Piracy: Liners seek military action in Nigeria, others

Following incessant attacks on vessels off the coast of West Africa, investors in shipping business have tasked Nigerian government and others within the West African coast to apply military action in tackling the menace. Specifically, Bloomberg quoted the world’s biggest shipping company, AP Moller-Maersk, as demanding a more effective military response to surging pirate attacks and record kidnappings off the coast.

Twenty-five African governments, including all those bordering on the gulf, signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in 2013 to tackle piracy. It aims to facilitate information sharing and established five maritime zones to be jointly patrolled, but has been only partially implemented and most navies remain focused on safeguarding their own waters. Bertrand Monnet, a professor of criminal risk management at France’s EDHEC Business School, who has studied piracy in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region for 15 years, estimates that a maximum of 15 bands operate offshore West Africa, each comprising 20-50 members.

Hostages are usually held for ransom in Nigeria, the regional powerhouse that has taken the lead in preventing attacks. Its government plans to commission nearly $200 million of new equipment in 2021, including helicopters, drones and high-speed boats, to boost the navy’s capabilities.

Nigeria is committed to “ensuring that this menace of piracy is [eliminated from] our waters, so that those with legitimate business in shipping, fishing, and oil and gas can go about their business without fear”, Rear-Adm Oladele Daji, commander of the Nigerian Navy’s western fleet, said. The number of attacks on vessels globally jumped 20 per cent in 2020 to 195, with135 crew kidnapped, the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB’s) piracy reporting centre said in a January 13 report. The Gulf of Guinea accounted for 95 per cent of hostages taken in 22 separate instances, and all three of the hijackings that occurred..

The attacks have pushed up insurance and other costs for shippers operating off West Africa, with some resorting to hiring escort vessels manned by armed navy personnel. AP Moller-Maersk, which transports about 15 per cent of the globe’s seaborne freight, said decisive action should be taken. “It is unacceptable in this day and age that seafarers cannot perform their jobs of ensuring a vital supply chain for this region without having to worry about the risk of piracy,” said Aslak Ross, head of marine standards at Copenhagen-based Maersk.

“The risk has reached a level where effective military capacity needs to be deployed,” he added. The Gulf of Guinea encompasses a vast tract of the Atlantic Ocean that’s traversed by more than 20,000 vessels a year, making it difficult for under-resourced governments to police. Fringed by an almost 6,500km-long shoreline that stretches from Senegal to Angola, it serves as the main thoroughfare for crude oil exports and imports of refined fuel and other goods.

Many shipowners favour a more muscular international effort modelled on the military response to hijackings offshore Somalia, which was the global epicentre of piracy from about 2001 to 2012.

Armed guards and warships dispatched by the EU, Nato and a US-led task force to protect vessels travelling through the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest trade routes linking Europe to Asia, helped bring the problem under control.

If national governments focus on their territorial waters — the 12 nautical miles from their shores — major naval powers could reduce piracy further afield in the gulf by deploying two or three frigates equipped with helicopters, said Jakob Larsen, head of maritime security at the Baltic and International Maritime Council, a Copenhagen-based shipowners’ group.

He considers such support unlikely because the sea routes aren’t as strategically important as those off Africa’s east coast. “There is little international appetite for getting involved in Nigeria’s security problems,” he said.

The Liberian Shipowners’ Council urged the Nigerian authorities to disrupt the pirates’ onshore criminal activities. Improving employment prospects for impoverished coastal communities would reduce the threat of piracy in the longer term, but won’t address the immediate problem, said Kierstin Del Valle Lachtman, the council’s secretary-general.




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