italy.
Officials from Nigeria's Navy, its maritime industry and other groups met this week with U.S. officials aboard the HSV 2 Swift off Nigeria's coast to discuss maritime issues, including formulating anti-piracy strategies.
The U.S. and other Western nations have an anti-piracy armada patrolling the waters off East Africa, but there is no West African counterpart, leaving Nigeria and its neighbors to stop the growing swell of attacks on their own.
A big problem, those involved say, has been a lack of cooperation among the many Nigerian institutions that deal with maritime issues.
"Somebody must take charge and whenever the functions overlap, somebody has to cede" said Capt. D.O. Labinjo, who represents a Nigerian ship owners' association. "Instead of interagency cooperation, what we have been getting is interagency rivalry."
London-based Lloyd's Market Association, an umbrella group of insurers, earlier this month listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.
As a result, shippers may be subjected to more checks and higher premiums, said Neil Smith, head of underwriting at Lloyd's Market Association. That could mean additional costs for oil-rich Nigeria's shipping industry, which exports crude crucial to the U.S. market.
It also can affect commercial shipping coming into Lagos' busy Apapa Port and the thriving used-car market based in Cotonou, the commercial capital of Benin.
Even as Nigerian agencies attempt to cooperate, the fast-changing patterns of pirates are testing their capabilities.
Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has over the last eight months escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings, cargo thefts and large-scale robberies, according to the Denmark-based security firm Risk Intelligence.
West African pirates also have been more willing to use violence, beating crewmembers and shooting and stabbing those who get in the way. Analysts believe many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive.
Robbers appear to be targeting chemical and oil tankers sailing through the region.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.