West African Pirates Switch to Kidnapping

West Africa

Published May 3, 2016 5:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

Pirate gangs in West Africa are switching to kidnapping sailors and demanding ransom rather than stealing oil cargoes as low oil prices have made crude harder to sell and less profitable.

Attacks in the Gulf of Guinea - a significant source of oil, cocoa and metals for world markets - have become less frequent partly due to improved patrolling but also to lower oil prices, according to an annual report from the U.S. foundation Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP).

"They have had to move towards a faster model and that faster model is kidnappings," OBP's Matthew Walje said, noting that ransom payouts were as high as $400,000 in one incident.

OBP said violence had also risen, including mock executions, and last year 23 people were killed by pirates there.

"A lot of people are dying from piracy - nowhere near that number died in the last few years in the Western Indian Ocean (due to Somali piracy)," said Giles Noakes, of BIMCO. "We are particularly concerned by the issue," said Noakes, whose association audits the OBP's annual report.

Analysts say the pirates have emerged from Nigerian militant groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

Walje said a growing problem was the splintered nature of the various gangs operating in West Africa. "It is more fractured than it would be off Somalia where there were a few major gangs and kingpins operating," he said.

Alarming Statistics

OBP estimated costs related to piracy and armed robbery in 2015 in the Gulf of Guinea were $719.6 million, 61 percent of which was borne by the industry. The 2014 cost was $983 million, 47 percent of which was borne by the maritime sector, it said.

According to reports received by IMO and publicised on the Organization’s Piracy and Armed Robbery database (https://gisis.imo.org/Public), the Gulf of Guinea accounts for nearly 40 percent of all piracy and armed robbery at sea reported worldwide so far this year. 

In 2015, it was the third most dangerous maritime area of the globe. Since January 1, 2016, there has been a 36 percent increase in reported incidents compared to the same period in 2015, while the number of people kidnapped from ships already matches the total for the whole of 2015. 

IMO Capacity Building

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim has welcomed the Presidential Statement from the United Nations Security Council in which the Council strongly condemns acts of murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking and robbery by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea. 

The statement encouraged States in the region and regional organizations to enhance cooperation on maritime safety and security. Last month, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea agreed to establish combined patrols to bolster security in the area.

In its Presidential Statement, the Security Council expressed appreciation for the IMO West and Central Africa Maritime Security Trust Fund and its efforts to help build maritime-security capacity in West and Central Africa and encouraged Member States to make financial contributions to the Fund. IMO Secretary-General Lim expressed his gratitude to those States that had already contributed.