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Piracy in West Africa 2020

Whilst the attention of the world has been diverted by COVID-19, piracy and armed attacks against ships’ crews remain a serious problem, requiring a concerted response by the international community at the highest level

ICS is particularly concerned by the deteriorating security situation in the Gulf of Guinea where there has been a sharp increase in the number of attacks on ships’ crews, many extremely violent, currently accounting for some 90% of maritime kidnappings worldwide. Whereas the majority of attacks against ships off West Africa in recent years had taken place in territorial waters, making intervention by foreign military vessels politically problematic, many vessels are now being attacked and boarded by pirates well outside territorial limits.

Previously, many of these attacks had been principally motivated by the intention to steal cargo. Increasingly, however, seafarers are now routinely being kidnapped and taken into Nigeria where they are then held for ransom in the most appalling and terrifying conditions. Most ship types have been targeted, including containerships and bulk carriers, as well as tankers and offshore support vessels.

Image of Pirates

These outrages have continued in 2020 and the statistics are stark. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), in the first six months of 2020 at least 49 crew were kidnapped for ransom in the Gulf of Guinea and held captive on land for up to six weeks. 32 seafarers were kidnapped between March and June 2020. These attacks are now taking place further out from shore, with about two thirds of the vessels affected being attacked on the High Seas from between 20 to 130 nautical miles off the Gulf of Guinea coastline.

Moreover, the number of unsuccessful attacks against shipping by speed boats, often using automatic firearms and causing great fear and anxiety among civilian ships’ crews, is higher still, with many of these incidents passing unreported.

This is despite the establishment of the MDAT-GOG reporting service, operated from Europe by the French and UK military navies, which administers a Voluntary Reporting Area (VRA) scheme under which all merchant ships are encouraged to report position information while operating in the VRA.

ICS is working closely with other international industry associations, including the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF), to increase regional and international activity to fight piracy in the region. In October 2019, ICS attended the Global Maritime Security Conference in Abuja, Nigeria and a keynote speech was delivered by the ICS Secretary General.

Importantly, this was followed by a virtual joint industry meeting with the Nigerian maritime administration (NIMASA) in May 2020, which included representatives of BIMCO, INTERCARGO, INTERTANKO and OCIMF, as well as the Nigerian navy and the Nigerian Shipowners’ Association. This meeting was considered a significant step, and a further joint industry meeting with the Nigerian authorities was held in July 2020, at which additional security measures were proposed for implementation by 2021. However, there appear to be misunderstandings about the rights of the Nigerian navy (the largest in the region) to intercept pirates within the 200 mile limit outside the territorial waters of neighbouring states.

Nigeria has been strongly encouraged to upscale its response to the unacceptable level of piracy activity emanating from its shores, and there is increasing frustration throughout the industry at the continuing absence of tangible results. But the situation is very different to that which prevailed a decade ago in Somalia, which was a failed state, and where other military navies were present.

Pirates being Arrested

Further co-operation between industry and governments in the Gulf of Guinea region will be essential if progress is to be made.

However, in the absence of further progress, by the Nigerian authorities in particular, there will be increasing pressure from the ship operators which ICS represents for more draconian measures.

Meanwhile, with support from IMO, ICS continues to promote adherence by shipping companies to the guidance contained in the latest version of the Best Management Practices (BMP West Africa), developed by ICS with other international associations, which includes details of new mechanisms for reporting and recording attacks that have been established for the region.