What shipowners can do about piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Gulf of Guinea piracy protection

James Wilkes, Managing Director of Gray Page: Strategies for Confronting Piracy

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is not a new problem: it is an enduring one. Kidnapping seafarers for ransom isn’t new either. Over the last 10 years there has been a clear threat to shipping. A clear threat to seafarers.

What has changed observably in recent months is a shift in the threat dynamic. Pirate gangs are operating further offshore. They have increased the tempo of their activities. And they are intent on abducting as many seafarers from a ship in a single incident as they can manage.

Not every attack is successful. But enough are. Enough to incentivise a network of experienced criminal gangs that possess the knowledge and capability to continue exploiting a large cluster of vulnerable maritime targets.

In response, there are periodic calls for a stronger naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea. Demands for more robust and effective law enforcement. An insistence on international intervention. It worked in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali basin, so a consensus argues.

Therefore, it should work in the Gulf of Guinea. Except that it probably won’t.

Gulf of Guinea piracy is not directly analogous with Somalia-based piracy. It is different and needs to be tackled on the basis of what it is, not what it isn’t. Context matters.

The international community has little interest in sending their navies into the Gulf of Guinea in any physical strength.  It is not geo-politically important in the same way that the Gulf of Aden region was, and is. There are other priorities demanding the deployment of naval assets elsewhere in the world.

Moreover, Nigeria and the other countries that make up the Gulf littoral are not keen to invite foreign forces to operate their waters. They have their own navy, coast guard and law enforcement forces.  And they are mustering them in efforts to address the piracy threat, with some tactical success. But there are many pressing security issues in the region. Piracy is just one problem. Resources and capabilities are finite.

As intractable as the piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea might seem, it is far from a hopeless situation. Shipowners have it within their control to reduce the vulnerability of their ships to attack. There are measures that can be taken to reduce the exposure of crews to the prospect of kidnapping.

What is required is a proactive approach to shipboard security management.

Firstly, the threat needs to be properly acknowledged, at every level in every company operating ships in the Gulf of Guinea.

This is no time for any operator to be just hoping that pirates won’t attack one of their ships. Seafarers have been kidnapped from bulk cargo carriers and box-ships, not just tankers and OSV’s.  Every ship is a potential target. Each seafarer is a potential victim.

Secondly, security plans need to be revisited and revised with the objective of protecting the crew from abduction.

The pirates gangs are not targeting cargo and they don’t want the ship. The value lies in the crew. Therefore, security measures and procedures must be shaped to achieve that objective. And by framing each possible security measure and procedure in the context of the question, “How does it protect the crew?”, an appropriately-layered security posture should evolve.

Thirdly, plans have got to be lifted from the table-top and put into action on board ships.

Physical security equipment is needed to deter and prevent boarding, or at least generate a significant amount of delay.

Equipment is also needed to prevent external access into accommodation and work spaces, and to create a protective environment internally where crew can muster safely in the event of an attack.

Crews need proper training in situational understanding and preparedness too.

They need to be given the support and tools to manage their security position proficiently, and respond effectively if it is threatened.

Supressing the piracy threat in the Gulf of Guinea is going to take time. And it has to be hoped that in time Nigeria and its neighbouring countries will be able to meet that challenge successfully. Until then, seafarers have to be better protected from the threat of attack and kidnap. And that is something shipowners can do.

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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