Kidnap kingdom: The rise of kidnap and ransom in West Africa

Nigerian pirates. Credit IMB

During the last decade, East Africa was known as the kidnap hotspot of the African continent. However, over the past four years, this phenomenon has shifted westwards and the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) has witnessed a dramatic spike in crew kidnapping incidents off vessels operating in these waters.

According to reports from the International Maritime Bureau, there were 34 incidents of kidnapping in the GoG in 2016, jumping to 65 in 2017, 78 in 2018, and finally 121 in 2019. This comes to an average of 75 kidnapping incidents annually from 2016 to 2019, compared to an average of 18 for the period 2010 to 2015. This trend looks set to continue; there have been 52 incidents in 2020 so far and if kidnaps continue at the same rate, figures are set to surpass 2019.

Kidnap and ransom have been used as a tool by pirates in West Africa for several decades, however, the most recent surge over the past four years has been due to cutting off of previous lucrative income streams; hijacking and re-selling of oil products on the black market.

Dirk Siebels, senior analyst at Risk Intelligence, explained to SAS that until around 2015 the hijacking of product tankers for the purpose of cargo theft was the most prominent threat in West Africa. The attacks were predominantly conducted by Nigeria-based groups and the cargo was then sold on the black market. However, Siebels put forward that due to changes implemented by the Buhari government, in Nigeria, making it more difficult to sell stolen oil products on a large scale, plus increased policing efforts on behalf of the Nigerian Navy, such hijackings are no longer profitable or as easy to conduct.

The increase in piracy and kidnapping operations in the GoG is also due to a combination of several socioeconomic factors. “Within West Africa there include the persistent issues of unregulated, unreported and illegal fishing destroying indigenous fishing markets and thus coastal economies,” said Munro Anderson, partner, Dryad Global. “This is also combined with an increase in the impacts of organised crime and lawlessness with weak law enforcement and political frameworks through which to resolve them.”

Further exacerbating problems ashore, unemployment is high in the countries surrounding the GoG, particularly in Nigeria, especially among young adults which is exploited by criminal gangs. “Criminal organizations exploit this opportunity to lure youth with the promise of easy money, thereby perpetuating an environment where crime as a means of making a living is tolerated and encouraged,” said Dennis M Alvarez, country security manager Noble Energy.

Experts all seem to agree that the sharp decrease in oil price this year, due to OPEC overproduction to combat the rise of the US shale market and exacerbated by a drop in demand due to COID-19, has also been a factor in the sharp rise in kidnapping. “The collapse in the oil price has certainly led to a huge reduction in fuel theft an illegal bunkering, which has led to individuals previously involved in these enterprises without income,” said Munro. Alvarez agreed, adding this has reduced the profitability of oil cargoes for re-sale on the black market. “The worldwide economic crisis has created a glut of oil even on the black market and has made oil, at least temporarily, a less desirable target,” he explained. This has exacerbated the already hampered black market, forcing criminal organisations to turn to more lucrative means of income.

However, Lars Bergqvist, maritime security advisor LB Marine Consultant, feels the oil price has played a less significant part in the spike in kidnappings. Instead, he feels it is down to logistics; carrying out a vessel hijacking to steal cargo is a complex maritime operation. “You need an area where you are safe from law enforcement/navies for transfer of cargo to other vessels,” he said.

Bergqvist harked back to the model employed by East African Somali pirates who, “never stole cargo, they were paid ransoms to give the cargo back, together with the ship and crew”. As pointed out by Siebels, the increased patrol efforts on behalf of the Nigerian Navy made it harder for pirates to hijack  vessels, as they would have to remain in control of the hijacked ship for several days to take the cargo from it. Kidnap for ransom, on the other hand, is a speedy operation where attackers can board and leave with crew members in many cases under two hours, noted Siebels, making it impossible for naval vessels to respond to a distress call in such a short time frame. This is reflected in the most recent incidents in the region, with six crew members kidnapped from two vessels within hours of each other off the coast of Gabon. A further 10 crew members were kidnapped off a products tanker off the coast of Nigeria. Finally, eight crew members were confirmed kidnapped off a containership after naval forces had previously thought there was not enough time to carry out such an operation at Cotonou anchorage, Benin.

“For Nigerian pirates, the option is to bring seafarers to hideouts in Niger Delta, where they are relatively safe from law enforcement,” Bergqvist explained. “Unfortunately for the seafarers, they are the only important part in the hijacking/kidnapping, the ship and cargo are not part of the negotiations.”

Siebels agreed, stressing that land-based kidnapping is a major security concern across the Niger Delta region and that kidnapping by sea is an extension of this, as they already have the necessary infrastructure on land, including hostage camps, ‘foot soldiers’ as guards and experienced negotiators.

Nigeria has increased its naval efforts, carried out joint exercises with international navies and even launched the ‘Deep Blue Project’ in 2019 to combat the increased piracy threat in its waters. However, Alvarez said that future efforts should be concentrated on renewing and promoting national and regional defence capabilities and agreements to pool resources. Anderson shared the same view, noting a lack of regional counter piracy efforts in Nigeria’s neighbouring states. Bergqvist went one step further, calling for the international community to establish an international naval force in the GoG. Efforts to combat piracy in the region have notoriously been hampered by the complex set up of the exclusive economic zones and territorial waters, with Nigeria refusing to allow armed guards onboard vessels transiting its waters.

Until this complex situation is brought under control, the advice to crews operating in the area is to diligently follow Best Management Practices West Africa published in March 2020. Siebels advised that regular security drills be carried out as it has become the norm for naval vessels to respond to distress calls and if crew can delay a boarding and assemble in the citadel it will buy time for the naval forces to arrive. Siebels also stressed that contingency plans should be updated to reflect instances where crew have been kidnapped to ensure the safe return of all hostages. They should also address the potential safety issues of operating at sea if large numbers of crew are kidnapped and those remaining are still under the shock of the attack, Siebels concluded.