31 October 2019

When problems on the land seek answers on the sea – Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Does anyone remember the Somali pirates? Several years ago, they were boarding and sequestering tankers and other cargo ships and were requesting ransoms worth millions of dollars. Now, thanks to concerted naval and air actions carried out by the international community and stricter security measures taken by the crews, Somali pirates had to return to land. But as, frequently happens with crime, the problem was not truly eliminated. It resurfaced in another, more vulnerable location. For pirates, “the hunt” is now on in the Gulf of Guinea, which spreads on the shores of West Africa, from Senegal to Angola, on almost 4,000 miles. Although far away from Romania, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea also affects our country. At the beginning of March 2019, a statement by the Free Navigators’ Union announced that the ship “Histria Ivory”, sailing under a Maltese flag, was attacked by pirates 20 miles from the port of Lome. Romania’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that three Romanian sailors were kidnapped by pirates, with the rest of the crew managing to reach the safe space used in the case of pirate attacks.

Image source: Mediafax

A bleak statistic

Last year, 40% of reported international piracy incidents took place in the Gulf of Guinea. More specifically, 72 commercial ships were attacked between the shores of the Ivory Coast and Cameroon, with 79 sailors kidnapped. The international Maritime Bureau (IMB) specifies that official numbers represent only about half of the incidents which take place, as some of the crews do not inform local authorities on the incidents.

The IMB report for the first trimester of 2019 shows a decrease in acts of piracy and armed robbery against commercial ships, when compared to the first three months of 2018. Therefore, in the first trimester of 2019, the IMB was informed about 38 incidents of sea piracy and armed robbery, 28 less compared to the similar period in 2018, when 66 such incidents were registered. Out of the 38 incidents, in 27 case the pirates boarded the commercial ships, while during other seven they opened fire against them, and in four cases only attempted to attack the commercial ships. No ship was sequestered.

These statistics published by the IMB are encouraging, but the period of reference is way too short to be able to anticipate this year’s tendencies based on it,

In the IMB’s report, the Gulf of Guinea is the most dangerous spot in the world, having 22 of 38 incidents reported worldwide. At the same time, 22 crew members were kidnapped in this area, which is 100% of the total number of kidnapped sailors worldwide in the first trimester of 2019. The incidents took place in the waters of Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria and Togo.

Nigeria was a hotbed for piracy in the past decade. Despite all this, in the first trimester of 2019, Nigeria saw a decrease in piracy incidents. Therefore, in the first trimester of this year, Nigeria reported 14 incidents, compared to 22 in the similar period in 2018. Despite this decrease, Nigeria’s waterways are still risky for commercial ships, especially near the port of Lagos, where four incidents were reported.

Regional circumstances

When it comes to maritime security, the concept can be discussed in a variety of contexts. Generally, maritime security refers to the territorial protection of states and their maritime territories and is affected by a vast array of illegal activities, such as weapons, drug, human trafficking, illegal fishing as well as pollution.

Two maritime regions are significantly affected by maritime piracy: the Gulf of Aden in Eastern Africa and the Gulf of Guinea in Western Africa. The most common form of modern piracy in both Gulfs is ship capturing, with an accent on kidnapping crew members and requesting ransoms. Alongside its national and regional effects, piracy is one of the most significant threats to global economy. As 90% of imports and exports to and from this continent are made by sea, anything that affects the security of the main waterways brings additional costs.

Therefore, in order to protect territorial waters, commercial routes and exclusive economic areas, and to ensure the exploitation of naval resources, significant law enforcement and intelligence capabilities, as well as procedures or agreements are necessary to implement the adequate measures to limit and stop acts of piracy. At the same, the authorities of states affected by this phenomenon, regional actors and the international community must become actively involved and demonstrate the political will necessary to fight against piracy.

Nigeria continues to hold first place

According to the IMB’s bi-annual report, 73% of the total of sea kidnappings and 92% of hostage situations on the sea took place in the Gulf of Guinea. At the same time, two commercial ships which transported chemical products were hijacked, as well as a tugboat which was later used in another attacks. The pirates’ attacks took place at an average distance of 65 nautical miles from the shore.

Also according to the report, Nigeria continues to hold the first place regarding incidents of piracy and armed robbery on sea. Therefore, between January and June 2019, Nigeria reported 21 such incidents, compared to 31 in the same period of 2018.

