West Africa piracy surge prompts rise in ship guards

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Three armed attacks in recent days and two tanker hijackings last month have highlighted the ongoing danger to shipping operating off Nigeria and the wider West African coast that has led to an increase in the use of military armed guards.

“The threat to shipping in the Gulf of Guinea is the highest it has been for some time. There have been 106 incidents in Nigerian waters since the start of March 2017, including incidents on local vessels,” said Max Williams, fleet operations director at Africa Risk Compliance.

“The figure increases to around 160 if incidents outside of Nigerian waters are included. In terms of major incidents, attacks are on all types of vessels with the aim of kidnapping crew for ransom,” Williams said.

Some 122 crew have been kidnapped during these attacks.

“In the Gulf of Guinea on average there are around two to three incidents a week,” said Jonathan Gahagan, business development manager at Securewest International.

These figures are far higher than those reported by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which recorded 36 reported incidents and 65 crew kidnapped around Nigerian waters last year. IMB figures show 12 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea including 7 off Nigeria so far this year.

Incidents this year highlight the problem of areas that were previously considered safe are no longer so and a persistence and determination by attackers to press home their attacks.

That was shown in the two product tanker hijackings off Benin in January and early February and an attack on a crude oil tanker by heavily armed bandits near Brass on 19 February.

In the attacks off Benin, the tankers Barrett and Marine Express were seized and crew kidnapped before both vessels were eventually released.

The 45,989 dwt, 2009-built, Marine Express, with 22 Indian crew onboard was taken at Cotonou anchorage. The vessel is managed by Anglo-Eastern Shipmanagement and operated by MOL Product Tankers.

“Cotonou was confirmed as a safe and coastguard controlled anchorage and as such there were no armed guards ordered for the period at anchor. Instead, other precautions implemented,” Peter Cremers, executive chairman of the Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, told Fairplay. “Obviously this assumption is no longer valid and hence going forward ships at risk will only anchor with armed guards or stay offshore till they can berth in daylight,” Cremers said.

He added, “All crew are okay and safely home.”

A third product tanker was boarded by armed pirates at Cotonou anchorage on 17 February, the IMB said. The attackers fled after crew, secure in the vessel’s citadel, alerted the Benin authorities who dispatched three patrol boats and a navy team boarded the tanker.

The attacks on the tankers at Cotonou were the first on a large merchant vessel since December 2016. There was a previous attack in September 2011.

“The second hijack in Benin indeed increased the requirement for the local navy armed guards. Local representative told me that they currently have a lot more naval teams out on vessels due to the recent attacks in Cotonou,” said Madis Madalik, chief operating officer of Estonian armed guard company ESC Global Security.

Showing pirates’ persistence and echoing attacks by Somalia pirates 8–10 years ago six pirates armed with AK-47 rifles in a speed boat approached and attempted to board a crude oil tanker underway about 25 n miles southeast of Brass, Nigeria.

In the attack on 19 February, the pirates made seven attempts to hook an aluminum ladder on the tanker’s railing but were unsuccessful due to the evasive manoeuvres taken by the Captain. After firing on the tanker, they fled before a Nigerian Navy patrol vessel, which was in contact with the tanker, arrived at the scene.

While most of the incidents reported since March last year could be classed as the equivalent of maritime mugging, such as the theft of ship’s stores and personal belongings, analysis of the incidents shows all types of vessels, including crude tankers, container ships, and LNG carrier, have been attacked during the day and at night. Breakfast time, around 6–8 am, and lunch time, 12–2 pm, are popular times for pirates to launch attacks.

“Owners and managers are definitely very concerned about the piracy problems; the issue is the security solutions available are not necessarily ideal and they are expensive,” said Ben Stewart, director maritime at security company Maritime Asset Security & Training.

“There is a fairly well-established model for security protection in Nigeria with escort boats but that only applies to Nigerian waters, it does not and cannot cover a ship in Benin waters. If a vessel is going between Cotonou and Port Harcourt an owner would need to engage a Benin Navy security team at the anchorage in Benin, land them prior to departure and then meet up with an escort boat with an embarked Nigerian Navy security team to get protection prior to entering Port Harcourt,” Stewart said.

“In between the anchorage in Benin and the rendezvous with the escort boat there is no security cover and no option that can supply it. In addition, employing the Benin Navy and then an escort boat adds a huge amount of cost onto a short voyage and charterers are unlikely to pay for it,” Stewart added.

An escort boat can cost more than USD7,000, security sources said. Armed naval personnel from the respective countries can also be embarked on board ship but they can only operate within that country’s waters.

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