Rising Piracy in Gulf of Guinea

Photo Source: Gard.no

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront 


Gulf of Guinea continues to be world’s most dangerous route for international shipping trade. Called as ‘world's piracy hotspot’, it has now eclipsed the troubled waters off Somalia in the Horn of Africa, by becoming a new epicenter for looting and kidnappings. According to International Maritime Bureau, almost eighty two percent of maritime kidnappings in the world occurred in the Gulf of Guinea in 2019. Attacks against merchant ships were recorded off Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. 

There were seventy-two attacks on vessels at sea, in 2018, between Ivory Coast and Cameroon, up from twenty-eight in 2014, and thirty in 2019, as per a report in The Economist.  

Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea target all kinds of vessels: crews from fishing, refrigerated cargo vessels, or even oil tankers. They have been mostly attacking ships with international crews, according to data by United States Maritime Administration (MARAD). These felons mostly operate out of the labyrinthine waterways in the Niger delta, near which most of West Africa’s attacks occur. Mostly, Nigerian criminals often take hostages to countries like Benin, Togo, and Cameroon, and the situation has become concerning. According to intelligence agencies, which are already suffering from lack of resources, this behaviour is often linked to land-based criminal activity. Throughout the region, there is an ample supply of foot soldiers camps in remote locations, where hostages can be held during negotiations.

Security agencies are often to be blamed because they don’t see the other link between attacks against merchant ships and illegal fishing, fuel smuggling or illegal migration. Add to that, the total number of hijacking incidents have been going underreported in the media for many years, which is creating a compromise on information gathering.

Since 2018, there have been fewer attacks on ships, but more hijackings, involving guns and knives. International Maritime Bureau reported that one hundred twenty one seafarers were taken as hostages, during attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in 2019. 

According to Wolf Kinzel, frigate captain and expert on maritime security in the region at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), the approach of the pirates has changed. Now, instead of three seamen, they take the whole crew with them, as hostages for money. West Africa’s pirates don’t take the ships, with them, unlike the Somalis, because they have nowhere to hide them. The pirates were raking in an average of almost five million US dollars in ransom per ship, according to One Earth Future (OEF), an NGO.

The Gulf of Guinea covers eleven thousand square kilometers, and stretches from Angola to Senegal.  It is one of the world's most important shipping routes for oil exports and consumer goods from the Niger Delta, and from Central and West Africa respectively. It is also strategic in terms of supply of fish stock and fish protein for the whole world. However, as it is not very well guarded, this creates ideal conditions for piracy there.

In March 2019, thirty-three countries came together to carry out maritime security training in the Gulf of Guinea. Some nations pressed the need for more funding, infrastructure and co-operation. The EU has also provided twenty nine million Euros to support West Africa integrated Maritime Security project. The countries in West and Central Africa also signed the Yaounde Code of Conduct in 2013, aimed at fighting illicit activities at sea. Implementation has been slow, yet navies and maritime agencies in the region have become much more active, in collecting relevant information.

Nigerian navy, which is the most powerful in the region, recently installed eight automated, camera equipped surveillance towers, just off its coast, in an effort to tackle a surge in pirate attacks. But, at the same time, Nigerian navy has been quite recently underfunded and neglected, as compared to its army and armed force; so the country lacks a definite plan to tackle the menace yet, according to Cheta Nwanze, head of research at Lagos-based security and political analysis firm SBM intelligence.

Shipping firms often complain that the pirates are in league with Nigerian military officials, citing incidents in which pirates flee before military vessels arrive, or they have information how many crew are aboard the ship, before they arrive. Pirates captured by Nigerian navy are often released quietly, and the country is yet to make piracy a criminal offense. That’s why BIMCO, the largest international association representing ship-owners, want America and China to deploy its forces to the Gulf of Guinea. Ship-owners also want to deploy private armed guards in Nigerian waters, which makes security seem as some sort of corporate business. For now, Nigeria only lets them hire escort vessels staffed by naval officers.

Kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea have become so common that it is proving costlier for firms to operate. Now, businesses have to factor additional costs of independent security contractors, extra insurance, and on occasions also bribe and give ransom money. The economic cost of piracy in West Africa in 2017 was $818.8 million up from $793.7 million in 2016. Nearly a quarter was spent on contracting maritime security, as per a report on Al-Jazeera.

As per Oceans Beyond Piracy’s 2017 State of Maritime Project report, insurance also represents a huge cost, the total cost of additional war risk area premiums incurred by ships traveling the Gulf was $18.5m in 2017 alone, and thirty five percent of ships transiting the area also carried additional kidnap and ransom insurance totaling $20.7m.

According to Cormac McGarry of Control Risks, a consultancy: ‘many pirates have gained experience fighting for separatist groups. These groups typically resent how much oil money is stolen by politicians in the far-off capital, and would like to steal it for their own ethnic group, or themselves. Cult-like gangs also abound in the delta, with names like the Icelanders and the Vikings. Members moonlight as pirates to make extra cash. Piracy also rises during election years. Local politicians are said to pay and arm the gangs to attack rivals.’

Shipping managers often argue that firms themselves should do more to protect their crews. International shipping organisations have drawn up recommendations, based on the experiences in Somalia. They include wrapping the deck in razor wire, and building a “citadel” on board, where the crew can barricade themselves, and call for help.

At this point in time bureaucracy has made cooperation difficult, as security forces are not allowed to travel from one country to another, to pursue pirates without informing the neighboring country beforehand. 

However, there have been recent efforts in Nigeria, including a large conference in October that led to the Abuja Declaration. It seems a step in the right direction. The declaration highlighted shortcomings of countries around the Gulf of Guinea related to ocean governance and law enforcement at sea. Concrete actions have to follow.

In terms of intelligence gathering, Nigeria’s ‘Deep Blue project' is already enhancing intelligence, where the agencies can study high risk vessels, can embark on dark activities, monitor vessels involved in suspicious movements, and stop vessels that are involved in illegal ship to ship transfers. The agencies can also take value from Falcon Eye assets, a maritime domain awareness asset, that give them the intelligence they need, whenever they want. Although, 'Deep Blue project' is still evolving, and not in its full operational capability yet.


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