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Shipowners call for naval support as hijack risk returns to Gulf of Guinea

BIMCO calls on EU, China and US to intervene with counter-piracy operations as hijack and ransom threat returns to plague shipping operations. An estimated 100 attacks a year have taken place over the past three years

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is “an unacceptable burden to seafarers and shipping companies” says shipping association as efforts to free six kidnapped MSC crew continue

INTERNATIONAL counter-piracy operations are needed to tackle a growing threat to shipping security in the Gulf of Guinea, according to shipowner association BIMCO.

While hijackings globally have steadily decreased over the past three years, attacks have persisted in the Gulf of Guinea with around 100 attacks on vessels being carried out annually. The recent re-emergence of vessels being hijacked for cargo ransom and attacks increasingly taking place outside territorial waters and the reach of national authorities has raised serious concerns within industry security circles.

In a statement issued Wednesday, BIMCO called on the European Union, China and the United States to increase their presence in the region and expand their collaboration with local states to curb piracy.

The plea for new naval counter-piracy operations followed the most recent attack on January 2 when six crew were kidnapped in an attack on the Panama-flagged MSC Mandy 55 miles off Benin.

Speaking to Lloyd’s List in London, BIMCO’s head of maritime security Jakob Larsen described the threat to seafarers operating in the region as “extremely dangerous”.

“These attacks are being pushed through with much more determination than what we have seen off Somalia… we have seen incidents where firefights have erupted between pirates and armed security and the pirates are not being put off. They are willing to take casualties to achieve their aim,” said Mr Larsen.

Despite the downward trend in attacks over the last three years, the Gulf of Guinea has been a persistent security threat to shipping operations for the past decade.

While BIMCO have recorded 40 attacks in 2018, security consultants Control Risks estimate an annual rate of around 100 attacks over the past three years would be a more accurate assessment. That figure includes both the high impact attacks such as kidnap for ransom attacks and hijack for cargo as well as a persistent rate of lower impact attacks involving theft and lower level armed robbery – particularly around Lagos.

Last year saw a small increase in the rate of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, however it is the nature of the attacks and the re-emergence of hijack for cargoes that is causing the most concern.

Prior to 2015 the waters immediately off the Niger Delta were a hot spot for tankers being attacked by pirates who stole cargoes to sell on the black market – a process euphemistically referred to by the attackers as bunkering.

When oil prices declined attacks tailed off, but then started to return in 2017 when oil prices rose.

“However the difference in 2018 has been that some of these attacks have also involved kidnap of crews and this presents a new threat in the broader Gulf of Guinea,” said Cormac Mc Garry, senior maritime analyst at the security consultancy Control Risks.

“That’s important because a lot of this is happening outside of territorial waters and therefore outside of the jurisdiction of the regional states, so there is a big question of who is going to police these waters,” Mr Mc Garry told Lloyd’s List.

According to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre many of the Gulf of Guinea coastal states lack meaningful naval resources to deal with this threat and so BIMCO’s call for other countries with resources to help deal with this issue in the Gulf of Guinea outside territorial waters in support of coastal states is timely and a necessary intervention.

Naval intervention in the region, however, is likely to prove politically challenging.

Security experts have told Lloyd’s List that the Gulf of Guinea coastal states are highly unlikely to allow foreign navies to conduct law enforcement operations within their territorial waters and cooperation between the states is politically problematic.

Mr Larsen, however, remains optimistic that with the right political will in place, international cooperation could be forthcoming and points to the 2013 Yaoundé Code of Conduct as a starting platform to strengthen maritime security initiatives.

“While the [regional naval counter piracy] efforts command our deepest respect, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea can still operate largely unchecked in the open seas, outside of the territorial waters, and on occasion even strike inside territorial waters,” explained Mr Larsen. 

Several capacity building initiatives have been started in the region since the Yaoundé Code of Conduct was agreed, but the actual security situation in the Gulf of Guinea is still not good, according to BIMCO. One of the reasons is that other security challenges in the region, such as land-based terrorist threats, generate a high demand for law enforcement resources.

In addition to the strain put on seafarers, the current situation negatively impacts the economic potential of the sea of the countries in the region, explained the statement issued by BIMCO.

“It is time to step up law enforcement efforts, establish control of the sea in the Gulf of Guinea, relieve seafarers from the threat and the psychological pressure, and allow the countries in the region to harvest the full economic potential of the seas,” said Mr Larsen.

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