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Maritime Threats in the Gulf of Guinea

Gulf of Guinea Maritime Threats


On 09 May 2023, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Awwal Gambo, announced that the International Maritime Bureau had removed Nigeria from its list of “War Risk Countries”.  The move by the IMB reflects the sustained low levels of piracy and maritime criminal activity reported in the Gulf of Guinea over the last 18 months and follows the cessation of war risk premium payments by Nigeria to Lloyds of London amounting to $793 million per annum.  While this is an encouraging step for Nigeria and its neighbours, it does not mean the risks posed by highly organised criminal gangs has disappeared completely.

The discussion around the recent historical low frequency of acts of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and of maritime crime in the territorial waters of littoral states in the region, continues to present analysts with the interesting question of what exactly happened to the pirate gangs previously operating in the region?  Various bodies have presented credible explanations of why piracy and maritime criminality is at its lowest for several years, but are they accurate?  This report examines recent developments in the maritime operating environment in the region and revisits some of the questions posed in previous analyses.


The Baseline

Figures held by Arete analysts indicate that the rates of piracy and maritime crime in the region over the last five years have fallen dramatically since they peaked in 2020.  Security events are broken down into those that occurred inside territorial waters, including ports and navigable inland waterways, and those that occur in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and International Waters.  The statistics are summarised in the following table.

Table 1.  Spatial distribution of incidents between territorial and international waters 

It should be borne in mind that these figures reflect only those incidents that have been reported noting it is generally accepted that maritime crime remains under-reported in the region still.  

If we break the figures down into those that occurred in Nigerian Waters and those occurring in other territorial jurisdictions in the region, we see a stark reduction in the levels of activity in Nigerian waters.  There has also been a corresponding increase in the number of incidents in other regional waters, however, the overall trend is for a gradual reduction in those waters as well.

Table 2.  Spatial distribution of incidents between Nigerian and other nations’ waters 

2023 has seen numbers remain very low for the year to date, with just one incident reported in Nigerian waters – a robbery of a berthed vessel in Tin Can Island terminal, and 14 events occurring in other nations’ waters.  

Significantly, 2023 has seen two maritime kidnappings, with 6 crewmen taken from a hijacked product tanker (Monjasa Reformer) in March off Pointe Noire, Congo Republic and 3 crewmen taken from a bulk carrier (Grebe Bulker) in Libreville, Gabon.  The latter is interesting in that the vessel was boarded and the crew abducted while berthed in the port of Ownedo.   In the whole of 2022, there was just one maritime kidnap reported on 13 December, when pirates abducted two crewmen from an offshore support vessel (name withheld) some 48 nautical miles off Bioko, Equatorial Guinea.  Additionally, in 2023, a tanker (Success 9) was hijacked more than 300 nautical miles off Abidjan; the vessel and crew were reported safe 5 days later.  

These events highlight the latent risk that pervades the region and the fact that despite the frequency of events remaining very low, when incidents do occur, they have the potential to have a very high impact on the crew and the company’s operations.

Lloyd’s list, in a report released in early May 2023 indicated that the global trend was shifting away from deepwater operations by pirate gangs (hijacking and kidnapping of crew members) to a renewed focus on armed robbery against vessels in territorial waters.  This global trend seems to also be reflected in the Gulf of Guinea as shown in Table 1 above.  

However, the Gulf of Guinea presents a more complex array of actors and threats than can be summarised in such a broad global analysis.  The region sees opportunist thieves boarding vessels in ports and anchorages hoping to steal something they can then sell.  At the other end of the spectrum, we have the organised pirate cartels who operate deepwater capable vessels and who hunt vessels in international waters frequently more than 200 nautical miles from nearest landfall.  We have also seen a minor increase in hijacking and kidnapping in the region since December 2022.  

So, although the report acknowledges that the Gulf of Guinea is somewhat more complex than other regions due to the widespread theft of oil and a diversity of smuggling operations by organised crime groups, the picture is perhaps not as cut and dried as the Lloyds list report headline would seem to suggest (details of all known incidents in 2023 are provided at Annex A to this report).


What Has Driven the Pirates from Nigerian Waters?

