The world’s most dangerous waters

Togo anchorage

Attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Guinea showed no let-up in the first three months of 2019.

The International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre published details of 22 ‘incidents’ but warned that half-as-many again probably go unreported.

Attacks generally took place at night while vessels were underway. They could be anything from 30 nautical miles (nm) to 180 nm offshore.

Vessels targeted included oil tankers, product tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, fishing boats and offshore support vessels.

All but a handful of the attacks were off the Niger Delta, in the sea area south of the port and oil terminals of Brass. There were also incidents off Togo, Benin and Cameroon.

Gulf of Guinea piracy attacks January - March 2019Pirates have been armed and violent. Typically they approached their targets in fast, small craft and used ladders and grapples to board.

In five of the attacks seafarers were kidnapped, almost certainly for ransom.

Numbers are difficult to assess but the IMB calculates that 21 crew members were abducted.

That figure appears to exclude unconfirmed reports that eight crew members were kidnapped from three Chinese fishing vessels off Cameroon in late February.

One of the most audacious and violent attacks occurred in daylight 32 nm off Brass. Pirates in two speed boats boarded an offshore support vessel despite the presence of an escort ship with armed Nigerian naval personnel.

In an exchange of fire with the escort vessel a Nigerian Navy guard was killed. The attackers successfully abducted five seafarers before making their escape.

In contrast to earlier patterns of behaviour pirates have shown little interest in hijacking and cargo theft but have focused instead on abduction and the theft of cash and personal belongings.

Waters off Nigeria must now be ranked as among world’s most dangerous for merchant shipping.

Of the 38 attacks recorded by the IMB worldwide in the first quarter of 2019, 14 were off Nigeria.

It is also likely that other incidents in the wider Gulf of Guinea have been the work of pirates based in the Niger Delta.

The oil rich Delta is a region of Nigeria that has seen civil unrest stretching back more than a decade.

Successive governments have failed to resolve ethnic tensions or ameliorate the environmental impact of the oil industry on fishing and farming livelihoods.

The absence of effective law enforcement has allowed some criminal activity, including piracy, to take root.

A retired Nigerian naval official told the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping in March that he suspected many of the attacks against ships in Nigeria’s waterways involved an element of collusion with the ships’ crews.

Some Nigerian officials have complained that the IMB figures exaggerate the security threats in the Gulf of Guinea as every incident of maritime crime, however small, is recorded as an act of piracy.

The IMB has not addressed the issue directly but in the preambles to its quarterly and annual reports the Bureau says it follows the definition of piracy used in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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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