Gulf of Guinea is world hotspot for kidnappings at sea

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A steep increase in kidnappings at sea – 40% – make the Gulf of Guinea off Africa’s west coast the world hotspot for this maritime crime, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

In its latest report for the third quarter of the year, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) bureau notes pirates armed with guns and knives are abducting larger groups of seafarers further off the West African coast than before.

IMB’s latest global piracy report details 132 attacks since the start of 2020, up from 119 incidents in the same period last year. Of 85 seafarers kidnapped from vessels and held for ransom, 80 were taken in the Gulf of Guinea – in 14 attacks reported off Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Ghana.

The first nine months of 2020 saw seafarers report 134 cases of assault, injury and threats, including 85 crew kidnapped and 31 held hostage aboard their ships.

All told 112 vessels were boarded and six were fired at, while 12 reported attempted attacks. Two fishing vessels were hijacked in the Gulf of Guinea.

“Crews face exceptional pressures due to COVID-19 and the risk of violent piracy or armed robbery is an extra stress,” said Michael Howlett, IMB director of IMB, whose Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB PRC) has responded to reports and shared data since 1991, supporting seafarers and fishers worldwide. “IMB liaises with authorities swiftly in case of a pirate attack, we encourage all coastal states and regional co-operative associations to ensure maritime security in their EEZs (exclusive economic zones) to achieve safer seas and secure trade.”

With 95% of global kidnappings reported in Gulf of Guinea waters, IMB warns pirate gangs in the area are “well organised and targeting all vessel types over a wide range”.

The furthest attack from shore saw the most crew kidnapped from a single vessel in 2020. On 17 July 2020, eight pirates armed with machineguns boarded a product tanker 196 nautical miles south-west of Bayelsa, Nigeria. They held all 19 crew hostage, stole ship’s documents, valuables and escaped with 13 kidnapped crew. The tanker was left drifting with limited and unqualified navigational and engine crew aboard. A nearby merchant vessel escorted the tanker to a safe port.

Regional authorities were notified and the 13 kidnapped crew were released safely a month later.

A more recent example was on 8 September 2020, when armed pirates attacked a refrigerated cargo ship underway south-west of Lagos. Two crew were kidnapped while the rest retreated into the citadel – one of the industry’s recommended best practices endorsed by IMB. A Nigerian naval team was dispatched, who boarded, conducted a search and then escorted the ship to safe anchorage for investigations.

The IMB piracy report includes a special thanks to Nigerian authorities, notably the Nigerian Navy and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency NIMASA who “continue to provide timely information, actions and valuable co-operation between agencies”.

The piracy centre recorded 15 attacks on ships underway in the Singapore Straits. While most are considered low level crimes, two crew were threatened, one injured and another taken hostage, indicating a continued risk to crew. Knives were reported in at least 10 incidents.

There is a sharp quarterly decrease in incidents in the Indonesian archipelago, with four reported in quarter three, down from 14 the previous quarter. These are viewed as low level opportunist thefts with most reported on anchored vessels.

All vessel types in in the Caribbean, Central and South America – including Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico and Peru are being targeted at anchor as well as underway and during river passage under pilotage.

On 26 September 2020, a container vessel was boarded by armed perpetrators during river passage at Guayaquil. The attackers fired weapons at crew quarters and bridge, opened containers and stole the contents before leaving.

As more cases go unreported, IMB urges all ship masters and operators to speedily inform the 24-hour IMB Piracy Reporting Centre of any attacks.

Howlett said the IMB PRC believes in sharing and exchanging information. “Understanding the true risk in an area is an important step towards improving safety for all seafarers. IMB PRC relays reports to appropriate response agencies and broadcasts incident information to ships via GMDSS and uses reported statistics to raise awareness and be a catalyst of change.”

No incidents of piracy have been reported around Somalia since 2018.



In August 2020, pirates freed the last three of the thousands of hostages who have been held captive in the region over the years since ship hijackings peaked in 2011.