Gulf of Guinea, sea kidnapping hotspot

The pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have high levels of resolve, weaponry and fighting skills, and have evolved from near-shore robbery to open sea piracy and the violent kidnapping of crew members. ( Image - Institute for Security Studies

The number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea is declining, but the world is not shouting Halleluiahs yet. The area still accounts for some 99% of kidnapped seafarers in the world.

“While Southeast Asia and the Gulf of Guinea experienced almost the same number of incidents in 2020, 623 of the 631 sailors (99%) affected by kidnappings around the world in 2020 are working in the Gulf of Guinea” , says a just-published report titled “Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea: A Cost Analysis for Coastal States”.

The report published December 7 by Stable Seas, a non-profit organization in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), also estimates that piracy costs the countries in the region some $1. 925 billion a year.

At the launch of the report in New York, the Foreign Minister of Norway which funded the report said: “Although there is a decrease in the number of pirate attacks so far in this dry season, we have seen more brutal attacks, in which more sailors have been kidnapped.”

Stretching from Senegal to Angola and known for its hydrocarbon-rich waters and fishery resources, the Gulf of Guinea is considered the most dangerous maritime area in the world. For several years, international mobilization has increased, but the task is titanic: every day, nearly 1,200 boats cross in these waters, the size of which is seven times that of France.

Hosted since June 2016 in Brest, in the basements of the Atlantic Maritime Prefecture, some 5,500 kilometers from the West African Gulf, the Maritime Information Cooperation and Awareness Center (MICA Center) is at the heart of the system.

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, any report of an act of piracy on the surface of the globe is processed there in real time. The service is free for boats – regardless of their flag or nationality – for which it is sufficient to indicate their presence when entering a risk area. “Urgent, urgent … Piracy Attack!”

On February 6, 2021, that was the cry for help from the Sea Phantom, a 130-meter tanker. A few hours after having weighed anchor from Lomé, the capital of Togo, towards the Cameroonian port of Limbe, the tanker was approached by a skiff sailing at high speed with nine pirates from the Niger Delta, in the south of Nigeria. Within minutes, they deploy a ten-meter ladder and climbed aboard the vessel registered in the Marshall Islands.

It was 11:19 pm when the captain of the Sea Phantom issued a warning message: “Urgent, urgent, urgent … Piracy Attack! Crew Inside Citadel. [Pirate attack! The crew took refuge in the citadel, a room on the ship with secure access.] “On board, the pirates take control of the ship and shut down the engines on the high seas. “First, we have warned all the surrounding boats to move away,” said Gilles Chehab, Lieutenant-Commander and Commander of the MICA Center until August. When an attack fails, the pirates stay in the area and fall back on other ships until they reach their goal. ”

At the same time, authorities in all coastal countries are warned that an attack is underway. Sao Tome’s Navy is planning to send Zaire, a Portuguese Navy vessel crossing into the area. But the rallying distance is considered too great. Zero tolerance in Nigeria Equatorial Guinea finally decides to divert a Nigerian military ship and another Cameroonian.

In the early hours of the morning, the crew of the Sea Phantom managed to regain control of the ship. At 3:20 p.m., the tanker was finally secured by Cameroonian sailors and soldiers. The pirates, realizing that the game was lost, set off a few hours earlier.

While a drama was narrowly avoided, the episode illustrates the complexity of dealing with the phenomenon. In 2013, the nineteen countries that make up the Gulf of Guinea signed the Yaoundé Accord to carry out joint and concerted actions against piracy.

At the beginning of November in Pointe-Noire (Congo), a symposium, organized with the French defense ministry, brought together all the security officials of the countries to mark the start of the operationalization of this Yaoundé architecture. It ended with the organization of Exercise Grand African Nemo, a dynamic demonstration of the Marines off Pointe-Noire.

Nigeria has also taken strong action. In July, the country’s courts sentenced 10 men who hijacked the Chinese ship FV Hailufeng off the Ivorian coast in 2020 to 12 years imprisonment. This was the second trial under a new anti-piracy law. “This verdict sends a strong warning: Nigeria has zero tolerance towards maritime criminals and its institutions,” said the spokesperson for the Nigerian Navy. In June, the country also acquired 16 fast interceptor ships and three helicopters at a total cost of $ 195 million.

“Business model”

These joint efforts appear to be paying off: In a report released on October 14, the International Maritime Bureau said criminal activity off Nigeria’s coast was down 77% from the first nine months of 2021.

“Nigeria is now giving a very strong impetus, but there is also a rise in power of Ghana and Togo, said French Admiral Olivier Lebas, commander of the Atlantic maritime zone. Pirates are forced to attack farther offshore, which makes it harder for them to target ships and motivate potential attackers. By complicating their “business model”, we cut them off. But we must remain cautious. ”

In 10 years or so, maritime piracy has moved from the Gulf of Aden, where it has almost disappeared thanks to Operation Atalanta, a military and diplomatic mission initiated by France and implemented by the European Union at the end of 2008. But, geographically and diplomatically, the situations are totally different.

“The Gulf of Aden is a corridor, so it’s easier to control,” recalls Olivier Lebas. In East Africa, we are faced with failed states, like Yemen and Somalia, which cannot ensure the security of their coasts.

In the Gulf of Guinea, there are a multitude of ports and therefore roads over a territory which is immense. And the coastal countries that border it want to take control of their security. ” Join us !

The profile of criminals is also different. Faced with the former fishermen converted into pirates that one can meet off the coast of Somalia, there are perfectly structured gangs off the coasts of Nigeria, Cameroon or Benin.

They are run by gangs headed by powerful leaders who have built their empires through hostage-taking and drug trafficking. According to the UN report, pirate groups concentrated in the Niger Delta overlooking the Gulf of Guinea “earn perhaps $ 5 million in direct income per year from theft and hostage-taking”

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