The maritime security situation in the Gulf of Guinea continues to be a cause for concern for many observers. Under-reporting in the region is at an all time high, with most incident reports coming via third parties or even through local media.
Piracy is largely accepted as occurring outside a nation’s territorial waters (12nm), while anything inside that is normally considered to be armed robbery. However, the media generally refer to incidents involving the boarding of merchant ships in the region as ‘piracy’, despite the legal niceties involved.
It may be entirely coincidental, but official reports seem to have dwindled since the Code of Conduct was signed by several West African nations at the Heads of State meeting in Cameroon in June last year. Ironically, rather than increase information sharing in the region, it seems to have made it even harder to gain a true picture of the situation. On December 20th 2013, the Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Ziakede Patrick Akpobolokemi, told Nigeria’s Vanguard that: “Not all the cases of reported hijacks, piracy and robbery on our waters are genuine. Some of these cases are hyped to undermine us and shore up insurance premium to Nigeria. I am not saying that piracy does not occur in our domain, but it is exaggerated. We are working tirelessly to reduce piracy and illicit crimes on our waterways to the barest minimum through these collaborative efforts.”
There have been multiple incidents so far in 2014 in West Africa, although you would be forgiven for not having noticed, as few came via reporting agencies in the region. On January 9th, the Press and Information Office of Equatorial Guinea confirmed that the Spanish-owned MV San Miguel had been hijacked. The incident took place on January 3rd when the ship and crew of nine (five Indian nationals, three from Equatorial Guinea and one from Sao Tome & Principe) offered assistance to a vessel they believed to be in distress. The Captain allowed the boat to pull alongside and pirates (as stated in the report) boarded the ship armed with automatic weapons. The crew was robbed and the Captain was then ordered to continue sailing while they looked for other vessels to attack. When none was found, the Captain was then taken from the boat as a hostage along with a welder and engineer. The ship and crew then returned to Bioko Island. The incident wasn’t officially confirmed until January 16th, when the Spanish Navy issued a statement.
Nothing was then heard until February 3rd, when the Associated Press and Reuters announced that the three hostages, all of Indian descent, were rescued in an operation conducted by Nigerian military forces, who also managed to capture five of the pirates/kidnappers.
The kidnapping of senior crew is becoming a trend in the region, and one which has not generally been picked up on by the media. On October 23rd 2013, the Captain and Chief Engineer of the US-flagged C-Retriever were kidnapped by gunmen off Brass, Nigeria. The ship, owned by Edison Chouest, was a platform supply ship working in the oil fields off Nigeria. Despite a search by the Nigerian Navy and multi-agency cooperation from the US, the men were not found and it was reported in the media that a ransom had been paid for their release. The men were freed over the weekend of November 9th-10th, although the reports of a ransom payment remain unconfirmed.
On January 10th, Nigerian media reported that a passenger craft had been attacked by robbers, who shot and killed at least one passenger before abducting two senior staff from the Nigerian Agip Oil Company. Then, on January 26th, a tug travelling from Port Harcourt to Brass was reportedly attacked and boarded by seven pirates who kidnapped the Captain and Chief Engineer. On January 31st, an Offshore Support Vessel (OSV) was reportedly attacked and boarded by pirates who also kidnapped the Captain and Chief Engineer. Unfortunately, none of these incidents have been confirmed by authorities in the region.
Then we have the bizarre “did they/didn’t they” hijacking of the MT Kerala off the coast of Angola on January 18th. Dynacom, the ship’s owners (and ironically also the owners of the MT Smyrni, the last merchant ship to be hijacked and ransomed off the coast of Somalia) were adamant that the vessel had been taken by pirates intent on stealing the ship’s valuable marine gas oil cargo. The Angolan Navy, meanwhile, claimed that the entire event had been fabricated by the crew.
The ship was freed by pirates on January 26th, and the Master contacted Dynacom to confirm the hijacking. To further add to the confusion, the ship was then intercepted by the Nigerian Navy for allegedly taking part in illegal ship-to-ship transfer operations in Nigerian waters.
Evidence obtained by Interpol investigators suggests strongly that the ship was indeed hijacked by pirates. They have found that not only was the ship’s AIS system and communications equipment disabled by the attackers, the pirates also painted over the ship’s IMO number, name and other identifying features. Interpol states that the pirates then conducted three separate ship-to-ship transfers which saw them steal around 12,271mt of the ship’s cargo. During the course of the hijacking, one crew member was reportedly stabbed by the pirates and others beaten.
The Angolan Navy has so far not commented on the findings.
On February 6th, there were unconfirmed reports of three separate incidents in the region. The MT Suez Vasilis was reportedly attacked by pirates on February 5th at around 0045 LT SE of Brass, in position 03:46N-006:24E and the incident was reported by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) on February 8th. The PSV Mariner Sea, a cable-laying vessel, was reportedly attacked at approximately 0900 LT around 60nm offshore of Pennington or Brass and the Captain and Chief Engineer kidnapped. The attackers left the ship in position 03:49N-005:43E.
On the same day, the MT Cher was reportedly attacked at around 1000 LT in roughly the same area, SW Pennington and about 52nm off shore.
On February 9th, there were another two unconfirmed incidents. The MV Sabina 2 was reportedly attacked by gunmen in four speed boats while underway in position 04:15N-008:00E, around 17nm south of Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. Reports suggest that a local security vessel intervened before the gunmen could board the vessel. The robbers fled the scene. More worryingly, there was also a report which stated a vessel called the Liberty was attacked around 25nm south of Brass and boarded by eight robbers who kidnapped the Nigerian Captain and Pakistani Chief Engineer. So far, there has been no official confirmation of either incident.
Only one of these attacks has made the headlines – and that was in Nigeria itself – and only one has appeared as an official report. That in itself should raise many questions. If kidnappers are now targeting senior crew, as would seem to be the case, then the shipping industry needs to be made aware of the fact. As has been well documented, the security model applied by shipping companies in the Indian Ocean cannot be used in West African waters; the territorial nature of the Gulf of Guinea means that armed guards can only be supplied by locally registered companies who contract naval personnel or members of the marine police.
Despite the acquisition of new patrol boats for the Nigerian navy, the establishment of the Secure Anchorage Area off Lagos, the threat of piracy and kidnap is fluid and shifts much quicker to less well-patrolled areas such as the Niger Fan off Bayelsa State. With no centrally coordinated reporting centre in the Delta area reporting incidents, reaction and response to attacks remains fragmented. More importantly, Captains and Chief Engineers become the main targets, both for illegal bunkering and as kidnap victims.