Op-Ed: A Simple Deal on Embarked Guards Could End West African Piracy

ghana boat service navy boarding team piracy
Ghanaian special boat service boarding team during exercise Obangame Express 2018 (file image courtesy USN)

Published Aug 11, 2020 3:13 PM by Jakob Voight

On July 17, 2020, the tanker Curacao Trader was boarded by pirates at a position about 210 nautical miles from Nigerian shores. 13 Russian and Ukrainian seafarers were abducted. Two weeks before, the freighter Kota Budi was boarded about 200 nm from Nigerian shore. What is particularly noticeable about these attacks is the location: when looking at the statistics for 2019, it appears that the average distance of confirmed pirate attacks was 62 nm from shore, with only seven attacks at positions more than 100 nm from shore. In 2020, the average distance of confirmed pirate attacks was 75 nm, and there have already been several pirate attacks at positions more than 100 nm from shore. 

Despite the improvement of the regional cooperation demonstrated in the response to the Hai Lu Feng 11 attack in May, despite the arrival of new maritime platforms, despite the use of surveillance systems like the Deep Blue project in Nigeria, it is obvious that pirates are a permanent threat off West Africa. The increase of pirates’ operational range is not a surprise for informed observers. This trend was seen in the Indian Ocean between 2004 and 2010, when Somali pirates reached almost to the west coast of India. This evolution is not due to chance - it’s simply the search for “soft locations,” areas where no means of coercion prevent the act of piracy or react quickly enough to intervene in a boarding or kidnapping. West African pirates thus demonstrate their capacity for adaptation.  

The sword and the shield

How can we protect our maritime assets wherever they are (the shield) and reach out to intercept the perpetrators (the sword)? Let us start with the latter: the sword. 

About 60 percent of the pirate attacks in West Africa this year have occurred outside of Nigerian waters, but it is obvious that the pirates are operating from bases in Nigeria. Almost all crew member reports indicate that the pirates escape the released attacked vessel “toward Nigeria,” and almost all abducted crew members report being released in the Niger River Delta. The individuals involved in carrying out offshore attacks are believed to number about 200-300 men. The place of release of the kidnapped sailors positions the "land bases" of the pirates in Nigeria’s Delta States, mainly Bayelsa and Rivers states. This is an onshore area of about 8,000 square kilometers. 

Nigeria’s government has the military means to strike these bases, but first it is necessary to identify the pirates. The best sources of information are the seafarers who encounter them, particularly the abducted seafarers. Unfortunately, there are frequent breaks in the intelligence-gathering chain. To reduce this problem, the regional governments could make a systematic effort to collect statements and intelligence from released seafarers, possibly using the existing Yaounde structure. The collection of this information could be carried out immediately after the seafarers’ release or through the shipping company employing them. 

One office should be set up to merge regional maritime security information, including seafarer testimony. This unit should go beyond data collection and should be tasked with providing actionable reports to the country where the pirates have been located and partially identified. No additional funding or resources are needed - the Yaounde structure’s operations officer is the best specialist to handle this task. 

Now for the shield. The coastal countries of West Africa have military navies in the making, but only a few ocean-going military ships. Looking at the example of piracy off the Horn of Africa, Operation Atalanta, Ocean Shield and TF 151 missions have called upon more than 25 surface combatants, along numerous maritime patrol planes. Despite this massive deployment, maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean was only eradicated after ships began to carry private maritime security contractors (PMSC), which became ubiquitous in Somali waters. Looking at the modus operandi of West African pirates and the operational capability of the current West African naval fleet – which has no maritime aerial surveillance aircraft and very few on-board helicopters – the regional governments’ ability to meet this asymmetric threat remain very weak.
Can we wait for the rise of West African national fleets? No, this will take many years - possibly decades. Can we expect the arrival of an international maritime armada within the GoG? No, for numerous strategic, financial and diplomatic reasons. Tensions are rising in the South China Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean and the East Indian Ocean, and the major naval powers are focused elsewhere. 

Many West Africa countries have tried to counterbalance their lack of maritime military platforms in two ways: The use of security vessels (civilian vessels and crew, plus an armed military team) and the use of an armed embarked team directly onboard the vessel protected. For obvious reasons, the use of PMSC is not accepted by the totality of coastal countries. These measures are efficient as long as the security operation is conducted within the national waters where the military personnel are embarked, but the concept collapses as soon as the vessel crosses a maritime border. 90 percent of the maritime traffic is international – that is, the commercial vessels sailing from one port to another all along the West African coast. A glass wall, marked by a small line on navigation charts, makes any continuity of armed protection impossible. Until now, a military guard from country A cannot extend his mission into the waters of country B. From Senegal to Angola, the maritime borders of the 18 coastal countries of West Africa make it impossible to maintain the continuity of an armed maritime protection mission. The pirates are not ignorant of this status: on contrary, they show their knowledge about it, targeting the vessels unprotected deep offshore. They abandoned the coastal areas where the density of protected vessels was high, noting the drop in the success rate of boarding, and moved further offshore to prey upon ships engaged in trade along the West African coast. 

So, is this situation inevitable? Let us look again at the Indian Ocean example. Only the boost of the private maritime security contractor (PMSC) force made it possible to completely eradicate the piracy in Indian Ocean. To allow the fulfillment of their vessel protection mission, PMSC personnel have obtained the right to carry arms and ammunitions within the majority of the countries of transit. International rules and regulations have been established to determine the safe and secure method to transport the weapons/ammunitions onshore and onboard international flights.

This exceptional right has been allowed to civilians. Why should this exceptional right not be allowed to West African countries’ military personnel? The regional framework is already in place, and common regional exercises, trainings and operations are already conducted. A regional protocol should solve this logistical issue. As said, the objective is to limit the embarked protection mission only to West African military personnel. 

Who could these military personnel be at a time of reduced staff and resources? Two needs emerge: the quantity and the quality. The embarked maritime security mission is simple, demanding basic maritime and military knowledge. Why not create a new qualification or specialty responding to this specific “anti-piracy” need? The future military security embarked operator could be recruited for a short contract, 2 or 3 years, trained for two or three months to acquire qualification on basic military and maritime standards, able to survey, communicate, alert, warn, report, protect, and use individual weapons onboard vessels in transit or at the anchorage. These operators could work in a three- to five-person team under the supervision of one petty officer. Leaders could be trained to use common regional standards for rules of engagement and other operational protocols, regardless of their country of origin or area of operation. 

As for funding, commercial maritime operators are ready to invest in security as soon as the services are efficient. They are awaiting effective measures to protect their vessels and crew. The maritime industry already pays huge insurance amounts when operating within Gulf of Guinea. Kidnapping cases, the number of seafarers abducted and the amount of the ransoms paid have all been increasing for the past three years. Seafarers have become more reluctant to work in West Africa waters. A regional agreement on armed, embarked military guards would resolve these problems and provide a win-win solution for all parties involved. 

Jakob Voight is a scholar of regional security policy and its effects on economic development. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.