West Africa and Misinformation in Maritime Security

By 13th February 2018Editorial

When discussing crime statistics, it is rare that figures are published on a worldwide scale. It does not accurately reflect the reality on the ground of the risk of crime in particular areas, and generalises too much. In a similar vein, global figures on piracy do not reflect regional realities. The recent report from the ICC IMB reported the lowest number of incidents since 1995, which gives a positive impression of the state of maritime security.

However, even though global figures of maritime crime suggest a downward trend, including in the Gulf of Guinea, numbers alone do not accurately reflect the level of risk. If there are 100 security incidents in year 1, and only 50 incidents in year 2, then this would be described as a “downward trend”. However, if the 100 incidents in year 1 are relatively minor (such as attempted robbery at anchor), and the 50 incidents in year 2 are major, more violent incidents (including hijacking of vessels or kidnap of crew for ransom), then despite the decrease in the number of incidents, the threat has actually increased.

An additional issue arises in how the industry defines incidents. An “attempted boarding” could describe 2 types of maritime security incident: either an attempt in an anchorage by two unarmed persons in a small canoe trying to climb up an anchor chain; or an attack whilst underway at 13kts 40nm offshore by a fast skiff with up to ten persons on board armed with AK47s. In the first, it would usually be stopped by an alert crew raising the alarm. In the second, a seafarer risks being shot at if seen by the pirates.

This misinformation leads to a false sense of security in shipping. With shipping using security in anchorages (either a private-run “secure” anchorage, or embarked local Navy guards), it seems that the main risk would be in the anchorages. However, in Lagos and Lomé (the two ports that see the largest use of additional security as mentioned above) there has not been a major incident for several years, with all incidents (or attempts) being robbery of ship’s belongings or small-scale cargo theft. And yet, since March 2017 and including incidents on local passenger and commercial craft and the two recent hijacks off Benin, ARC has recorded 155 seafarers kidnapped in the region.

Are security services within anchorages therefore “only” stopping what could be considered lower-level incidents? Incidents such as robbery of ship’s valuables, small-scale cargo theft or stowaways, that could be stopped with a well trained crew and alert watch keeping. From the number of incidents south of Bonny and Brass, Nigeria, arguably the real threat to merchant shipping is deeper offshore – up to 70nm offshore. And yet, because of the lack of useful information for shipping, ships continue to operate in the region without additional security measures such as effective crew security training. This should be considered the minimum security requirement, as it can be applied on a global level (Indian Ocean, South East Asia, Venezuela, Bangladesh – all areas that also suffer from maritime insecurity), and in Nigeria ships have also been attacked once the escort vessel has departed.

Based on ARC’s reports, the Gulf of Guinea over the last 12 months (March 2017 – present day) has seen 102 incidents in Nigerian waters, 21 incidents in Lagos anchorages and port and 57 incidents offshore Nigeria (outside all anchorages, ports and rivers). Since the start of February 2018, there have been 6: 1 boarding in Lagos anchorage, 1 robbery in Takoradi anchorage, a hijack in Cotonou anchorage, and 3 attacks south/south west of Bonny, Nigeria. Of these 3 incidents, 2 vessels had embarked Nigerian Navy guards and both vessels were reported as safe. The most recent one of the 9th February resulted in 4 crew members being kidnapped. The vessel had no additional security.

Whilst we realise all of the above could be labelled as “fear-mongering”, it should be also noted that the shipping companies that regularly operate in Nigerian waters (both local Nigerian companies and foreign) take security, usually embarked Nigerian Navy guards. Why? As well as it being the most cost effective and operationally flexible solution, it is because they know the country, know the risks and understand the threat to their vessels. Shipping and the associations such as member organisations and flag state administrations should take note of those who know the area best, which are fellow shipping companies.

This article originally appeared as a LinkedIn article https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/west-africa-misinformation-maritime-security-max-williams/