In contrast to Somali pirates, those in the Gulf of Guinea usually do not sequester the ships, because they do not have a place to hide them. Instead, armed with AK-47s and knives, they board commercial ships, take hostages from the crew and return to land, where they hide the hostages and request ransoms. Although acts of piracy in the region are carried out by pirates from most of the neighbouring countries, the problem of piracy in this region is firstly a problem of Nigeria. Nigerian pirates use the channels in the Niger Delta to move, launch attacks, hide from authorities and keep the kidnapped sailors in captivity.

The fundamental causes of problems in fighting piracy in the region are: the inefficiency of government structures, the poor outfitting and training of the state’s structures of force, especially the coast guard, a lacking and corruption-riddled judicial system and, not least, an inefficient regional cooperation system, which is affected by these national problems.

Besides these causes, the proliferation of Nigerian piracy is also caused by connections to the oil-terrorist groups which act in the Niger Delta. The area’s rate of unemployment is over 20%, and the theft of oil products is common. A good part of the pirates where members of the oil-terrorist groups, a period in which they gained knowledge on how to wield weapons, plan and execute terrorist actions. These groups claim that they want to sell the stolen oil products to help fund the ethnic groups they are part of, before the politicians in Abuja “fatten their own pockets”. In order to increase their profits, some of their members also resort to piracy.

Timid attempts to stop piracy…

Although there is a unanimous stance among maritime transport companies that sea piracy cannot be completely eradicated, through concerted efforts of all the interested sides, the threat could still be reduced to a minimum.

The governments of West Africa countries are trying to limit piracy as much as possibly, through coordinating information and operational force exchanges. But, as West African piracy mostly originates from a single country, regional coordination is only “a drop in an ocean”.

Maritime transport companies complain about the fact that the Nigerian Government does not manage to ensure the safety of naval transport within its territorial waters. Actually, the Nigerian naval forces are acting admirably in some cases, but with a substantial effort, as their equipment is lacking and their presence on the sea is sporadic due to a reduced number of personnel. Some ship owner speculate that the pirates are cooperating with military officials, invoking incidents in which the pirates manage to flee before the Nigerian naval forces arrive, or that the pirates know exactly how many members of the crew are on board.

Besides these speculations, we can state that Nigeria did not make nay steps forward neither in the legal area. More specifically, it did not deem piracy as a specific criminal offence. The pirates captured by the Nigerian navy are usually freed. Approximately 300 individuals were prosecuted in Somalia for piracy. In contrast, the UN Office for Drugs and Criminality (UNODC) stated that it is not aware of any decision to prosecute an individual detained for piracy.

… with different approaches

BIMCO, the world’s largest international association which represents ships owners, supports the Somali approach. The association issued a statement in January 2019 requested that naval forces from the EU, US and China temporarily deploy ships in the Gulf of Guinea. At the same time, ship owners want to be able to ensure security crew aboard the ships they own. This is impossible for the moment, as Nigeria does not allow the presence of such crews aboard commercial ships, but only the presence of Nigerian naval officers which “know the area and the modus operandi of pirates”. In these conditions, several ship owners stated that “Nigerian authorities turned security into a business”.

Other ship owners consider the fact that Nigeria is more powerful than Somalia and should be obliged to ensure maritime security within its territorial waters. The same owners argue that the Gulf of Guinea, unlike the Malacca straight or the Gulf of Aden, is not a strategic point for international trade. We should add to this reasoning the fact that the Nigerian Government is also constrained by the terrorism and jihadism which manifests in its north-eastern area, as well as armed robberies in the north west and the violent clashes between farmers and shepherds in the central area.


Alongside the measures which can be taken by the international community, similar to those in Somalia, there is also the need increase the responsibility of ship owners.

Even if the maritime transport companies, the navies of states in the region and of the international community would do more, piracy would still not be eradicated. The only manner to eradicate piracy is to identify the land causes that generate it and act on them.

In West Africa, this means imposing the law in the Niger Delta, fighting corruption and creating jobs.

In Somalia, the pirates will continue to seek opportunities offered by unprotected ships for as long as chaos rules on the land.

All this suggests that it will be difficult to eradicate piracy for many years from now on, but governments and ship owners should not attempt various alternatives to stop piracy.

Translated by Ionut Preda