Feature: Nigerian Navy makes giant strides in Gulf of Guinea operations


The Nigerian Navy has made great strides over the past few years in its efforts to address maritime insecurity in West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, with Nigeria recently exiting the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy List.

Speaking at the 4th Maritime Security Conference held in Simon’s Town last month, Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, Chief of the Naval Staff, Nigerian Navy, noted that the Gulf of Guinea “is replete with activities of criminal elements and economic saboteurs. These manifests in forms of piracy, armed attacks against shipping, sea robbery, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, smuggling of small arms and light weapons, contraband and narcotics, trafficking and illegal mining as well as crude oil theft/illegal bunkering activities.”

These criminal activities are directed at the economic life and developmental prospects of not only Nigeria, but also the broader African continent. No one country or navy can address these challenges alone and there have been renewed calls for improved collaboration and enforcement of maritime security laws by regional parties and stakeholders for enhanced maritime security within the continent.

The Gulf of Guinea stretches from Senegal to Angola, covering over 6 000 km of coastline, with Nigeria’s maritime environment constituting 12% of the entire Gulf of Guinea. The region accounts for 10% of oil and 4% of natural gas exports to the European Union, with sea-borne trade accounting for over 85% of total trade with the rest of the world.

Given the importance of commercial sea trade and activities in the region, attacks on ships by pirates and armed groups constitute a serious threat. According to the International Maritime Bureau, in 2019, out of the 162 piracy incidents recorded in the world, 64 incidents (39.5%) occurred in the Gulf of Guinea.

Gambo notes that according to the Vice President of Nigeria, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria loses around $26 billion a year to criminal activities, particularly piracy and sea robbery.

“This development thus imposes a huge burden on the Nigerian Navy to check piracy and all forms of maritime threats in the nation’s water and the Gulf of Guinea,” Gambo said.

Gambo explained that prior to his appointment as the Chief of the Naval Staff in January 2021, the region was regarded as the most dangerous maritime area in terms of the success rate of attacks, with the International Maritime Bureau stating that of 135 maritime kidnap cases recorded in 2020, 130 took place in the Gulf of Guinea.

“It thus became expedient for the Nigerian Navy to take drastic measures to reverse the unfortunate trend in the region. These efforts include emplacement of robust Maritime Security Operations efforts, inter-agency collaborative efforts as well as regional and international collaborative engagements.”

In order to address the increasing insecurity at sea, the Nigerian Navy Maritime Security Operations efforts included:

  • Development of a Total Spectrum Maritime Strategy;
  • Platform acquisition;
  • Adoption of Trinity-of-Action Concept of Maritime Security; and
    Nigerian Navy Special Boat Service operations.

The complexity of maritime crime and criminality in the region prompted the Nigerian Navy to articulate a robust maritime strategy referred to as the Total Spectrum Maritime Strategy.

“The strategy entails projection of naval power flexibly over a range of areas,” Gambo explained. “Objectives of the strategy are to deliver operational effects of Secure, Deter and Strike against internal spoilers, non-state actors and external aggressors through emplacement of a credible balanced fleet capable of an offensive-defensive posture. The strategy is based on proactive layered responses across five conflict spectrums namely: Backwaters Operation, Territorial Waters, Exclusive Economic Zone, Out of Area Operations and Land Operations.”

Importantly, consistent funding over the past four years has enabled the Nigerian Navy to acquire a number of platforms and has commissioned over 100 new ships and small craft. These include the acquisition of Offshore Patrol Vessels, Fast Attack Craft, Inshore Patrol Craft, an Offshore Survey Vessel (NNS Lana), a Landing Ship Tank (NNS Kada) and air assets.

The creation of an indigenous shipbuilding capability in 2007 has provided a number of Seaward Defence Boats. Such is the activity of the Nigerian Navy that it spent of 32 669 hours at sea during 2021, compared to 29 932 sea hours in 2020.

As Gambo said: “The increased presence at sea is instrumental to the decline in criminal activities in the Gulf of Guinea.”

Within the scope of the Nigerian Navy Total Spectrum Maritime Strategy, the Nigerian Navy adopted the Trinity-of-Action Concept of Maritime Security to effectively combat maritime threats. The concept comprises Surveillance Capabilities, Response Initiative and Law Enforcement.

