Piracy: Arrest risk for private maritime security teams in West Africa

Map of piracy incidents in West Africa. Credit: IMB

Nine private maritime security contractors (PMSCs) have been detained by Nigerian authorities on the grounds of suspected illegal possession of firearms. The incident highlights the complexities of protecting crew and vessels in what has become a major global piracy hot spot.

The arrests occurred at the end of April during a joint security operation between the US Coast Guard and Nigerian Navy, called the Junction Rain exercise.

The suspects, comprising of one US national, three Greeks, and five Nigerians, were apprehended on board Sea Angel 3, an offshore support vessel, due to the ship allegedly acting suspiciously in Nigerian waters.

Nigeria forbids the use of armed security personnel on board merchant vessels in its territorial waters owing to a dramatic rise in piracy and attacks in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) over the past few years. IMB’s piracy results have shown that despite a global decrease in attacks in the first quarter, the GoG remains extremely dangerous, accounting for global crew kidnappings and 58% of actual and attempted attacks.

Nigerian Navy Commodore Dickson Olisemenogor speaks to the local media, “They didn’t tell us where they were coming from and that was why we arrested them. They earlier switched off some of the equipment to make it difficult for you to detect them, but unfortunately for them, we have the equipment on board to detect whoever is at sea. No criminal can hide again in our waters.”

US-based security firm Trident Group, who employed the PMSCs, has maintained that the vessel was actually situated in international waters, 43 km offshore, during the arrest. The company told SAS that all the weapons on board were fully licensed and documented.

Parallels have been drawn between this incident and the arrest of six British PMSCs in Chennai, India, where the use of armed personnel on board vessels is also banned. Dubbed the Chennai6 in the media, the PMSCs were released five years after their initial arrest.

Stephen Askins, partner at Tatham Macinnes LLP, who previously provided legal council to the Chennai6, told SAS that the Nigerian authorities have made it clear that they do not want armed guards in their territorial waters. He explained that the Nigerian Navy has offered shipowners the option to place its own personnel on vessels as they enter its waters, as well as provide patrol crafts. Escort vessels fees, however, are more expensive than shipowners have been used to paying for PMSCs, and Askins added that its legality is questionable. Askins further commented that the incident “serves as a warning that most security companies are well aware of, which is that you do not deploy armed guards in and near Nigeria’s territorial waters. It’s not the first time this has happened”.