Gulf of Guinea Piracy



Gulf of Guinea Piracy

Security challenges in West Africa have created the ideal conditions for Gulf of Guinea piracy to flourish.

In a letter dated 10th February 2021, the IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim wrote that piracy in the Gulf of Guinea posed a “serious and immediate threat” to crews and vessels operating in West African waters. A fatal incident involving a container ship in late January 2021 acted as a catalyst for international engagement to help improve safety for ships and their operatives. 

The surge of piracy incidents including robbery, hijack and kidnap have led to the international community, PMSC’s and regional voices to suggest various solutions to tackle maritime piracy in the region. 

Potential solutions include: 

  • Coordination between vessels
  • Affected states need to exchange and share information on what is happening on their coastlines
  • Joint training activities are required so that countries can develop procedures and improve their interoperability
  • Countries must look to develop strong legislation and prosecute maritime criminals
  • Countries should also set aside funds to build local security capacity
  • Centralised reporting and response agencies in the Gulf of Guinea
  • Collaboration with Private Maritime Security Companies
  • Long-term investments in social-economic programs aimed at tackling insecurity in coastal communities

What is happening in West Africa?

Poverty, lack of education and high youth unemployment, poor governance and weak law enforcement are breeding grounds for Gulf of Guinea pirates and these are social factors that cannot be ignored if maritime piracy in the region is to be tackled effectively in the long-term. Added to this, Nigeria’s inability to effectively govern its territory beyond the urban areas and oil facilities is at the heart of conflicts in the Niger delta and by extension the Gulf of Guinea.

Oil and politics in the Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea covers 11,000 square kilometres (4,247sq miles) and stretches from Angola to Senegal.

It is one of the world's most important shipping routes for both Gulf of Guinea oil exports from the Niger Delta and consumer goods to and from central and southern Africa. There are 1,500 fishing vessels, tankers and cargo ships navigating the gulf’s waters on a daily basis. While attacks take place all the way from Ivory Coast down to Congo-Brazzaville, maritime piracy emerges almost exclusively from Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta.

With unemployment rates high in the coastal regions of West Africa, weak security and a lack of capacity and capability to enforce maritime laws, the Gulf has become a hotspot for piracy. Rather than stealing oil cargo, maritime piracy in the gulf has evolved since the 2014 oil price crash. Maritime piracy now focuses on the more financially lucrative business model of kidnapping seafarers for ransom. Oil no longer yields a good enough profit margin for maritime criminals in the region.

The economic cost of piracy

Attacks are pushing up the cost of insurance while endangering the lives of crew members. Shippers want an international naval coalition to crack down on piracy, but such support is limited because the value of shipping isn’t as great as it is off the Horn of Africa, the approach to the Suez Canal. One exception to this is Denmark, a country that has recently committed to deploying a frigate to the region.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cost of piracy (shipowners are often unwilling to disclose ransom sums and security costs), a 2017 report by non-profit Oceans Beyond Piracy found that attacks on ships cost US$818.1mn that year, nearly half of which was spent on maritime security.  Since then, there has been an upward trend in piracy incidents and economic costs involved is likely to have increased as well. Piracy increases the cost of international maritime transport through an increase in insecurity regarding goods deliveries. There is robust evidence to indicate that maritime piracy reduces volumes of trade. The international cost of piracy in terms of trade destruction is estimated to be 28 billion dollars.

Maritime Security Context

West Africa Security Context

The most significant risk to commercial operations in the Gulf of Guinea are kidnap for ransom incidents. Kidnapping and ransom are complex operations for criminal organisations requiring significant resources and freedom of movement both on and offshore. The maritime security environment in West Africa is currently defined by three key trends that indicate the capabilities and intent of pirate action groups.

Incidents occur further offshore

Piracy incidents are increasingly occurring further offshore usually outside of the EEZ of NIgeria evading the traditional footprint of the navy and PMSC-operations. This highlights the importance of an integrated approach to tackling piracy that involves extensive regional cooperation and onshore development projects. In absence, increased capacity by navies is likely to result in the re-emergence of piracy elsewhere.

Incidents are increasingly violent

In 2020 80% of the kidnapping incidents involved guns.

Larger numbers of seafarers are being abducted

In 2021 alone, there have been three incidents where more than 14 crew members were kidnapped. This is indicative of pirates operating with a substantial degree of capability and intent in the Gulf of Guinea.

What significant security incidents or political agreements have happened in the last 12 months in West Africa?

  • MV Mozart, a Liberian-flagged vessel, was transiting from Lagos to Cape Town98nm off Sao Tome when it was targeted by pirates. The attackers managed to breach the citadel and this resulted in the death of an Azerbaijani seafarer and the kidnapping of 15 Turkish crew members.
  • LIANPENGYU 809, a Chinese-flagged vessel, was transiting 83nm off Port Gentil in Gabon when it was targeted by pirates. The attackers abducted 14 Chinese crew members and this vessel was later reportedly used as a mother-vessel to launch further attacks in the region.
  • MV Davide B, a Maltese-flagged vessel, was transiting off 213nm off South Contonou, when it was targeted by pirates. The attackers abducted 15 crew members who remain in custody today.

