The changing dynamic of West African maritime crime in 2013/2014


Kidnappings up 85 per cent, overall maritime crime up 21 per cent,
successful hijack for cargo theft down by 50 per cent:
the ever shifting threat in West Africa.

Last year reported incidents of maritime crime (1) in the Gulf of Guinea rose by 21 per cent, with 87 (2) reported incidents compared to 72 in 2012 and 70 in 2011.

Certain types of maritime crime increased much more substantially. Maritime kidnappings were up by as much as 85 per cent. But while kidnappings increased, the success rates of those attempting to hijack vessels to steal the cargo dropped sharply, with only three of the nine reported hijack cases actually resulting in cargo loss.

Last year also saw kidnap and hijack shifting geographically, spreading further east and south. There were fewer hijack incidents in the Bight of Benin (the typical hijack area), but a surge of kidnaps and attacks in the Bight of Bonny, particularly in the waters local to the Niger Delta (see figure 1). So what is happening off the West African coast?


In 2012 there were 11 hijacks in total in West Africa, eight of which led to cargo theft. By comparison, in 2013 there were nine hijacks, with only three leading to eventual cargo theft. The increased effectiveness of regional and international military responses, the possible involvement of less experienced hijack groups, and increased crew awareness are probable reasons for this reduced success rate.

The increased patrols by local state authorities and international navies (3) in the Bight of Benin led to the attacks being attempted further south-east and further west than ever before. Of particular note in 2013 was the hijack of the petroleum products tanker MT COTTON (figure 2, ref 1) in July, which was targeted for its Marine Diesel Oil (MDO) cargo in the waters off Gabon, an area not previously prone to hijack for cargo theft.

Increased naval patrols have not only deterred pirates from operating in the Bight of Benin, but in some cases they have led to hijacks being intercepted before cargoes can be stolen.  During the hijack of the products tanker NORTE in August 2013, the Nigerian Navy managed to respond to distress signals and detain the pirate group before any Ship-to-Ship (STS) transfer occurred. Likewise, in July 2013, the French Navy responded to and thwarted the hijack of the ADOUR while pirates were in control of the ship. Such interventions have impacted on the figures of hijack for cargo theft in 2013.

In addition, the increased awareness of the threat has caused many ship owners and charters to take greater measures to reduce their vulnerability. In some cases vessels with protracted operations in the region have been piracy-hardened, while crews have been made aware of the need to implement watches and increase vigilance. Some vessel owners are also employing local armed guards to escort them through the high risk area. It is believed that the combination of these measures contributed to fewer hijack for cargo theft incidents in 2013.

However, Nigeria’s buoyant illicit fuel market is the driving force behind this type of crime in the Gulf of Guinea, catalysing hijack syndicates to target tankers. As there is no sign of reduced demand for illicit petroleum products in Nigeria, hijack and cargo theft will remain a high threat in 2014.

Products tankers are still at significant risk from hijack while at the anchorages of Lagos, Cotonou, Abidjan and further east to waters offshore Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.


While increased awareness may be holding back the prevalence of hijack for cargo theft in the Gulf of Guinea, kidnap for ransom increased by 85 per cent in 2013 compared with the levels recorded in 2012. In addition criminal groups conducting kidnap for ransom extended their operations outside the confines of the Niger Delta, further east towards Cameroon and Gabon, and south toward the high seas of the Bight of Bonny (figure 3), particularly in the vicinity of oil platforms off the Niger Delta.

In January 2014, one kidnap group steamed as far as offshore Equatorial Guinea to snatch the Captain and Engineer from a Ro-Ro vessel (SAN MIGUEL). This was the first incident of kidnap for ransom case recorded this far south east of the Niger Delta (figure 4, ref 2). 

As revenue streams in the Niger Delta have grown increasingly scarce in 2013, offshore attacks have become more brazen and abductions more frequent. For kidnap groups, the cost benefit of this type of crime is appealing, often returning in the region of $50-60,000 USD in ransom payment per person. This might also have inspired many to turn to this type of crime in 2013, accounting for the spike in incidents. So far in 2014 there have been three reported kidnaps, most of which occurred off the Niger Delta. There is no indication that Niger Delta kidnaps are likely to abate in 2014.

Most maritime kidnaps in 2013 were from Offshore Support Vessels (OSVs) operating in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. OSVs are susceptible to kidnap attempts due to their low freeboards, predictable operations and slow speeds. Not only this, Western/European oil-workers crewing OSVs return higher ransom amounts and are generally targeted by gangs for this reason. Such was the case in October 2013 when two US sailors were kidnapped from the Edison Chouest-owned Platform Supply Vessel C-RETRIEVER while en-route to a Chevron-operated oil field off the Niger Delta. The pair were eventually released in November 2013 after a ransom was paid to the kidnap group.

So far in 2014 there have been nine4 reported incidents of maritime crime in the West Africa region, five of which have been local to the Niger Delta (see figure 4). Interestingly, this is a lower number of incidents compared to incidents in the same period in 2012. However, in spite of this, it is expected that there will be a consistently high level of maritime crime in the region, particularly off the Niger Delta and Bight of Bonny.

For the shipping industry, petroleum product tankers (hijack threat) and OSVs (kidnap threat) operating in the Gulf of Guinea remain at the highest risk, notably in oil fields off the Niger Delta and Bight of Bonny.

In terms of kidnap threat, this extends to vulnerable container ships (e.g. low freeboard and low operating speed) and general cargo vessels. While in the past five years there has been some hope of tempering maritime crime through regional initiatives in The Niger Delta, poor local governance and the mismanagement of amnesty funds has been a probable driver of the increase in activity in 2013, and will continue to spur on maritime crime in 2014.


Figure 1

Incidents of maritime crime Bight of Benin and Bight of Bonny 2012 / 2013
Incidents of maritime crime Bight of Benin and Bight of Bonny 2012 / 2013

Figure 2

'Successful' hijack for cargo thefts mincidents 2012 / 2013
‘Successful’ hijack for cargo thefts mincidents 2012 / 2013


Figure 3

Maritime kidnap incidents West Africa 2012 / 2013
Maritime kidnap incidents West Africa 2012 / 2013


Figure 4

Maritime crime so far in 2014 (Jan and Feb) West Africa
Maritime crime so far in 2014 (Jan and Feb) West Africa


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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