Surveillance entails the deployment of Maritime Domain Awareness infrastructure, the Regional Maritime Awareness Capability and Falcon Eye. The systems, Gambo elucidated, “serve as veritable force multipliers, ensuring that patrols by Nigerian Navy ships are intelligence driven, cost effective and result oriented.”

Response Initiative involves deployment of the right mix of ships and air assets for interdiction operations to interrogate vessels of interest and subsequently board, search and seize or effect arrest as the case may be.

The enactment of the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 2019 enabled a legal framework that fostered the Nigerian Navy’s collaboration with Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies to criminalize and prosecute maritime offenders.

The Special Boat Service complements Nigerian Navy Special Operations efforts in counter terrorism, counterinsurgency, maritime security operations and riverine operations. The Special Boat Service has been involved in a number of operations within the Gulf of Guinea, such as rescuing crews from hijacked vessels.

Gambo observed that Nigerian Navy Maritime Security Operations efforts have resulted in a steep decline in criminal activities in the region. The International Maritime Bureau Global Piracy Report of 14 July 2021 indicated the lowest total of piracy and sea robbery against ships in 27 years.

Notably, Gambo said, “there has been a marked decline in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in 2021 with 11 pirate incidents recorded compared to 44 in 2020. Similarly, there was a decline in pirates attacks and sea robbery in Nigeria’s water where the country reported only 11 pirate incidents and three sea robberies in 2021, compared to 22 pirate incidents and 16 sea robberies in 2020.”

“I am pleased to notify,” Gambo continued, “that the latest International Maritime Bureau report of 3 March 2022 shows that Nigeria has exited the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy List. This means that Nigeria is no longer in the list of piracy prone countries.”

Inter-agency and sub-regional cooperation have also greatly assisted the Nigerian Navy, as information sharing constitutes a major aspect of collaboration with critical maritime stakeholders. This includes both regional and international partners.

The Nigerian Navy is actively involved in regional maritime security collaborative engagements under the auspices of the 2013 Yaoundé Code of Conduct which prioritizes cooperation and information sharing between navies of the Economic Community of West African States and Economic Community of Central African States.

The Nigerian Navy also collaborates with the European Union via the European Union Strategy and Action Plan for the Gulf of Guinea. Under the European Union Coordinated Maritime Presence in the Gulf of Guinea, the Nigerian Navy collaborates with ships from European Union navies to patrol the Gulf of Guinea towards addressing security challenges.

Allied to these efforts are the annual multi-national maritime exercises with the United States (Ex Obangame Express) and France (Ex Grand African Nemo). The Nigerian Navy also participates in a number of training exercises with other international navies.

However, there are challenges still confronting the Nigerian Navy in addressing maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. These include limited capabilities of the Gulf of Guinea navies, an absence of an integrated legal framework and partial operationalization of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct.

Gambo notes that maritime threats in the Gulf of Guinea may not be completely curbed regardless of the good actions of navies.

“It is envisaged that the threats may mutate in form and structure depending on where the naval forces are most effective,” Gambo explained. “Also, since activities at sea would always be driven by activities on land, it is necessary to address issues of bad governance, poverty and illiteracy otherwise threats at sea would remain.”

Going forward, Gambo would like the navies of the Gulf of Guinea to consider the following:

  • Broaden capacity to conduct policing/coast guard duties;
  • Seek to optimize technology, like the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for patrols;
  • Articulate a harmonised legal framework;
  • Develop potent intelligence gathering capacity across the strata from electronic to human intelligence;
  • Possibility of increased foreign military presence in the region;
  • Probability of stronger navies in the Gulf of Guinea taking up more responsibilities of weaker navies; and
  • Broaden partnerships and funding for effective maritime security.

To protect Nigeria’s blue economy, the Nigerian Navy needed to take practical steps to address maritime insecurity. These efforts have led to remarkable successes in Nigerian Navy’s anti-piracy efforts and the eventual delisting of Nigeria from the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy List.

But as Gambo concluded: “The whole of Africa approach to solving the continent’s peculiar challenges is key” and that “it is important that maritime legal frameworks enhance maritime law enforcement are strengthened to forestall insecurity within the Gulf of Guinea.”