Update on hijack for cargo theft in the Gulf of Guinea: low loss, high risk


In recent months there has been a discernible rise in hijack for cargo theft activity in the Gulf of Guinea. During the period of May – August 2013, five commercial tankers1 were reported hijacked, compared to just two tankers in the preceding four months. This period of increased activity included the unprecedented hijacking of the COTTON (reference 1) off Port-Gentil, Gabon, on 15 July 2013.

However, recent incidents have not been limited to virgin waters. Having demonstrated a general westerly trend over 2011 and 2012, eventually reaching the Ivorian coast, hijack for cargo theft appears to have returned to the Bight of Benin, with the majority of recent activity occurring off Lagos and Lomé (as can be seen in Figure 1).

Hijacking for cargo theft in the Bight of Benin May - August 2013
Hijacking for cargo theft in the Bight of Benin May – August 2013

Although hijack for cargo theft activity appears to have returned to levels similar to that seen mid-2012, the efficacy of different parties involved is increasingly varied. And with navies in the region appearing to demonstrate a greater disposition towards intervention, pirates’ success rates have generally been low.

From the five tankers hijacked in the Gulf of Guinea since May 2013, pirates are understood to have stolen just 3,500 MT of cargo. In the cases of the ADOUR (reference 2) and the OCEAN CENTURION (reference 3), the vessels are understood to have been in ballast at the time of hijack. In these instances the pirates may have acted on false information. The ADOUR is thought to have taken on bunkers shortly before it was hijacked, and it is possible that pirates mistook this for a cargo loading operation.

In the case of the ADOUR, it is not clear why the pirates retained control of the vessel once they became aware that no cargo was on board. It has been suggested that the pirates wished to utilise the tanker as a mother-vessel to facilitate attacks on other ships. However, the pirates are reported to have forced some crewmembers to disembark the ADOUR onto another vessel. This implies that the pirates were already in possession of a mother-vessel. Despite this, the pirates used the ADOUR (a known-to-be-hijacked tanker), to return to the Niger Delta. Interviews with crewmembers also allege that the pirates forced the crew to fabricate ladders and hooks below deck. West African pirates have not been known to put hijacked crewmembers to work in this manner in the past.

Not all the vessels recently hijacked have been in ballast. The SP ATLANTA (reference 4), hijacked from the Lagos anchorage on 12 August 2013, is understood to have been carrying 5000 MT of kerosene, none of which was reported stolen. In this instance, the pirates may have failed to rendezvous with the lightering tanker into which they intended to unload the SP ATLANTA’s cargo. AIS data suggests that the pirates subsequently abandoned the vessel off Lagos, allowing them to return to the anchorage, possibly to hijack the NORTE (reference 5), on 15 August 2013.

Both the ADOUR and the NORTE were intercepted by naval forces leading to the disembarkation of pirates from the two vessels, and in the case of the NORTE, their arrest2. These misadventures may indicate that new, less experienced gangs are engaged in recent hijack for cargo theft activity. However, the pirates’ successive disembarkation from hijacked vessels (except for the SP ATLANTA) off the Niger Delta suggests that hijack gangs continue to be based in this area.

The rare naval interventions following the hijackings of the ADOUR and the NORTE are also of note. Despite a constant presence in the Gulf of Guinea in the form of the Corymbe mission3, the hijack of the ADOUR appears to be the first instance in which the French Navy has directly intervened in a hijacking in the region. In the case of the NORTE, it is equally unusual for the Nigerian Navy to commit so many assets (reportedly two Nigerian Naval vessels, six smaller gunboats and an aircraft) to a vessel hijacked from its waters. Authorities may have seized this opportunity to react to the recent rise in piratical activity off Nigeria, and suggestions that pirates act with impunity in the country’s waters. Recently, the Nigerian Navy has engaged pirates in several high profile incidents around the Niger Delta, resulting in the deaths and arrests of numerous suspected pirates.

However, it is also possible that influential Nigerian interests were able to encourage Nigerian naval intervention. The NORTE is understood to be owned and operated by Olimpex Nigeria Ltd. Although little information is available on this company it may be well connected in Nigeria. Alternatively, the NORTE may have been carrying a Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation cargo, engaging powerful political allies following the vessel’s hijack.

The one incident in which pirates did appear successful – the hijacking of the COTTON off Gabon – appeared to demonstrate an increasingly internationalised dimension to hijack for cargo theft (in addition to a significant southerly expansion of hijack operations). Pirates, suspected to be Nigerian based (and to have disembarked from the COTTON off the Niger Delta), hijacked the COTTON off Gabon, over 300 nm south of Nigeria. It would then appear as though the cargo was lightered offshore Ghana into the MUSTARD, a tanker chartered in Ghana. This led to the arrest of four individuals in Ghana, reported to include the MUSTARD’s Agent, Charterer and Cargo Surveyor. Furthermore, the pirates attempted to sell the cargo to the Ghanaian company SaltPond Offshore Producing Company Limited (rather than onto the Nigerian black market), while Ghanaian and Nigerian press have associated Nigerian business interests with the operation.

Thus, to some extent, recent incidents suggest a growing variation, and subsequently unpredictability, in hijack for cargo theft activity. During the same period as the most southerly hijack to date (also the most successful during this period), hijack for cargo theft has also returned to the very area in which it originated in the Gulf of Guinea (namely the Bight of Benin). Meanwhile, the efficacy of gangs involved also appears increasingly varied. These observations may indicate a wider variety of parties involved in this activity.

Although success rates have not been high, the threat should not be underestimated. The markedly high level of recent hijack for cargo theft activity in the Gulf of Guinea represents a significant risk to tankers operating in the region. Indeed, this risk has been elevated by the hijacking of the COTTON, demonstrating the ability of hijack for cargo theft syndicates to significantly adapt their area of operations, striking in an area well beyond the high risk area, previously considered safe. Accordingly, crews should remain alert throughout the Gulf of Guinea, aware that attacks can occur across the region.

© GRAY PAGE ® 2013

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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