Article October 30, 2017

The current state of maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

So far this year, seventy-three seafarers of various nationalities have been kidnapped from seventeen vessels operating in the Gulf of Guinea and creeks of the Niger Delta. These kidnappings were all perpetrated by armed and dangerous pirate gangs residing in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern states.

According to statistics compiled by EOS, the number of Nigerian pirate attacks against vessels off Nigeria has decreased this year compared to the same period in 2016, yet the number of kidnap victims has paradoxically increased. This is largely due to a higher boarding success rate and increased number of hostages per successful attack, rising from 3.25 hostages per incident in 2016 to 4.9 in 2017. This trend could suggest that some pirate groups perceive that a greater number of hostages will attract a greater ransom payment. Two incidents in particular stand out in this regard: the attack on the Antigua & Barbuda-flagged general cargo vessel BBC Caribbean in February and the attack on the Nigeria-flagged offshore tug PSV Atlantic Mann in April 2017. Eight crewmembers were kidnapped from each vessel.

On 8th February 2017, the Antigua & Barbuda-flagged general cargo vessel BBC Caribbeanwas approached by pirates armed with automatic weapons 45 nautical miles southwest of Brass, Bayelsa State, Nigeria. The pirates boarded the vessel and kidnapped eight crew; seven Russians and one Ukrainian. After being held for ransom, the crew were successfully released on 5th March 2017.

While the hijacking of tankers for product theft was a favoured tactic of Nigerian pirate groups pre-2015, there have been no such attempts since early 2016. This change in modus operandi has largely been driven by a decline in global oil prices, improved regional maritime surveillance and patrolling, and the eradication of criminal networks in Nigeria and Benin.

Another trend observed in 2017 has been the decreasing range from shore that pirates will typically operate at. All Nigerian pirate attacks this year have occurred within 110nm of Nigeria’s southern coastline, with the furthest successful kidnapping from shore standing at 60nm. Like last year, a particularly dense concentration of attacks has been witnessed in the waters off Bayesla and Rivers States.

On 7th February 2017, the Panama-flagged LPG tanker Gaz Providence was boarded by armed Nigerian pirates 60nm off Bonny Island. Most of the crew were able to retreat to the tanker’s citadel, but three were unable to make it and were kidnapped.They were then held in the Niger Delta region for 21 days before being freed.

There has also notable increase in the number of piracy incidents reported on the creeks and rivers of the vast Niger Delta since August 2017, with several kidnappings taking place within quick succession of each other. Most of the incidents have taken place in Bayelsa and Rivers states, where networks of unpatrolled waterways, uninhabited swamplands and scattered oil infrastructure provide militant groups with fertile hunting grounds.

On 18th September 2017 during evening hours, a tug and barge contracted by a Nigerian oil company was ambushed by five pirates on the San Bartholomew River, Rivers State, Nigeria. One crew member was shot and three others, including the Master and Chief Engineer, were abducted.

Less than a month later, on October 13, five suspected militants abducted four British nationals south west of Warri, in the Burutu Local Government Area (LGA) of Nigeria’s south eastern Delta State. According to the police, a gang operating in the area known as ‘Karowei’ is suspected to be behind the abduction. Authorities dispatched a dedicated anti-kidnapping unit to the area. The abductees have lived in the region since 2014, where they were involved in religious and humanitarian work. The kidnapping motive is unknown. Most kidnappings in Nigeria are conducted by criminal gangs to obtain ransom payments, though terrorist kidnappings do occur in the country’s Northern provinces.

Nigerian Pirate Tactics
Typically, between 3-15 heavily armed pirates will approach a vessel using 1-2 speedboats, sometimes firing upon the vessel on approach. If able to get alongside, pirates will use a ladder and occasionally grappling hooks to scale the ship’s freeboard and gain access to the deck. Once onboard they will head directly to the bridge to attempt to gain access to the crew. This period poses the greatest risk to those onboard, as pirates are often intoxicated with drugs and alcohol, may fire indiscriminately and are anxious to depart before a possible naval intervention. Whilst the crew are the primary target, the pirates will often steal valuables onboard and damage communications equipment to reduce the likelihood of a response. Once they have reached the crew, the pirates will select their hostages, blindfold them and depart for their camp in the Niger Delta.

Kidnap victims will be taken to the pirate group’s hideout in the Niger Delta, from where negotiations will be staged. Kidnapped seafarers were held, on average, for 28 days in 2016. Treatment in captivity varies depending on the pirate gang, but in EOS Risk’s experience, pirates rarely physically harm hostages if sensible negotiation strategies are used. Once negotiations have concluded, a ransom drop team must be sent to secure the hostages from a pre-arranged location, which is typically in an isolated and inhospitable area of the Niger Delta. During their time in captivity, the crew will be exposed to tropical diseases, psychological distress or trauma and potentially physical abuse, so hostages are always driven directly to hospital for a check-up and treatment post-release.

Protecting Vessels in the Gulf of Guinea
Unfortunately, ensuring security for merchant vessels transiting high risk areas off Nigeria has become more difficult. Earlier this month (October 2017), the Nigerian Navy announced to key maritime stakeholders that the practice of embarking armed Nigerian Naval personnel onboard merchant vessels was no longer allowed. Shipping companies continuing the practice face having their vessels detained by the Nigerian authorities. The only fully compliant method of obtaining armed protection in Nigerian waters is to contract an armed escort vessel to accompany the merchant vessel into and out of port, a costly practice.

Razor wire, safe rooms (citadels), pressurised water hoses and other physical measures can be employed by Masters to help prevent pirates from boarding their vessel and gaining access to the crew. Many lessons learnt from responding to Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean have been transferred to the Gulf of Guinea. However, without more comprehensive reporting, it is difficult to know which measures have been most effective in deterring pirate attacks. Despite this, data compiled by EOS suggests that crews successfully used citadels to protect themselves in 37% of cases where pirates boarded their vessel.

Whilst sensible, re-routing a vessel away from high risk waters isn’t always possible off Nigeria, as some terminals and ports cannot be reached without running the pirate gauntlet.