Wednesday, June 12, 2019

As Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea Worsens Merchant Shipping Interests Gather to Discuss

Companies Wish to Fight the Problem but Who Will Address the Possible Causes?
Shipping News Feature
UK – WEST AFRICA – Last week saw a day-long symposium on Maritime Security sponsored by the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) and the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) on piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

The meeting was held at the London headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and featured speakers from regional maritime agencies as well as shipping officials, academics and military staff. Since piracy has been largely suppressed off the coast of Somalia and the wider Indian Ocean so the Gulf of Guinea has seen a rise in the number and severity of attacks on the merchant fleet, particularly the energy carriers which have interests in the region.

The numbers of attacks in the region doubled in 2018 with a change in the nature of the type of crimes, kidnapping for ransom and armed robbery incidents particularly. Piracy expert Professor Bertand Monnet, who has interviewed pirate gangs in the Niger Delta, estimated that there were approximately 10 groups of pirates that were responsible for the majority of attacks in the area, and he said they were well organised and motivated.

Dr Dakuku Peterside, the Director General and CEO of the Nigerian Maritime Authority and Safety Agency (NIMASA), in his keynote address to the meeting acknowledged the maritime security risks present in the Gulf of Guinea, but stated that new initiatives underway to improve the joint capacity of Nigerian law enforcement and Navy capabilities could make seafarer kidnappings ‘history’ within a matter of months. He went on to state that he is keen to improve international cooperation, particularly with the shipping industry. He went on:

"We have no option but to work together, but we cannot have imposed solutions. NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy will also be hosting a Global Maritime Security Conference in October to seek tailored short and long term solutions to strengthen regional and international collaborations in the Gulf of Guinea."

As we have witnessed before at meetings where BIMCO had a presence when Somali piracy was at its height, nothing grabs the attention more than the presence of someone who has been on the receiving end of a pirate attack. Mr. Branko Berlan, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) representative to the IMO presented a seafarer who had been attacked and kidnapped in a recent incident, to the gathering.

Whilst the crewman is still recovering from the shock of the ordeal and did not want to be identified, he stated the attack appeared to be well organised and led from ashore saying, ’the first indication I had of the attack was a knock on my cabin door and two men holding guns appeared’. He was subsequently held in a camp on shore along with other members of his crew until his release could be secured.

Speakers at the event emphasised the region was starting to build capacity and joint cooperation to fight maritime crime through the Yaoundé Process, which focuses on joint cooperation across the region for reporting and response. The international community is also sponsoring long-term capacity building and partnerships.

Notwithstanding this the shipping industry, seafarer groups and Flag States are keen to identify actions that can have an immediate impact. On this note, attendees were encouraged to hear about recent Spanish Navy action to assist Equatorial Guinea to rescue seafarers from a piracy attack last month, as well as the new US programme to embark law enforcement officers on regional vessels. Jakob Larsen, Head of Security for BIMCO pointed out that regional states needed to play their part as well, saying:

“Nigerian piracy mainly affects a small geographical area of around 150 x 150 nautical miles. The problem can be solved easily and quickly, especially if Nigeria partners with international navies. Nigeria holds the key to solving this problem.”

The symposium was held in the lead-up to a series of meetings focused on seafarer safety and security at the IMO. Concerns over increased piracy in the Gulf of Guinea have resulted in several member states submitting proposals that could help address the crisis. According to Russell Pegg, Security Adviser at the Oil Companies International Marine Forum all stakeholders are being encouraged to take a pro-active role on this issue and are working with member states to support those proposals that could help mitigate the risks to seafarers.

On opening the meeting Dr Grahaeme Henderson, Chair of the UK Shipping Defence Advisory Committee and Vice President of Shell Shipping & Maritime said that the high level of attacks in the region were simply not acceptable and required urgent action. However the problems facing the crews aboard vulnerable vessels are paying a price for a political situation in which the energy companies had some part in creating.

Inhabitants of the region speak of oil stained wastelands where fishing villages once thrived with indigenous peoples moved on with little, or often no, compensation. The accusation is that local politicians, paid off to accommodate the rush for oil, have taken the livelihoods of the populace causing a strengthening of dissident organisations such as the outlawed Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

A 2018 study by the Journal of Health and Pollution found that more than 12,000 oil spill incidents have occurred in the Niger Delta between 1976 and 2014.Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, is quoted as saying:

”The oil companies can't pretend they don't know what's happening all around them. The Nigerian government obviously has the primary responsibility to stop human rights abuse. But the oil companies are directly benefiting from these crude attempts to suppress dissent, and that means they have a duty to try and stop it.”

In 1995 the Nigerian government executed the well-known dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa who had been protesting about the indigenous people’s loss of their farming and fishing industries due to oil pollution, an act which saw Nigeria suspended from the British Commonwealth for more than three years.

In March 2019 CNN ran a story on the latest inquiry launched by a Commission to investigate the pollution of the Niger Delta by oil interests. The long term cure to the piracy problems in the region are surely inextricably linked to solving the abject poverty and loss of livelihoods which create, or at the very least exacerbate, the situation.

Photo: Poverty in the region due to loss of habitat is blamed by many for the upsurge in piracy.