From 2018 to 2019, the number of crew kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea increased by more than 50%. The stark rise in victims, from 78 to 121, led the region to account for 90% of global kidnappings reported at sea with 64 crew members kidnapped across six separate incidents in the last quarter of 2019 alone. Since the beginning of 2019, Nigerian pirates have been responsible for: the kidnap of 146 seafarers; the murder of four security guards and two seafarers; and the wounding of several others.
Although most attacks still occur in Nigerian waters, the problem has a regional connotation. In the first few months of 2020, anchorages such as Cotonou (Benin), Lomé (Togo), Limbe (Cameroon), Douala (also in Cameroon) and Port-Gentil (Gabon) have been targeted by pirates. Across these incidents, numerous crew have been abducted and typically released within the Niger Delta: seven crew members from the MSC Talia F were abducted off the coast of Gabon in March; at the end of April, eight crew members of the Tommi Ritscher were abducted off the coast of Cotonou; in early May, a group of assailants on a high-speed boat pulled alongside the Rio Mitong just off the coast of Equatorial Guinea and kidnapped two crew members, holding them for ransom ashore; on 2 July 2020, a group of assailants boarded Sendje Berge off the coast of Nigeria and kidnapped nine members of the crew.
The most recent surge in the number of kidnappings can likely be attributed to the decline of previously lucrative income streams. Both pirates and militant groups have traditionally benefited from the hijacking and re-selling of oil products on the black market. The collapse of oil prices caused by OPEC overproduction exacerbated by a drop in demand due to COVID-19 has led to a huge reduction in oil-related crime at sea: fuel theft, illegal bunkering and the re-sale of oil cargoes on the black market have all become less frequent and profitable. Indeed, cheap oil that will not be quickly sold raises the emergence of alternative (and more lucrative) sources of income for pirates and criminal groups previously involved in oil theft. Kidnap for ransom has been used as a tool by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea for several decades but today more than ever, the crews, rather than the oil, are the most valuable asset.
The current pandemic has also slowed down resolutions and negotiations for the release of hostages: after the lockdown of Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja in early April, the environment around the resolution of hostage situations has become more challenging, with crew members remaining detained in the jungle. Land-based kidnapping is a major security concern across the Niger Delta region and kidnapping at sea is an extension of this issue. The existing presence of necessary infrastructure on land, including hostage camps, ‘foot soldiers’ as guards and experienced negotiators, makes it easy for criminal groups to widen their reach beyond the shore. Connection with land-based kidnapping is also highlighted by the evolution of the tactics used by the pirates. The Sendje Berge incident is especially notable in this regard: while the Okwori field is a difficult area to monitor, this particular attack stands out for the tactic employed by the pirates, who reportedly used explosives and rocket-propelled grenades. This is an atypical strategy for offshore piracy incidents in the region, reflective of the increasing involvement of land-based militants.
Whilst the number of kidnappings at sea in the Gulf of Guinea has been increasing since 2015 (the year of the first global oil crisis), 2020 is foreseen to be one of the worst years to date, with predictions forecasting a further increase for 2021. Given this unprecedented surge, increased information exchange and coordination between vessels and reporting and response agencies is paramount to limiting the human cost of piracy. Interregional mechanisms such as the Yaoundé Architecture and the G7++ are crucial vehicles to drive efficient information sharing environments, but more work is still needed. In particular, there is a need to support these tools to concretely achieve their goals and align them with political and economic reforms onshore, within individual countries in the Gulf of Guinea.