The Gulf of Guinea continues to be an area of great concern, with a surge in armed attacks off the coast of West Africa.
In a report commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there were 66 incidents in the first quarter of this year, up from 43 for the same period in 2017, and 37 in the first quarter of 2016.
Worldwide, 100 crew members were taken hostage and 14 kidnapped from their vessels in the first quarter. A total of 39 vessels were boarded, 11 fired upon and four vessels hijacked. IMB received a further 12 reports of attempted attacks.
The most telling statistic is that in the first quarter of 2018, attacks in the Gulf of Guinea accounted for more than 40% of the global total. Of the 114 seafarers captured worldwide, all but one were reported in this region.
An even more alarming trend is the specific targeting of Masters and Chief Engineers in order to obtain a higher value through kidnap ransom.
All of the attacks reported in West-African open-ocean were reported inside the Nigerian EEZ, demonstrating how endemic the problem is in the area.
The movement towards kidnapping over general theft comes as Pirate Action Groups (PAGs) begin to realise the new method is less labour intensive and will invariably reap higher reward.
Locating, stealing and transporting cargo from a vessel is riskier, more expensive and more difficult than simply kidnapping a crew member for ransom. That is not to say that pirates have moved away from theft, however, they have begun to see the benefit of kidnapping.
In early 2018, two product tankers were hijacked from the port of Cotonou and two fishing vessels were hijacked off Nigeria and Ghana. This spike in incidents caused the IMB to issue a warning to vessels in the area.
A spokesperson from IMB said the trend was a ‘cause for concern’ stating the intent of the PAGs involved is to steal oil and kidnap the crew. However, the range of vessels targeted shows how indiscriminately they are focusing their attacks, whether anchored or in transit, crews must remain vigilant.
In almost all of the incidents, attackers have been armed and have engaged in violence against crews and armed security teams.
The cause of the problem
The inability of the Nigerian Navy to deal with attacks quickly and effectively remains a concern, with a report from one incident claiming PAGs occupied a vessel for several hours. Time is of the essence during an attack, and the response time of naval forces is one of the strongest possible deterrents of pirates.
If pirates are left for hours before being challenged by naval forces, they have ample time to loot a vessel and take hostages, all while escaping undetected.
The Shipowners Association of Nigeria (SOAN) has criticised the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) for being too slow to respond to incidents on several occasions. However, still nothing is being done to counteract the problem.
Unlike other areas such as the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, the West African coast has no presence from the EU naval force EUNAVFOR.
Vessels are left to fend for themselves in the area, becoming completely reliant on their own anti-piracy security measures, which for a large number of vessels is minimal.
The state takes a hands-off approach to counter-acting piracy, with insufficient coastal patrols from civilian or military services.
Unfortunately, the root of the problem goes back to institutional corruption, poor law enforcement and a struggling economy.
Young men are all too often drawn to the lucrative lifestyle of a becoming a pirate, which can offer a greater financial reward than the prospects available in their local economy.
Government officials and political leaders are a part of the problem, with many embroiled in the oil industry, having vested interests in oil siphoning and high-value looting. This is particularly apparent in Nigeria, where authorities are all adding to the issue.
Piracy in the west of Africa differs on some levels to the east coast, with more sophisticated tactics used by PAGs. Attacks are less random, with pirates specifically targeting fully loaded tankers or ships with high-value cargo. This suggests that pirates may have been tipped-off about potential targets. Identifying who or where they received the tip off from, however, is a difficult task because of how entrenched the corruption is within society.
How to counteract the problem
Until international authorities intervene, the solution to the problem is extreme vigilance from crew managers. Many shipowners have chosen to avoid the area completely. This may be the most effective way to avoid piracy, however, the costs associated with redirecting a vessel are astronomical. Complete avoidance should be the final step.
The IMB called for a rise in vigilance whilst in port stating ‘the prompt detection and response to any unauthorised movements of an anchored vessel could help in the effective response to such attacks’. Attacks generally involve small boats coming alongside whilst pirates attempt to board.
With the rise in kidnappings and armed attacks, crews must fight for their own safety as a priority. In a large number of last year’s attacks, crews escaped abduction by locking themselves into their vessel’s citadel, as pirates boarded and ransacked their ships.
Unlike their counterparts along the east coast of Africa, pirates in the west are organised and often well trained in using weapons such as RPG’s.
Consequently, crews need to react accordingly and organise themselves for the eventuality of an attack taking place. Establishing proper safety protocol is vital, and ensuring all the crew are safely locked in the citadel once attackers board the ship is the best response. On numerous occasions it has proven to be the best method of avoiding abduction. PAG’s have shown they will quickly lose interest if the target is unattainable. The numerous attacks in the West of Africa have shown that boarding the vessel is no problem for attackers, however robust ’ship hardening’ measures have prevented attacks from escalating.
In the latest incident, armed pirates boarded a bulk carrier off the coast of Nigeria. They plundered the ship of money and the crew’s personal belongings.
Although the crew escaped unharmed by occupying the citadel, they still left the rest of the vessel vulnerable to theft by misunderstanding the modus operandi of the pirates. Attackers will first and foremost target the cargo or anything worth stealing, and kidnapping is seen as an added value to attacks.
The knock-on effect of this attack would have probably resulted in members of the crew being repatriated with replacements being sent out. The consequent loss of trade plus replacement of money and equipment would surmount to a loss of around £100K in total.
To fully equip a vessel with Easi-Chock equipment costs a comparatively insubstantial £16K.
With this in mind, the industry needs to ensure all crews are properly briefed and trained before entering the area – not only securing the crew in the citadel but securing the superstructure to prevent attackers from stealing cargo.
Ship hardening is the most effective final line of defence and acts as a simple and effective barrier to prevent crew members being kidnapped. Continually the industry comments on the need for ‘hardening measures’ however fails to specify what measures should be taken.
The Easi-Chock solution is simpler, more effective and more comprehensive than ineffective measures intended on preventing attackers from boarding a vessel. The system turns the whole of the superstructure into a safe haven by implementing several layers of defence, ensuring all the crew are safely located in the engine room.
The system is designed to delay, deny and demoralise pirates, who realise that they are unable to gain control of the vessel and abandon their attempts knowing they are likely to be caught and brought to justice.
Within the industry, there is a clear awareness of the solution to the threat. However, until tangible action is taken in the form of stringent regulations and crew training, incidents in under-developed areas will continue to crop up.