The waters off West Africa's coast, the Gulf of Guinea, are a growing source of oil and have recently seen a spike in piracy for theft of its riches, a development seen to be fuelled partly by rising crude prices.
Attacks on vessels have grown in number and scope, spreading across a broader region in what is becoming a new piracy hotspot. Vessels carrying petroleum products have been the most targeted.
As oil prices hit nine-month highs this week, the leader of the small West Africa country of Togo called on the UN Security Council to create an international group to combat piracy.
The group could be styled along the lines of one battling pirates off Somalia on the eastern side of the continent.
Governments and investors in the region are concerned.
Most of the attacks in the past year have been concentrated off the coast of Nigeria's commercial hub of Lagos and nearby Cotonou, the capital of Benin.
Denmark-based RiskIntelligence last year listed 34 piracy incidents off Lagos and Cotonou, from 13 in 2010.
A maritime watchdog body, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), has warned sailors to steer clear of the Gulf of Guinea which spans across a dozen countries, several of them oil-producers.
Rob Borthwick, risk analyst with the London-based Maplecroft global risk think-thank, says there is no single explanation to the upward trend in attacks.
But “ongoing tensions related to the 2009 Niger Delta amnesty and higher prices for oil on global markets over the past year are likely to be factors,” he said.
Michael Howlett, deputy director in charge of commercial crime services with the IMB, says oil prices “may have an impact” on piracy.
Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, managed to greatly reduce militant attacks in the delta, but the region still remains heavily under-developed.
Piracy and illegal oil bunkering by youths roaming the creeks can be viewed as “legitimate” activity of the region beset by low levels of development, unemployment and pollution, analysts say.
Higher oil prices on the Nigerian domestic market following a partial removal of subsidies in January “may also prove an added incentive to target oil cargoes,” said Borthwick.
The long-running battle against piracy off Somalia has cost the world billions of dollars to protect ships Ä nearly $7 billion last year alone Ä but analysts say attacks off West Africa are still comparatively less.
“There is really no similiarity between Somalia and Nigeria. It's very different dynamics,” said Thomas Horn Hansen of RiskIntelligence.
In any case, Nigeria has a stable government that has the capacity to curb the scourge, even as it faces serious security threats in the north from the Islamist sect Boko Haram.
“The military and economic strength of Nigeria - which is the predominant regional power - should mean that the country has sufficient capacity to actively combat piracy,” said Borthwick.
But a former senior Nigerian navy official said the political will to definitively end piracy is lacking because a lot of the illegal oil business syndicates are run by powerful political godfathers of some of the leaders in power.
Structures to check crime are “very weak, the police is corrupt, the judiciary is tardy,” said the officer asking not to be named.
Unlike the Gulf of Aden, analysts say the Gulf of Guinea presents greater potential for regional cooperation to fight piracy due to the oil boom spreading to other countries.
Ghana a year ago became the latest country to join the regional club of oil producers that include Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Ivory Coast.
Mamadou Makhtar Gueye, in charge of African economic integration in Senegal's foreign affairs ministry, said piracy is “clearly worrying.”
“Currently it is very localised, but the risk is that it can spread to more countries... (and) that is the risk we want to limit.” he said.
Nigeria and Benin last year launched joint sea patrols with the backing of France.
Leaders of 15 ECOWAS member nations have ordered their military chiefs to urgently draw up plans to crack down on the increasing threat from piracy and organised maritime crime.
The theft of cargo is relatively sophisticated. Pirates hijack and direct tankers to other ships, where the fuel is transferred and then taken elsewhere for sale. - Sapa-AFP