EOS Risk – piracy strategies for Gulf of Guinea

Apr 09 2021

The piracy risk in the Gulf of Guinea (West Africa) is getting more complex, with pirates moving outside Nigerian waters – but shipping companies are not allowed to deploy privately contracted armed guards. David Johnson of EOS Risk updated us.

 “Tankers are the most vulnerable and targeted vessels in the Gulf of Guinea,” says David Johnson, CEO of maritime risk consultants EOS Risk.


“In the last 18 months or so, the frequency of successful hijacking has increased, not hugely, this is forecast to change with the onset of the dry season, an expansion of the threat area, and the possible splintering of piracy gangs,” he said.


“The number of people kidnapped has gone up a lot over that time. The pirates have been able to charge more money for the release of these people.”


Tanker operators need to consider if they “have the appetite to trade in an area which is subject to such risk.”


The Gulf of Guinea region is normally taken to be the region from Liberia to Gabon, covering the coastlines of Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon.


“We’ve gone through the whole Somali piracy, which people are still protecting against, to the more aggressive Nigerian piracy, which has proliferated over 5-6 years,” he says.


The pirate gangs have something of a logistics operation behind them in the lead-up to an attack, including choosing which vessels to attack, finding people to physically conduct the attack, finding people to look after hostages in camps, and negotiators.  “It is not just guys in a speedboat,” he said.


“The key is to assess the risk before you go,” he said. “If you understand the risk – you’ll understand the measures that can be taken to mitigate against it.”


The Joint War Committee of insurance underwriters Lloyds recently expanded the area of Gulf of Guinea waters which they consider high risk. The expanded area covers the eastern side of the Gulf of Guinea across to Gabon.


Further to this the International Bargaining Forum (IBF) and International Maritime Employers' Contract (IMEC) on 21 October expanded their High Risk Area to include the waters between the Ivory Coast and the Congo/Angola boarder, to reflect the concerns they have regarding the threat to their members working in the region.



Ships are offered direct public sector protection by Benin, and Togo, with a degree of protection in Nigerian waters provided by a higher level of naval activity.


The Nigerian authorities have stepped up their policing of Nigerian waters, but this has had the effect of displacing pirates into other waters, as far away as Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire) to the West and Gabon to the South.


There is some increase in co-operation between governments, so they can pursue pirates across different national waters, and also share intelligence between agencies.


But the gangs are not exclusively Nigerian. Crewmembers who have been kidnapped and released have said that not all the pirates in the gang spoke the same language.


In the recent attack of general cargo ship Rio Mitong (May 2020), “the pirate gangs involved in that – were hunted mercilessly and publicly through several countries. It resulted in them losing people in military operations against them, several pirate camps being raided and destroyed, and the seizure of a ransom [by authorities] on the way to a ransom drop, and seizure of weapons and paraphernalia that the pirates use,” Mr Johnson says.


The Nigerian government brought in a number of laws to try to suppress piracy. One shipping company was charged with paying a ransom, under charges of funding terrorism, although subsequently the charges were dropped, with the company prosecuted for other infringements.


Now, we have companies and their crisis response advisors very reluctant to enter ransom negotiations, and pirates wary of being intercepted by Nigerian authorities. This “creates an interesting backdrop in terms of how things will go,” he said.


EOS Risk believes that there will be some splintering of pirate groups, with groups operating in different ways. It is possible that pirates will ask to be paid ransom in bitcoin, so it cannot be traced, and the need for traditional ransom drops removed.


Shipping companies may really want to use armed guards. When these were introduced in Somalia, there was a big impact in reduction of attacks, and the risk-reward calculation pirates were making. “There hasn’t been a successful hijacking of a ship with armed guards onboard in Somalia.”


Today, it may be sensible advice to have an armed guard in a location which allows it, Mr Johnson said.


But most states in the Gulf of Guinea take the view that security is a role of the state, and only state appointed people can carry weapons.


So for a vessel sailing from Douala (Cameroon) to Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), going through territorial waters of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana on the way, even if it gets a navy escort, the navies from each country cannot cross the water boundary.  “It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense,” he said.


It is possible for a private security provider (such as EOS) to contract with host nation naval forces to provide private/public security services for clients, and regularly do so. Escort vessels or embarked naval detachments are a common feature of the services offered, and provide deterrent and protection.


Maximising defences

Ships can however do a great deal without resorting to armed guards – if they put defences up, and make sure the vessel is in regular contact with an intelligence service.


This may be “the best mitigation you can get under the circumstances,” he said.


Your risk increases if you have a low freeboard (distance from the waterline to the deck), or if the vessel is slow moving. “You have to put a lot of hardening on to prevent boarding, keep people off deck, have good citadel procedures,” he said.


If pirates come to attack the vessel, and you’ve all gone in the citadel, the chances of having someone kidnapped is minimised.”


Even as this report is written, it has been reported that the tanker Errina was attacked in the region, with a successful retreat to the citadel resulting in no crew kidnapped, although the pirates ransacked the vessel and destroyed bridge equipment.


Both vessel operators and pirates have been learning from each other. At one time, ships felt safe from pirate boarding by putting razor wire around the vessel. Pirates learned to pull the wire down with a grappling hook tied to a rope. Shipping companies then learned to make periodic cuts in the wire, so only a small piece of wire could be removed at a time.


In another example, pirates tried to board a container ship by ladder, but found their ladders were not long enough – so they came back next time with a longer ladder.


It is a sort of cat and mouse game, with pirates, agencies and shipping companies steadily increasing their methods.


“You need to make sure the vessel has done everything possible to not make it a target,” he said.


In another example, a vessel was attacked a mile from shore, with crew not on guard because they didn’t think it could happen.


Sometimes ships have had armed guard protection, but the guards have disembarked 60 miles offshore, but then found pirates operating 150 miles offshore.


There are other examples of vessels being attacked in areas far away from normal attack areas, and so they were under a “normal watch routine”.


“The watchkeeping element is absolutely crucial. The quicker you pick these guys up the more chance you’ve got to muster the crew,” he said.


About EOS Risk

EOS Risk offers intelligence service, led by former high-ranking naval officers, where it tries to see the world through the pirates’ eyes. 


Operating in the Gulf of Guinea for several years EOS provides a wide range of protective services in cooperation with host nations.


The company has developed expertise in how pirates operate, what measures are effective.  It provides services to help with mitigation, intelligence about what pirates are doing, crisis response and evacuation,  “the whole package around it”.


The company’s director of intelligence, Ian Millen, is a former Royal Naval Commander and law enforcement senior officer. The head of operations and private client services, Ben Tams, is a former member of the UK elite advanced forces.


David Johnson, CEO of EOS Risk, is a former business development manager of Drum Cussac.


The company’s largest client base is tanker operators, and has been for the last 15 years.



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