Read Latest West Africa security news here 

Latest Dryad Global advisories:

Dryad Global advises vessels in the region to remain at least 250 nautical miles from the coast at all times, or until the vessel can transit to start cargo operations at a safe anchorage.

Stay up to date on your security risks

Security challenges in West Africa

According to Dryad Global statistics published in the 2021 annual report, operating in the Gulf of Guinea continues to present a serious and persistent threat to the safety and security of crews and vessels. 2020 saw 136 seafarers abducted in 27 incidents. Evidence also shows that attacks are becoming increasingly violent – the use of guns was reported in over 80% of kidnapping incidents in 2020.

Regional Frameworks

The most comprehensive regional framework is the Yaoundé Code of Conduct which was signed by 25 signatories in 2013. The Code of Conduct intends to tackle transnational organized crime in the maritime domain by:

  • sharing and report relevant information;
  • interdicting suspicious ships;
  • ensuring apprehension and prosecution;
  • facilitating proper care, treatment, and repatriation of those subjected crime.

Other frameworks complement, support or strengthen the Yaoundé Code. In 2014 the EU committed to support the principles of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in its ‘Gulf of Guinea Action Plan’. In 2016, the Lomé Charter was adopted by 36 countries within the framework of the African Union. The charter includes a range of measure to prevent and combat crimes at sea including:

  • social economic measures;
  • national coordinating structures;
  • harmonizing of national legislation;
  • guaranteed resources to maritime security and safety
  • state responsibility to patrol the anchorage areas, the EEZ, and the continental shelf, strengthen law enforcement at sea, and protect its maritime area.
Unlike the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, the Lomé Charter is legally binding upon the contracting states. In 2019, ECOWAS launched its Integrated Maritime Strategy. This approach focuses on interagency collaboration at the national level and must bring together the wide variety of stakeholders involved. The strategy aims to complement continental efforts and to enhance synergies with all stakeholders. Stakeholders include but are not limited to: development partners (EU, UNODC Germany, Denmark), regional security and defence, law enforcement, port authority, multilateral surveillance, humanitarian and social affairs, civil society organization, industry, shipping.

To target the surge in piracy the IMO is working with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to better support countries’ adoption of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCC), the widest regional initiative by governments in and around the Gulf of Guinea, signed in 2013 to repress illicit maritime activity.

A maritime security working group focusing on the gulf is also expected to be assembled at the next session of the Maritime Safety Committee in May.

Read more: How Effective Have Regional Frameworks Been In Resolving Piracy Within West Africa To Date?

Anti-piracy laws in Nigeria

One obligation of the contracting parties of the Lomé charter is to harmonise its national legislation with relevant international legal instruments. The Nigerian government has given effect to this requirement through the SUPMOA (Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences) act 2019, which aims to suppress piracy, armed robbery, and other unlawful acts in the maritime domain. These crimes become punishable with life imprisonment and payment of fifty million Naira (roughly £100k), in addition to restitution to the owner. Till date, the amount of convictions remains limited with the first conviction being that of a private company involved in the transfer of a ransom payment

Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA)

The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, provides maritime services in Nigeria and is focused on developing indigenous capacity to respond to maritime security threats.
Its areas of focus include effective Maritime Safety Administration, Maritime Labour Regulation, Marine Pollution Prevention and Control, Search and Rescue, Cabotage enforcement, Shipping Development and Ship Registration, Training and Certification of Seafarers, and Maritime Capacity Development.

The Agency was created from the merger of the National Maritime Authority and Joint Maritime Labour Industrial Council (former parastatals of the Federal Ministry of Transport) on the 1st August 2006. NIMASA regulates the industry through implementation of:

Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency Act 2007 
Merchant Shipping Act 2007 
Coastal and Inland Shipping (Cabotage) Act 2003

The Agency was established primarily for the administration of Maritime Safety Seafarers Standards and Security, Maritime Labour, Shipping Regulation, Promotion of Commercial Shipping and Cobatage activities, Pollution Prevention and Control in the marine environment, the Agency also implements domesticated International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions.

Deep Blue Project 

The Deep Blue Project (DBP), formally known as the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure was launched in 2019 and aims to address insecurity and criminality in Nigeria’s territorial waters and EEZ. DBP is a joint effort by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Nigerian Navy (NN). The $195 million investment include the acquisition of assets, interagency information sharing, and enhanced training of security services and is procured by Israeli firm HLSI-Blue Octagon. The Nigerian government had announced at the end of last year that they expected the deliveries of two special mission vessels, two aircrafts, two helicopters, four UAVs, 16 armoured vehicles and 17 fast interceptor boats to be completed by March 2021, delaying the project for a fourth time. Though some of the investments have yet to be deployed, substantial deliveries have been made and once fully operational this project is likely to lead to a reduction in maritime crime and piracy. This project must however go hand in hand with onshore investments and regional cooperation in order to have a sustainable impact.


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