Apparent decline in West African piracy should be treated with caution


A decline last year in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, which has for some time been the epicentre of maritime crime, should be treated with caution and does not mean the threat has disappeared, maritime risk company Dryad Global has cautioned.

While Dryad welcomed the significant decline in 2021 of incidents in the region, often involving the violent armed boarding of vessels and the kidnap and ransom of crews, it questioned whether the risk to ships and crews has been reduced.

In 2021, overall incidents of piracy and maritime crime throughout West Africa declined by 54% compared to 2020, Dryad noted in recent analysis of maritime security in West Africa. Incidents of actual and attempted attacks and vessels being fired upon declined by more than 75% and the overall numbers of vessels boarded throughout the region has fallen by 32%. Incidents of vessels being boarded and crews kidnapped have declined by 66%.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) attributed “vigorous action” by authorities as one reason for the drop in piracy. Last year the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre received 132 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships around the world. Incidents comprised 115 vessels boarded, 11 attempted attacks, five vessels fired on and one vessel hijacked.

The overall reduction in reported incidents in 2021 is attributed to a decline in activity in the Gulf of Guinea region which saw reported incidents decrease from 81 in 2020 to 34 in 2021. Kidnappings at sea dropped 55% in 2021. The Gulf of Guinea continues to account for all kidnapping incidents globally, with 57 crew members taken in seven separate incidents, the IMB noted.

“In assessing trend data alone across the past 11 months, it would be easy, but false, to conclude that a reduction in numbers is indicative of a decline in the threat from piracy and maritime crime in West Africa,” writes Dryad Global’s Head of Intelligence Munro Anderson.

Anderson believes that only when capability, opportunity, and intent are disrupted that a sustained reduction in threat is likely to be achieved.

When looking at the reasons for the drop in piracy off West Africa, Dryad sees a significant development being the launch of Nigeria’s highly anticipated ‘Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure programme’, also known as the ‘Deep Blue Project’ (DBP). This is the first integrated maritime security strategy in West Africa aimed at countering piracy. Launched on 10 June 2021, it will see the phased deployment of 16 armoured vehicles for coastal patrol, two special mission vessels, 17 fast interceptor boats, two special mission aircraft for surveillance of the country’s exclusive economic zone, three special mission helicopters for search and rescue operations, and four unmanned aerial vehicles.

A further significant development within Nigeria is the launching of the ‘Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offenses (SPOMO) Act’ passed by its National Assembly in 2019, providing a dedicated legislative framework through which to support the prosecution of maritime crime and piracy.

Nigeria has to date shown a willingness to publicly signpost the successful implementation of the SPOMO Act. Ubong Essien, Special Assistant on Communication and Strategy to the Director-General of NIMASA, stated that the recent conviction of 10 people for the hijacking of the FV Hailufeng II on 15 May 2020 brought the number of pirates that have been convicted under the SPOMO Act to 20. With an approximate 16-month timeframe for conviction, the success of such operations within 2021 may not be known until a much later date, Dryad points out.

“The DBP and corresponding legislative reform have placed Nigeria in a definitive position of leadership in the fight against piracy and maritime crime within the Gulf of Guinea. However, despite the commendable efforts of Nigeria, the absence of data indicating a tangible and sustained engagement of assets in the interruption of offshore acts of piracy suggests that the launch of the DBP and the implementation of the SPOMO Act is far from solely responsible for the dramatic decline in piracy throughout the region,” Anderson writes.

In seeking to explain the steep decline in piracy throughout the Gulf of Guinea, Dryad looked at the role of intent, which it says is primarily driven by poverty. Additional factors include unemployment, weak governance, corruption, community violence and militancy, established subgroup hostility to the state and the presence of established organised crime. All of these drive disenfranchised young men from riverine and coastal communities towards serious organised crime and piracy.

Anderson believes that additional security resources seldom deter pirates and in Somalia, groups of disenfranchised young men were only incentivised away from piracy following the launch of onshore programmes of economic development and reform.

“Throughout 2021 there has been little substantive improvement in these core conditions throughout the disparate communities of Niger Delta states. A situation further compounded by the impact of the COVID pandemic on national resources and international assistance. 2021 has seen an increase in riverine criminality involving attacks on local populations and riverine communities and a new militant grouping under the aegis of the Bayan-Men has unleashed a campaign of violence and disorder against multinational oil companies within the region, motivated by a perceived lack of community incentive and involvement,” Dryad reports.

Consequently, without improvement in the conditions onshore that create a fertile setting for piracy, it is near impossible to argue that there has been any alteration or deterrence against individuals’ intent to engage in piracy, Dryad believes.

Piracy is essentially a form of serious organised crime and one of its hallmarks is its ability to occupy the ‘grey space’ between legitimate and legal enterprise and criminal network, with members often occupying official positions in business or local government. Within the southern Delta states, this ‘grey space’ of legitimacy is deeply ingrained, Anderson believes. “Ingrained corruption and ineffectual governance have given rise to a vast network of criminality that spans narcotics and pharmaceutical product smuggling, illegal fuel bunkering, militancy, and piracy.”

With the launch of the $195 million Deep Blue Project came a substantial level of political focus, both domestic and international. “Such a focus is highly likely to have had a detrimental impact on the freedom of movement and operations of those who occupy the described grey space of legitimacy in the southern Delta states. With Nigeria calling for an end to war risk premiums for vessels operating in its waters, there is a great deal of political investment in the success of the DBP, and it is highly likely that this investment has translated into a hostile operating environment for any would-be ‘sponsor’ of offshore piracy,” Anderson writes.

“It could be argued that the intensity of the political focus, which has created an increasingly hostile environment for would-be piracy sponsors, has reduced piracy, via the ‘back door’ and regardless of cause, the effect is to be welcomed. However, such assumptions would be false. Criminality of this nature has a fluidity that is likely to adapt and overcome political pressure and will most likely lead to a return to high volumes of piracy as political focus wanes.”

In conclusion, Dryad believes the decline in piracy in 2021 should not be seen as indicative of any fundamental or lasting change brought about by any one state or initiative. “Claims of radically reduced risks within such a short timeframe and calls for the ending of war risk premiums are premature. Whilst regional counter piracy efforts in 2021 are to be commended, they require long term investment, both politically and financially, with on shore investment arguably of greater importance than offshore assets.”

Similarly, the IMB urges seafarers to continue exercising caution and vigilance in spite of a drop in attacks. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre warns the threat to seafarers persists and continues to urge crews and vessels plying Gulf of Guinea waters to be cautious. This is because perpetrators are violent and the risk to crews remains high. Evidence of this was the kidnapping of six crew members from a container vessel in mid-December.