Gulf of Guinea piracy; lessons from Somalia don’t apply


The focus of world concern about piracy has shifted decisively to West Africa.

Piracy in the Somali basin has almost ceased. It could resurface, as the root causes – conflict and instability in Somalia – haven’t gone away.

However, the presence of multi-national naval patrols and improved on-board security procedures, including the use of armed guards, has seen the number of attacks plummet from their peak in 2011.

The only incident recorded in the first eight months of this year involved the temporary hijacking of a dhow.

In South-East Asia too, piracy has been on the decline. There are regular reports of vessels being boarded, both at anchor and underway, but the object is often no more than petty theft. Apart from attacks on fishing vessels, there have been no reports of seafarers kidnapped for ransom for over two years.

The world’s most high-risk area for piracy is the Gulf of Guinea.

In the first six months of 2019, in waters off the coastline that runs from the Ivory Coast to Cameroon, there were 32 reports of ships under attack by pirates or armed robbers.

In one brazen incident, in early March, pirates seized five seafarers from an offshore support vessel and fired on a Nigerian Naval vessel sent to its aid, killing a Nigerian sailor.

The attack took place in broad daylight just 32 nautical miles (nm) from Nigeria’s Brass oil terminal.

The problems are worse than the figures suggest. The most reliable information on piracy and armed robbery comes from the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) piracy reporting centre. It readily admits its figures (quoted above) fail to reflect the scale of the problem. Many attacks go unreported.

Pirates use ladders fitted with hooks

Piracy is nothing new in West Africa. Crime at sea flourishes where there is unrest and disorder ashore. Parts of the West African coast, especially Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, currently defy effective policing.

Against a background of political unrest, the Delta’s waterways and creeks have long provided haven for pirate gangs.

Most Gulf of Guinea attacks take place at night. Pirates typically come alongside in fast boats and use ladders fitted with hooks to climb the ship’s rail and clamber on deck.

When oil prices were high, their object was often to hijack a tanker and steal its cargo.

Now West African piracy has evolved to meet new market conditions. Its focus has shifted from stealing cargoes to seizing crew. Kidnap for ransom, with all that implies in trauma and danger for seafarers, is the current business model.

In the first eight months of this year, pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea abducted 62 seafarers.

Pirates snatched seafarers from crude oil tankers, product tankers, offshore supply vessels, container ships, fishing boats and a bulk carrier.

The attackers were generally heavily armed and – in the most serious attacks – ready to use extreme violence.

They boarded ships in anchorages and underway at sea. In one case, a vessel was attacked more than 170 nm from the coast.

Lessons from Somalia don’t apply

West African governments are not blind to the problem. Nigerian officials complain that there is too little acknowledgement for all Nigeria does.

Its Navy has intercepted pirate attacks but has lacked the resources to prevent them.

There have been moves by the Gulf of Guinea’s littoral states to mount joint naval patrols but as one country – Nigeria – is at the heart of the problem, they are unlikely to prove decisive. Of the 32 attacks recorded by the IMB in the Gulf between January and June, 21 were off Nigeria.

Nor is the record for bringing pirates to justice encouraging. Some 300 people have been prosecuted in the fight against Somali-based piracy but, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there has yet to be a successful prosecution for piracy in Nigerian courts.

One lesson from the Somali basin might be that ships should deploy privately hired armed guards but Nigeria is unwilling to allow anyone but its own naval personnel to act as armed escorts.

For some in the shipping community determined international intervention, as seen in the Somali-basin, is the preferred solution.

BIMCO (the international association that seeks to represent ship-owners) has called for the United States, China and the European Union to send forces to the Gulf of Guinea.

However, Nigeria and the other countries that make up the Gulf littoral have generally been unenthusiastic about foreign forces patrolling their waters.

Equally important, the international community has shown little sustained interest in sending navies to the rescue.

Whereas, Somali pirates were disrupting key shipping routes, the Gulf of Guinea is without the same global significance.

Another factor is that Somali pirates were in the spotlight, holding ships and crews for years at a time, demanding ransoms running to millions of dollars. West African pirates, by contract, have managed to keep a lower international profile.

The vessels they have attacked have often been crewed by seafarers from countries with little influence and scant resources. Even the size of their ransom demands seem calibrated to fall just short of impossible.


There is no quick fix for unrest and instability in the Niger Delta. International naval forces are not waiting in the wings.

The threat of piracy is real and likely to endure.

If West African piracy is to be confronted it will be for ship owners and operators to take the first step.

As long as pirates need no more than a fast skiff and a ladder to board a ship, maritime crime will be an attractive option.

There is no reason ships should be easy targets.

Vessel ‘hardening’ systems that deter, delay and, in all but the most determined attacks, prevent unauthorised boarding are relatively easy to fit and are well within the reach of most operators.

If ship-owners are proactive, piracy, even in the Gulf of Guinea, can be curtailed.

By Nick Jameson, Senior Industry Analyst with the specialist maritime consulting group, Gray Page. (This article has appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of the specialist magazine Bunkerspot, under the headline ‘On Guard’.)

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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