A report by a British maritime security intelligence group Dryad Global has blamed weak response by the Nigerian government for the escalation of piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea.
Countries within the Gulf of Guinea – the northeasternmost part of the Atlantic Ocean – include Nigeria, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tomé and Principe, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. The Gulf of Guinea is a major route for petroleum products.
The Gulf of Guinea is considered as the most dangerous sea in the world for piracy and accounted for 95 percent of 195 seafarers kidnapped from their vessels in 2020, the highest ever number, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
Dryad Global, in its 2021 annual report, noted that the activities of Nigerian pirates were largely responsible for the escalating insecurity in the area. “The West African maritime security situation is at breaking point; seafarers’ lives are at risk from ever-increasing violent attacks and Nigerian pirates are operating with increased impunity,” the report said.
“If there is an epidemic of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, then Nigeria is undoubtedly the epicentre,” the report noted.
Dryad Global further observed that although Nigerian authorities had continued to implement programmes aimed at curbing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, the measures had not been effective.
“Thus far, however, programmes aimed at tackling the root of the issue through social-economic coastal development and community regeneration are limited,” the report said.
As part of the non-binding Yaoundé Code of Conduct and the binding Lomé charter, Nigeria has several international obligations, which include investment in equipment, operations and training to improve maritime security and safety.
In 2019, Nigeria launched the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure, otherwise known as Deep Blue Project (DBP), which aims to address insecurity and criminality in the country’s territorial waters. The Deep Blue Project is estimated to have cost 195 million dollars and will oversee all security matters in Nigeria.
If implemented in the expected timeframe, the DBP is likely to lead to a reduction in piracy in 2021.
Also, the Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (NIMASA) has announced that the DB Abuja and DB Lagos – two multi-purpose surveillance vessels – would be deployed with eight fast interceptor attack boats in the Lagos Security Anchorage Area (SAA).
The federal government had enacted the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Act (SUPMOA) in 2019, with a view to to suppressin piracy, armed robbery and other unlawful acts in the maritime domain. Going by SUPMOA provisions, piracy is punishable with life imprisonment and payment of N50 million naira fine, in addition to restitution to the owner of the hijacked vessel.
- Nigeria’s campaign against piracy strong on rhetoric, short on substance
But the Dryad Global report said the efforts being made by the Nigerian government to counter piracy were lacking in substance.
“Unfortunately, whilst strong on rhetoric, Nigeria’s efforts to combat piracy are, thus far, short on substance,” the report said.
The report pointed to the unsatisfactory implementation of the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Act as a sign that the federal government was not really committed to the fight against piracy.
The recent dismantling of the privately-run Security Anchorage Area at Nigerian ports by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) on the orders of President Muhammadu Buhari was also cited as a sign that Nigeria was merely paying lip service to the anti-piracy campaign.
A Secure Anchorage Area (SAA) is an area outside the Lagos port that the Nigerian Navy, with a private company, had established as a secure place where vessels could anchor safely from the threat of pirate attack. But Hadiza Bala Usman, managing director of the NPA, announced that henceforth, private security companies would no longer provide SAA services.
The Dryad Global report said, “The prosecution of a private company involved in the transfer of a ransom payment as the first conviction under the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Act is symptomatic of a wider trend in which the Nigerian government appears more focused on holding the commercial balance of power over third-party security providers than combating piracy.
“Recently, President Buhari ordered the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to dismantle the privately-run Security Anchorage Area and cancel the commercial contract facilitating its operation, referring to it as a ‘threat to national security,’ despite the anchorage effectively being operated by the Nigerian Navy.
“The NPA maintains that commercial maritime fleet transiting through Nigerian territorial water should rely solely on the Nigerian Navy for its protection, yet expressly forbids the embarkation of armed security including Nigerian Naval personnel.”
Following the dismantling of the privately-run Security Anchorage Area, the Dryad Global report noted that the Nigerian government issued a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to 17 security companies allowing them to cooperate with the Nigerian Navy to arrange armed security escorts for commercial vessels whilst at the same time expressly forbidding the use of private security within Nigerian waters.
Faulting the development, the report observed, “With some vessels continuing to embark guards, albeit Nigerian Navy personnel and others not, this is far from an opaque policy. Indeed it has created a situation of legal ambiguity that stands only to benefit Nigeria as it chooses when and where to apply these laws.”
The report advised that Nigerian authorities must strike a balance between restrictions for the sake of national security and creating space for third-party security providers to complement the Nigerian Navy’s security activities in support of commercial operations.
“The current restrictions serve only to complicate the process of implementing appropriate security measures,” the report further said.
- 136 seafarers abducted in Gulf of Guinea in 2020
According to the report, 136 seafarers were abducted in 27 incidents in the Gulf of Guinea in 2020 and evidence showed that attacks were becoming increasingly violent – the use of guns was reported in over 80 percent of kidnapping incidents.
In addition to the 27 cases where seafarers were abducted, the Gulf of Guinea recorded 132 incidents in 2020. These included robbery, kidnapping, violent armed boarding and hijack.
In comparison, only 36 incidents occurred in the entire Indian Ocean, of which none was tangibly linked to issues of piracy.
The number of personnel and vessels impacted by kidnapping incidents in the Gulf of Guinea has been increasing since 2017, with 140 personnel kidnapped in 2018, 135 kidnapped in 2019 and 136 in 2020.
So far, in 2021, 15 seafarers have been kidnapped while one was killed.
- One Azerbaijani sailor killed, 15 Turkish crew kidnapped in January 2021 attack
In the January 2021 incident, MV Mozart, a Liberian-flagged vessel, was on its way from Lagos to Cape Town when it became the target of a pirate attack that resulted in the death of one Azerbaijani seafarer and kidnapping of 15 Turkish crew members.
The Turkish government disclosed on February 12 that the 15 men had been freed and would be returned to Turkey as soon as possible. Turkish officials suggested that ransom was paid to secure the freedom of the 15 crew members.
- Between piracy in Nigeria and Somalia
The report looked at comparisons being made between piracy in Nigeria and what was obtainable in Somalia, where the activities of pirates posed a threat to international shipping vessels in the late 2000s.
However, the Dryad Global report noted that Nigeria should have a greater capacity to combat piracy than Somalia, which was largely a failed state, following the Somali Civil War.
“Comparisons between piracy off the Horn of Africa and that of the Gulf of Guinea are common, but ultimately of limited benefit. The principal difference being that Somalia, as a failed state, was largely exempt from its legal and moral obligation to provide security within its waters.
“By comparison, Nigeria is a considerably more developed state with the largest economy in Africa. The difference between the path to piracy and the capacity to act could not be more profound,” the Dryad Global report said.
- Piracy in Gulf of Guinea poses serious threat to global trade, IMO warns
Meanwhile, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has said the increasing number and severity of attacks and vessels by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are posing a threat to global trade and the safety of seafarers working in the region.
Kitack Lim, IMO secretary-general, in a letter to all United Nations agencies, dated February 10, 2021, noted that piracy in the gulf presented a ‘serious and immediate threat’ and called on governments in the region, including Nigeria, to “make good on their commitments to deter pirates with a strong naval and coastguard presence.”