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Living with insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea

•Photo: Jonathan •Moon

By Wisdom Patrick, Snr Correspondent, Lagos.

For sometime now, the international community has been expressing concern over the increasing number of reports of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Curiously, member states of the region have continued to ignore this intractable incidence.

Undoubtedly, those crying out against the trend have enough reasons to do so. For instance, of late there have been incidences of piracy and robbery activities in and around the Gulf of Guinea, which shelters Nigeria territorial waters.

The development has become so intriguing that the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in it latest report, had alerted on the escalating dimensions of the attacks, warning that level of violence against the crews is “dangerously high”.

According to the Bureau; “Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has evolved over the first decade of the century. For some time, smaller ships shuttling employees and materials belonging to the oil companies with any involvement in oil exploration had been at risk in Nigeria.”

It added that over time, “pirates became more aggressive and better armed. By 2010 45 and by 2011 64 incidents were reported to the UN International Maritime Organization.  However, many events go unreported. Vessels are primarily captured for their valuable cargo rather than for hostages. Thus, seized oil tankers are redirected to chartered tankers that receive the stolen oil. Piracy acts interfere with the legitimate trading interests of the affected countries that include Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Findings by the same Bureau also reported trade at Benin’s major port, the Port of Cotonou, in 2012 to have dropped by 70 percent. The cost of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea due to stolen goods, security, and insurance has been estimated to be about $2 billion by the bureau.

In November 2011, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon assembled a team to examine the situation. As a result a recommendation was made to convene a regional summit as to form a united front by the affected West African countries. It was recognized that the area needed a comprehensive maritime security framework across national boundaries to fight piracy. Technical and logistical help were also needed from the international community.

The effort by Gulf of Guinea member states to join forces with international organization in finding lasting solution to incidences of pirate and robbery within respective country’s territorial water is reportedly bogged with the usual African leaders’ mentality of ineptitude and political differences.

On their own, while they are still marking time on how to solve the problem of sea robbers, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Geneva based international business concerns, has warned ships and vessels scheduled for West Africa water-ways including Nigeria to be vigilant and avoid the Gulf of Guinea and Eden if possible.

In a statement issued last Friday, 8th February 2013, the umbrella body of commercial activities including shipping added that pirates and robbers are often violent in these areas, attacking, hijacking and robbing vessels as well as kidnapping crews along the coast, rivers, anchorages, ports and surrounding waters.

The Attacks the center reported could be up to 120m from coast. In some incidents, pirates hijacked the vessels for several days and ransacked the vessels and stole part of the cargo, usually gas oil. A number of crew members were injured in past attacks. “Generally all waters in Nigeria remain risky. Vessels are advised to be vigilant as many attacks may have gone unreported. Attacks are also reported at and off Port Harcourt and Conakry.

The ICC added that the Port of Cotonou, Nigeria’s neighbor was not safe either. It stressed that though the number of attacks has dropped significantly, “the area remains risky.” Past attacks showed that the pirates and robbers in this area were well armed and violent. In some incidents, pirates/robbers had fired at ships.

Many tankers were reportedly attacked and hijacked. Pirates forced Masters to sail to unknown location where ship’s properties and sometimes part cargo stolen (gas oil). A number of crew members were also injured in the past. Recent patrols by Benin and Nigerian Authorities resulted in a drop in the number of attacks. However, vessels are advised to continue to be vigilant and maintain strict anti-piracy watches and measures.

In Lome, Togo the ICC said Attacks are increasing. Pirates in the area are well armed, violent and dangerous, it added. Attacks can occur at anchorages and off the coast and usually at night. Some attacks resulted in the vessel being hijacked for several days where the vessel was ransacked and part cargo stolen (gas oil).

ICC said the Keyan story was not different from the rest of West African countries. Hijack occurred at Abidjan anchorage recently with pirates sailing the tanker off Nigeria to off load part cargo. Stolen crew’s/tanker’s valuables indicated that the Gulf of Guinea pirates that usually attacked vessels at Nigeria/Benin/Togo have spread to the Ivory Coast. The pirates may also target vessels at neighbouring Ghana, it is feared.

In the Gulf of Eden, it was learnt that the attacks have dropped significantly. This drop is likely due to the increased / active military action on suspected skiffs, military land based anti-piracy operations, preventive measures adopted by the merchant vessels including the use of citadels and employment of Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP).

The IMB PRC is said to be monitoring the situation and continues to warn ships to remain vigilant and adhere to the latest BMP recommendations. It warns that the threat is still present and seafarers and Masters should not become complacent while transiting through these waters. Somali pirates usually attack ships in the northern Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea in the Bab El Mandeb TSS. The pirates fire automatic weapons and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) at merchant vessels in an attempt to board and hijack them.

Once the attack is successful and the vessel hijacked, they would sail the vessel towards the Somali coast and thereafter demand a ransom for the release of the vessel and crew. All vessels transiting the area have thus, been advised to take additional precautionary measures and maintain strict 24 hours visual and radar anti piracy watch using all available means. Watch keeping crews have also been asked to look out for small suspicious boats converging to their vessels.

Early sightings / detection and accurate assessment will allow Master to increase speed and take evasive manoeuvres to escape from the pirates and at the same time request for assistance from various Authorities and Agencies including the IMB PRC.  All together, crews have been advised to monitor and keep clear of all small boats if possible.

However, the United States military Africa Command (Africom) has started joint naval training exercises with affected West African countries, though with huge suspicion from the affected Gulf of Guinea member states.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate incidents off the West Africa seaboard in 2012 increased to 34 from 30 the previous year.

On 19 November 2012, the United Nations Security Council held an open meeting to discuss piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, among other areas. The debate, which was the first held by the Security Council about this subject, was called by Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri and had more than 40 speakers from different countries and international organizations. Several speakers noticed that while acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean were declining due to coordinated naval operations, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea was intensifying.

They suggested applying lessons learned there to the Gulf of Guinea, “including a focus on modernizing counter-piracy laws, strengthening capacities for maritime law enforcement and crime investigation, supporting regional networks and increasing knowledge sharing”.

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