2017 In Review: Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea

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Piracy in Nigerian Waters

45 attacks by armed pirates on commercial shipping and oil industry support vessels were reported from the region during the last 12 months. No attacks in West African open-ocean were reported outside of the Nigerian EEZ. In many of last year’s attacks, ships crew’s evaded abduction by locking themselves into their vessels citadels, as pirates boarded and looted their ships. Unfortunately, in 14 of the incidents, the heavily armed pirates abducted a total of 69 crew.

Historically, Pirate Action Groups operating off the Niger Delta have deliberately targeted the Masters and Chief Engineers of ships as high value targets to kidnap for ransom.  At times during 2017, larger numbers of crew have been taken in single raids, which explains why more mariners have been taken, although fewer attacks have actually taken place. The number of ships attacked (44) is lower than the 54 attacked during 2016, though 25 more crew were kidnapped in 2017 than in the previous year.

Dryad Maritime remains concerned that the Nigerian navy are unable to effectively deter pirates or police the waters off the Niger Delta. Apart from three unsuccessful attacks early in the year which occurred just over 100 NM from shore, Pirate Action Groups have focussed their operations to an area primarily within 60 NM to the south and south west of Bonny Island. Despite repeated daytime attacks occurring here, the pirates have been able to remain on board targeted vessels for several hours before the Nigerian Navy show a visible presence. This gives the armed gangs plenty of time to loot vessels, and attempt to kidnap crew and leave the scene with little fear of detention.

In mid-November, despite conducting evasive manoeuvres, a 20,000 ton UK flagged bulk carrier was boarded by pirates as it approached Bonny Fairway Buoy. Ten Ukrainian crew were abducted after the gang gained access to the accommodation area via an open porthole. The speed boat that the gang escaped in was chased down by a security vessel (non-Nigerian navy). During a dramatic shootout the pirate’s speedboat capsized and all pirates and abducted crew were thrown into the water. In a rare success story, the pirates were recovered and arrested, whilst the Ukrainian sailors were rescued largely unharmed. It was hoped that under interrogation the pirates might reveal the names and whereabouts of the ringleaders who control the heavily armed gangs that have menaced Nigerian waters this year.

Despite regular media statements by the Nigerian navy that it has taken control of the seas off the Niger Delta, the facts are that the pirates have little to fear of being captured by them. Five days after the capture of the six pirates, there were two further attacks on a bulk carrier and a tanker in the same area. Six other attacks 15 – 60 NM from Bonny Island took place during December in the very waters that the Nigerian Navy claim to control.

It is hoped that the 10 crew kidnapped from the bulk carrier on 14 December 30 NM south of Brass will soon be released by their captors. Unfortunately it is likely that once these men are freed, pirates will recommence raids on shipping off Rivers and Delta States with renewed aggression. Mariners should continue to be on alert for the approaches of suspicious craft, reducing the risk of these escalating into more serious incidents.

Further attacks against commercial shipping are certain within 100 NM of Brass, Nigeria; an area where shipping remains at HIGH risk of attack by armed pirates. The graphic highlights where commercial shipping was attacked throughout the last 12 months. Masters are reminded that the vast majority of attacks occurring in Nigerian waters this year have taken place during daylight hours.

Local Maritime Crime

Attempted thefts in the Gulf of Guinea from vessels at anchor and alongside in port areas occurs far more frequently than reported. Five reports of attempted vessel boarding’s whilst at anchor off of Lagos, and a further report of a theft from a tanker alongside whilst in the port have been received during the last three weeks alone. The incidents in the anchorage areas have been thwarted by lookouts who have raised the alarm and forced would-be thieves to flee in waiting boats. Crew members should be aware that these small gangs carry machetes and knives used primarily to assist with cutting ropes and stealing of stores. Criminals will use these knives to threaten crew in order to escape from the ship if they are found. It is rare for crew to be attacked by thieves, but mariners should not be physically confrontational due to the knife threat.

A measured response to boarders should be encouraged and a loud vocal warning is usually enough to encourage them to leave the ship. Local thieves should not be confused with pirates, and the firing of warning shots at local small time criminals, as has happened off Lagos in 2017, should be avoided. Masters are also reminded that attempts by thieves to steal stores from ships in port and regional anchorage areas predominantly occur under the cover of darkness.