Your Money or Your Life

Gulf of Guinea crews more valuable to pirates than unsold oil

By David Whitehouse

Posted on April 29, 2020 11:27

 © Ivorian sailors participate in an anti-piracy hostage rescue scenario with the Ghanaian Navy during Exercise Obangame Express.
Wikimedia Commons
Ivorian sailors participate in an anti-piracy hostage rescue scenario with the Ghanaian Navy during Exercise Obangame Express. Wikimedia Commons

The oil glut raises the risks of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, but the pirates are more interested in the crew than unsold crude.

Pirates are likely to attempt to board tankers pressed into use as offshore storage facilities for unsold oil production, Alexandre Raymakers, senior analyst for Africa at Verisk Maplecroft, writes in research published this month.

The crews, rather than the oil, are the most valuable asset. The collapse in oil prices in 2015 lead to an increase in crew abductions, and Raymakers expects that pattern to be reinforced now that crude has fallen off a cliff.

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  • Companies operating in the region who face the risk of disruption to their supply chains include Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron and Eni, he argues.
  • Pirates in the region usually do not have secured ports or beaching areas for captured ships. This, Raymakers says, limits their ability to hold a vessel or its contents to ransom. The quickest and easiest way to make a profit is to demand a ransom for the crew.

The number of crew kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea increased by more than 50% to 121 in 2019.

The abduction of seven crew members from the MSC Talia F off the coast of Gabon in March this year shows that the problem is regional rather than a purely Nigerian one, Raymakers says. Increases in kidnappings in 2020-21 are to be expected in waters around Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and to a lesser extent Ghana, he says.

Vessels such as off-shore supply vessels and tankers remain primary targets as their low speed and freeboard make them easier to take control of, says Steve Cameron, managing director of Cameron Maritime Resources in London.

Cameron questions why piracy has continued to increase after Nigerian investment in patrol craft and a declared focus on maritime security by government agencies last year. There haven’t been any notable successes in terms of capture or disablement of any pirates, which would start to serve as a deterrent, he says.

“This suggests an unwillingness to address the issue.”

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Gone are the “maritime muggings” of 20 years ago, when thieves would board with machetes and steal the contents of the ship’s safe and any valuables such as mobile phones, says Cameron.

  • Pirates now have high-powered boats and sub machine guns mounted on tripods.
  • Some use automatic identification systems (AIS) to pinpoint ships they will hijack.
  • The Nigerian navy has lagged behind: hampered by a lack of resources, it’s unable to effectively patrol its waters and aerial patrol capability is also lacking, says Raymakers.

Nigerian law prohibits the use of private maritime security contractors.

  • In April 2019, nine such contractors onboard the Sea Angel 3 offshore support vessel were detained on suspicion of illegally holding arms.
  • Verisk sees no prospect of this stance changing in the next two years.
  • The Nigerian government, Verisk says, is also unlikely to accept any international naval mission in its waters.
  • The international community won’t be too bothered: “Contrary to Somalia, strategic maritime routes do not cross the Gulf of Guinea thus substantially reducing the prospect of international involvement,” says Raymakers.

Bottom Line: The region’s response needs to evolve to permit the use of private security as the pirates have been become more sophisticated.

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