West Africa faces many security challenges. Amongst them, piracy is an increasingly pressing issue.

Piracy attacks occur frequently across the Gulf of Guinea – a body of water that stretches from Gabon – but the greatest concentration is in Nigerian waters.

Piratical activity is not yet threatening disruption to international shipping on the scale seen off Somalia a few years ago, but it is part of a system of criminality that has deep roots.

Regional pirate gangs have no compunction employing serious violence towards achieving their goals. The use of semi-automatic rifles and a significant weight of weapons fire against target vessels are common.

Vessels are boarded both at anchor and when underway. At one end of the scale, seafarers are robbed of their personal belongings and money. At the other, they are abducted and then held for ransom ashore, usually in the Niger Delta.

Not all attacks are violent or pre-planned. Many are opportunistic and with no greater motivation than the theft.

The deeper problem is, however, that pockets of political instability and lawlessness onshore, especially in Nigeria, are providing safe havens from which piracy gangs can operate with relative impunity.

Nigeria piracy Jan April 2018 infographic

The Pace of Attacks Accelerates

Data from the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre showed 36 attacks on ships in or around Nigerian waters in 2017, including ten cases of kidnap which together involved 65 seafarers.

Figures released by the IMB for the first three months of 2018 suggest that the frequency of attacks is growing.

There were at least 29 incidents, including the apparent hijacking of two product tankers off Cotonou, Benin.

In April – in one of the most serious assaults to date – a pirate gang boarded the FWN Rapide (a 10,609 dwt general cargo ship), as it prepared to enter Nigeria’s Port Harcourt and abducted 11 of its crew.


As dismal as the picture that the IMB statistics represent, the reality is worse.

The IMB’s data, for example, does not include attacks on fishing vessels or ferries, and other organisations monitoring maritime security estimate the number of actual incidents to be much higher: by some estimates, as many as 60 per cent of incidents go unrecorded.

From theft to kidnap for ransom

The boarding of ships with criminal intent can be broadly summarised in three categories:

Perpetrators target vessels opportunistically while at anchor or alongside at berth, and generally during the hours of darkness.

They usually look for signs that a vessel’s security posture is weak, typified by the absence of physical security measures and a visible watch-keeping presence.

The perpetrators are usually local, low-level criminals who will take what they can get away with easily. If they get access to a ship’s crew they will rob them of their personal belongings, including clothes, cash, jewellery, laptop computers, mobile telephones and portable electronic devices. They will also steal ship’s cash and portable IT equipment.

Hijacking for Cargo theft:
Between 2011 and 2014, there was a spate of incidents across the Gulf of Guinea involving product tankers being hijacked for the purposes of stealing some or all of their cargo, usually unleaded gasoline, gas oil or diesel oil.

One incident of hijack for cargo theft was recorded in 2016 and two in January this year, when the tankers Barrett and Marine Express were hijacked off Cotonou, Benin, while waiting at anchor before going into port to discharge.

Hijacking for cargo theft is a highly-organised model of piracy, involving multiple actors collaborating to target and attack a tanker, lighter part of its cargo to a second tanker and the sell the stolen cargo on the black market.

It has been ventured that the risk of hijack for cargo theft increases when the price of refined products in local markets increases on the back of tight availabilities.

Kidnapping for ransom:
Kidnapping seafarers for ransom is the gravest form of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

So far, it is a risk almost exclusive to the waters off Nigeria and especially severe in the area of the Niger Delta.

Typically, deck and engineering officers are abducted in attacks that are characterised by quick, violent assaults on a target vessel, by pirate gangs operating from small, fast moving crafts.

The victim-seafarers are taken and held in camps in the Delta states for as long as it takes to negotiate and pay a ransom for their release.

Improving security

Piratical activity in the Gulf of Guinea affects all types of vessels trading in the region. The waters in and off Nigeria are manifestly dangerous, and there are extant risks across the wider region.

The Nigerian authorities have repeatedly committed themselves to combating piracy and maritime crime, and regional maritime cooperation initiatives such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Maritime Security Architecture are developing.

However, with more than 10 nations sharing the shores of the Gulf of Guinea, establishing an effective regional anti-piracy policy and commensurate response mechanisms is a complicated task.

And while pirate gangs backed by organised criminal structures continue to have relatively safe bases from which to operate, the threat of piracy will not abate quickly.

Consequently, there is a substantive responsibility on ship operators to do more to improve the security of their ships and to better protect the well-being of their seafarers.

The need for thorough risk assessment, robust physical protection measures, visibly alert watch-keeping and effective citadels cannot be overstated.
Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea – as elsewhere in the world – are successful because many ships are easy targets. Whatever form piracy takes, changing that dynamic is what security is about.

This article, written by James Wilkes, Managing Director, Gray Page, first appeared in BunkerSpot.

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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