Five lessons we can learn from recent Nigerian pirate attacks in West Africa

Nigerian pirates now operate from Ghana in the west to the Congo in the south, well beyond their camps in the Niger Delta. There are five lessons to learn…
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By Jake Longworth

So far in 2018, Nigerian pirate action groups (PAGs) have operated in waters stretching from Ghana in the west to the Congo in the south, well beyond their camps in the Niger Delta. In the offshore theatre alone, these PAGs have kidnapped 82 seafarers for ransom and hijacked at least nine vessels for use as motherships or to perform cargo theft. There are five lessons that ship operators, managers and the insurance community should learn from recent attacks in West Africa.

Lesson 1: Nigerian pirates are geographically unpredictable

The 29th October piracy attacks off the Congo demonstrate that the geographical scope of Nigerian piracy is difficult to define.

Since 2012, Nigerian pirates have attacked vessels as far west as Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) and as far south as Luanda (Angola). All of these far reaching attacks have been perpetrated by Nigerian ‘petro-pirates’, an industry term for pirates whose modus operandi is to hijack tankers for cargo theft. Nigerian pirate groups engaged purely in kidnap for ransom tend to operate firmly within the Nigerian EEZ, whereas petro-pirates are geographically erratic.

As hijack for oil theft has re-emerged as a threat in 2018 in tandem with rising oil prices, the geographical scope of Nigerian piracy has expanded too, with attacks this year off Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, Gabon and the Congo.

Ship owners conducting voyages in West Africa should take heed of this erraticism and implement risk mitigation according to a comprehensive intelligence picture that takes account of historical precedent, current trends and a degree of analytical foresight.

Lesson 2: No vessel type is necessarily safe

A commonly held misconception is that only tankers are at risk from the extended grasp of Nigerian pirate gangs, but recent attacks demonstrate the contrary. It is true that petro-pirates’ primary target is laden tankers, but these pirates have shown on countless occasions that they will attack any vessel type opportunistically and resort to the ransoming of a crew or vessel as and when required. There have been several incidents this year where Nigerian pirates have kidnapped seafarers from vessels outside of the Nigerian EEZ, and even cases where they have temporarily hijacked non-oil bearing vessels, such as fishing vessels, reefers, OSVs and container ships.

Risk assessments therefore need to focus on vessel variables such as freeboard, speed, routing and BMP compliance to determine risk, rather than assumptions based on an incomplete understanding of the West African piracy threat.

Lesson 3: Regional armed solutions to combat West African piracy are not yet properly employed or understood

Following recent hijackings off the Congo, a number of shipping companies began making enquiries about embarking armed guards off Pointe-Noire for upcoming voyages there. This raises two issues.

Firstly, neither naval nor private armed guard solutions are available in Congolese waters. Unlike in the Indian Ocean, there is no regionally implementable armed security solution to combat the threat of piracy in West Africa. Solutions that do exist involve the subcontracting of a states’ naval personnel either directly onto a merchant vessel or onto a privately contracted escort vessel. These services are only available within the confines of each states’ sovereign waters (EEZs) and are sometimes provided in regulatory grey areas. Not all West African states provide such services.

Secondly, even when armed solutions are available in West Africa, they need to be considered based on numerous variables and should not be a knee-jerk reaction. Just because piracy attacks have been reported in a given area doesn’t necessarily mean that armed mitigation is proportionate. The requirement must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and grounded in a full appreciation of the threat, its impact and likelihood, the vessel’s vulnerability and numerous other factors. Only in very particular areas, such as the Brass-Kwa Ibo axis off Nigeria, do EOS recommend an almost blanket application of our armed security measures. Elsewhere, we advise clients on a case-by-case basis, weighing up all commercial and context-specific considerations, and place an emphasis on ‘maxing out’ the effectiveness of non-armed solutions, such as safe routing and BMP-style anti-piracy measures.

Lesson 4: The inability to track hijacked vessels is impeding post-incident response

When pirates hijack a vessel they typically disable ship positioning systems, such as AIS, and prevent the crew’s access to communications systems. Locating the hijacked vessel is left to naval patrols and other merchant vessels acting like a maritime Neighbourhood Watch. In two recent cases, vessels were hijacked for several days without a firm idea of their location, impeding any hopes of a regional naval response. There is an argument that letting an incident play out naturally is the safest option, lest there is a botched naval boarding or hostage situation in which seafarers are hurt or killed. That said, improved visibility on hijacked vessels is never going to be a bad thing in and of itself, especially when millions of dollars of cargo are at risk of being stolen. From the shipping and insurance industry’s perspectives, hidden, independent tracking devices are a solution to this issue and can prevent a hijacked vessel, its crew and cargo from falling off the map.

Lesson 5: Complex maritime piracy cases require expert support for successful resolution

Recent piracy activity, involving hybrid hijack and kidnap scenarios, demonstrates just how complicated and fast moving West African piracy cases can be.

The effective response to such complex incidents is key to preventing further harm, whether this is to the hostages, vessel, cargo or company reputation. To achieve this, a shipping company will require dedicated assistance from experts in maritime security crisis response, maritime law and maritime crisis communications, which is typically combined in a single ‘response’ package under dedicated insurance policies.

Most shipping companies operating in West Africa will have relevant insurance in place to cover most eventualities of a piracy incident, but it is worth discussing with your broker and P&I club what support the small print entitles you to and where it will come from. Holistic K&R insurance cover underpinned by access to an experienced marine crisis response consultancy is essential for the effective handling of multifaceted incidents of this nature.

EOS Risk

EOS provide a full spectrum of integrated security solutions for the merchant shipping, offshore, cruise and superyacht sectors, including armed and unarmed security, intelligence and advisory support, tracking, training, project security management, asset hardening and Lloyd’s of London retained marine kidnap and hijack response services. EOS maritime security and crisis response services are certified by LRQA in the UK against ISO 9001, ISO 28000 and ISO 28007.
Telephone: +44 2037 534 630 | Email: | Website:

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