International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) says the number of ship’s crewmembers being kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea increased by more than 50% in 2019 and this year has begun with a further escalation of violence, armed robbery and kidnaping. The crisis is deepening – pirates are bolder and taking greater number of hostages. Levels of violence are high, and deaths have occurred both during attacks and during captivity of seafarers and military personnel. This is not business as usual. For example, 20 crewmembers were kidnapped from the MT Duke on 15 December last year with one of those crewmembers dying in captivity – this not acceptable.
Over 90% of global kidnappings reported at sea took place in the Gulf of Guinea. It remains an uncomfortable fact that the vast majority of attacks are launched on shipping from within Nigerian territorial waters. We recognise that Nigeria is improving its maritime security capability through programmes such as the Deep Blue Project and ICS applauds and encourages these measures. However, now is the time to see real results in terms of action at sea and in the capture and prosecution of pirates.
Security forces in Ivory Coast have confiscated $40 million of cocaine in the country’s coastlines. This seizure, which occurred on Tuesday, 4th of February 2020, is the biggest the country has ever recorded.
Communication Advisor, Yves Zogbo Jr, stated that “security forces launched a maritime operation to seize 411 kilograms of cocaine on the high seas.” The cargo is believed to have arrived as a single consignment from Brazil before being transferred onto three smaller boats, he said.
The departing CEO of international shipowning organisation BIMCO has hit out at Nigerian authorities’ complete failure to rein in the horrendous piracy situation in West Africa.
In a note to members entitled ‘We must speak the truth about Gulf of Guinea’ Angus Frew wrote: “In the past year, the complete absence of effective law enforcement against Nigerian pirates has allowed them to operate largely with impunity in the Gulf of Guinea and we must conclude that the current capacity building initiatives have had no effect whatsoever.”
[Nigeria’s] Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, has said the new Maritime Security Infrastructure will be launched before June. The minister, who spoke on a national television broadcast yesterday, decried the insecurity challenges in the maritime sector, and promised that with the new security infrastructure, the problem would be solved.
“Between now and June, we should be launching. We have assured Nigerians that we will secure our waterways. Those who make money from the maritime security challenges are already battling us. We are ready for the battle, and the president (Muhammadu Buhari) is behind us.
These reports come against a backdrop of pirate attacks against merchant ships in West Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea between Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. They have also led to attention-grabbing headlines about a “piracy surge” or even “waves of terror”.
In 2019, kidnappings of seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea reached an unprecedented number. Attacks against merchant ships were recorded off Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. The area is often described as “the world’s most dangerous seas”.
Piracy is a significant threat for shipping companies operating in the region. Industry organisations have pointed out that urgent action is required and that seafarers should not be “exposed to such appalling dangers”.
The human cost is significant and hostages aren’t the only victims. Representatives from seafarers’ unions have pointed out that their members are at considerable risk for just doing their jobs, and even crews on ships that are merely transiting are on edge.
Based on a thorough analysis of attack patterns and overall maritime activities in the region, I am convinced that it will be impossible for navies and other security agencies to improve maritime security as long as root causes are not addressed. Many security incidents at sea, and notably kidnappings of seafarers, are merely an extension of land-based issues.
At the heart of the problem are activities by criminal groups based in the Niger Delta where kidnappings on land have long been a security challenge. Unless the massive security problems in the Delta are resolved, no significant headway will be made at sea.
Beyond attention-grabbing headlines there’s no consensus on figures. Not even the reports mentioned above include the same numbers. That matters because shipping companies make commercial decisions based on official statistics, and budgets for security agencies are allocated depending on the scope and scale of the problem.
For example, the International Maritime Bureau reported that 121 seafarers were taken as hostages during attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2019. This represented more than 90% of global kidnappings at sea recorded by the centre.
At the same time, the organisation only reported 64 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea last year. This was a decrease of 19% compared with 2018.
The US Maritime Administration highlighted a similar trend in a recent advisory even though the overall numbers are much higher. It reported that there were 129 attacks in 2019 after 145 attacks in 2018, representing an 11% drop.
The French Navy’s Mica centre, on the other hand, reported a 20% increase in attacks against ships across the Gulf of Guinea between 2018 and 2019 (from 90 to 111 incidents).
Overall, numbers differ due to reporting standards and categorisations aren’t comparable. Similar events are often classified in different ways. For example, the IMB recorded four hijacked ships in 2019, the US Maritime Administration noted six, and the MICA centre classified 26 incidents as hijackings.
Annual statistics are further complicated by increased awareness. Incidents that would not have been reported a few years ago are now included in publicly available data, even though they may be linked to other criminal activities at sea.
During my own research, I have come across many cases where such activities were linked to incidents broadly described as “pirate attacks”, without a detailed analysis of individual circumstances.
Such differences underline that annual statistics are not necessarily a valuable tool for understanding issues in the Gulf of Guinea. Rather, security agencies have to gain a broad understanding of all maritime security challenges. Based on such knowledge, a transparent analysis of incidents is possible, providing the necessary background for commercial decisions or law enforcement operations.
Extension of a land problem
Attacks at sea are generally conducted by criminal groups based in the Niger Delta. Throughout the region, there is an ample supply of foot soldiers and camps in remote locations where hostages can be held during negotiations, the prerequisites for a lucrative business model.
Highlighting the direct link with Nigeria is important. On the one hand, neighbouring countries are unable to solve the problem unless security on land in the Niger Delta improves. On the other hand, spikes in attacks are possible at any time. For operators of merchant ships, the threat level can change within weeks, depending on factors such as weather, changes in traffic patterns or naval operations as well as the general situation on land in certain areas in the Niger Delta.
Furthermore, insecurity at sea is an overarching problem for regional governments. Pirate attacks may be particularly visible. But other concerns, such as fuel smuggling, illegal fishing or unregulated shipments of pharmaceuticals like Tramadol, are usually more pressing for government agencies.
The West and Central African region has made significant progress in fighting all types of illicit activities at sea. Various types of maritime security issues are mentioned in the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, adopted in 2013 and aimed at improving maritime security in West and Central Africa.
However, human and financial resources are scarce and maritime security is generally regarded as less important than land-based security challenges which directly affect domestic populations.
But insecurity at sea has a significant economic impact by hurting activities related to the maritime environment. Maritime business plans therefore must include security-related expenditures for navies, coastguards and other government agencies. These are needed to maximise the potential of the maritime environment. This, in turn, would show that better maritime security has direct benefits for economic growth and development.