Nigerian Ship Hijacking: Militants 'Unaffiliated to Biafran Cause'

A naval boat off the coast of Nigeria's Bayelsa state.
A naval boat off the coast of Nigeria's Bayelsa state, December 18, 2013. An analyst and the Nigerian military have said that hijackers of a Greek-owned ship are not affiliated to the Biafran cause. Stringer/Reuters

Militants who hijacked a ship off the south Nigerian coast and demanded the release of Nnamdi Kanu are criminals without affiliation to the Biafran cause, a maritime security analyst tells Newsweek.

The vessel was reportedly hijacked last Friday and a spokesman for the militants, known only as General Ben, demanded that Kanu—the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group— be released from Nigerian detention within 31 days, or the ship would be destroyed and its crew murdered. Kanu has been detained in Nigeria since October and is facing trial for treason. He was denied bail on January 29 and his case was adjourned until February 9.

The hijackers disembarked the ship in Nigeria on Sunday, taking five hostages with them, AP reported on Wednesday. Denmark-based Risk Intelligence said that the hijacking of the vessel—a Greek-owned, Liberian-flagged ship called the MT Leon Dias—took place 115 nautical miles south-southwest of Brass, a town in Bayelsa state on the southern Nigerian coast. The vessel then proceeded to Cotonou in Benin, where it anchored on Monday. The hostages include two Filipinos, two Russians and a Georgian, according to Risk Intelligence.

Nigeria's director of defense information, Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar, told Newsweek on Monday that the hijacking was an "act of sabotage" and that the Nigerian authorities were pursuing the criminals. Abubakar later said that the hijackers were not affiliated to the pro-Biafran movement, and two of the leading campaign groups for Biafran independence—Kanu's IPOB and the Movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB)—denied that they had ordered the hijacking.

Dirk Steffen, maritime security director at Risk Intelligence, tells Newsweek that the five hostages remained with the hijackers in the oil-producing Niger Delta region of Nigeria. He says that negotiations are ongoing and that the hijackers have demanded a ransom that does not include the release of Kanu.

Newsweek contacted Leon Shipping Company, the Greek firm that owns the MT Leon Dias, for comment but received no reply.

Steffen also claims the hijacking is unlikely to be linked to pro-Biafran groups. "The Biafrans have no track record in this sort of activity," he says. "That's very much an activity that the coastal communities in the Niger Delta engage in."

He adds that tribal differences make political collaboration between pro-Biafrans and militants from the Niger Delta unlikely. Pro-Biafrans mainly come from the Igbo ethnic group, which constituted the majority of the population of the republic of Biafra when it existed between 1967 and 1970. Rebels who were involved in the Niger Delta militancy—which saw militants attack oil pipelines and kidnap workers in the mid-2000s—mainly hail from the Ijaw ethnic group. "It is just extremely unlikely that the Biafrans are involved in this," says Steffen.

Pro-Biafran demonstrations in southeast Nigeria have swelled since Kanu was detained in October 2015. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has rejected calls for Kanu's release, saying that the pro-Biafran activist—who is based in London and is the director of underground media outlet Radio Biafra—is a flight risk.