There has been a lot of speculation as to why the pirate gangs have apparently moved into other areas of criminal activity in 2022.  In February 2023, the Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dr Bashir Jamoh, said:

“This achievement is a product of a well-structured multimodal policy which has been implemented over the years to fight piracy and other criminalities in Nigerian Waters. The Legal instrument called SPOMO Act signed into Law by President Buhari in 2019, the full implementation of the Deep Blue Project by NIMASA, expanded assets and capacity of the Nigerian Navy, enhanced cooperation between NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy, and the regional collaborative efforts under the umbrella of SHADE Gulf of Guinea midwifed by NIMASA, are all policies of the current administration and the benefits are gradually coming to fruition. We are focused on ultimately improving and reducing the cost of commercial shipping in Nigeria.

Notable maritime institutions like the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and the International Maritime Organisation, IMO, have lauded the reduction in piracy in Nigeria following enhanced patrol and relevant Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) entered by NIMASA with other security agencies.”

Much has been made of the launch of the Deep Blue Project, including the introduction of maritime surveillance aircraft and their integration into a fully integrated maritime and coastal surveillance system. This development is a significant capability multiplier alongside improving performance and evolving capability of the Nigerian Navy.  

It is also apparent that regional cooperation between states is improving, with an announcement on 10 May 2023 that the Nigerian Navy was establishing a maritime task force with other navies in the region, including those of Ghana, Benin, Togo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’ivoire.  The strategy includes the establishment of a Multinational Joint Task Force (see our piece on this news here.).

Additionally, international support to regional navies is increasing.  This year has seen US participation in joint operations and training with local navies and the launch of a Japanese government initiative to cooperate with Nigerian security efforts to reduce piracy in the region.   On 21-22 May 2023, President Buhari conducted a Presidential Fleet Review of 16 Nigerian naval vessels as well as guest vessels from Ghana, Brazil and Spain.  The drive by the Nigerian Navy towards becoming a more collaborative force capable of operating in multi-national formations will aide further development of capability.

While all of the above is having a beneficial effect on the regional maritime security situation, it should be remembered that the pirate cartels were sponsored by powerful actors with strong political connections.  It cannot be overlooked that in 2022 it was suggested in some circles that the pirate cartels had been shut down very quietly after a foreign power identified the big men behind them and threatened to name them publicly and internationally unless there was an immediate improvement.  Whilst this cannot be conclusively verified, it can also not be discounted as a possibility.



NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy are improving their collaborative efforts to secure the nations maritime economy.  Greater cooperation with other nations will further improve the situation.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea remains well below 2020 levels, although we have seen a recent spike in high-impact attacks in international waters in the region.

Gangs are still operating in the region, but mostly outside Nigerian waters.  Within Nigeria, the greatest threat currently is faced by travellers and commercial users of the country’s waterways and navigable rivers. 

Whilst the likelihood of an event affecting a vessel may now much lower, in the event an incident does occur, the impact will be high, with attacks on personnel, kidnappings and injuries if the crew resist.  Theft of cargo from product tankers remains a risk, normally resulting from short-term hijackings. Companies operating in the area should not take the recent headlines as an indication that there is no longer a threat. 

As a locally owned and registered Nigerian company, Arete provide a wide range of maritime risk management services, including escort services within Nigerian EEZ as well as onboard consultants to assist with crew training and drills, voyage planning and advice on threat across the region and beyond. 

Fully ISO accredited and with a 100% track record, we have over a decade of experience operating in West Africa specifically so please reach out to us to discuss your operational requirements in the region.


Annex A

Chronological List of Reported Maritime Crime And Piracy Events – 2023

  1. Sao Tome and Principe – Suspicious Approach – At approximately 02:00 hours local time, on Wednesday, 11 January 2023, an unnamed vessel was approached by two skiffs in approximate position 00:45N – 006:20E, approximately 27 NM northwest of Sao Tome Island.  The master took evasive action and increased the vessel’s speed causing the skiffs to abandon their approach. The crew and vessel are reported safe. (Source – Multiple – B2)
  2. Ghana Inshore – Illegal Boarding – At approximately 23:50 hrs UTC on Wednesday, 25 January 2023, the Hong Kong flagged Product tanker, MT Seaclipper, IMO number 9570101, was illegally boarded while at anchor in an unspecified position in the Takoradi Anchorage. Duty officer onboard an anchored tanker spotted three unauthorised persons on the forecastle area. Alarm raised, crew mustered, and port control notified. Hearing the alarm and seeing the crew alertness the persons escaped without stealing anything. A patrol boat was dispatched to the location and investigated. (Source – multiple – B2)
  3. Cameroon Offshore – Hostile Approach – At approximately 03:45 hrs local time on Tuesday, 31 January 2023, two skiffs approached a Chinese fishing trawler operating off of Idenau in position 04:13N – 008:50E, approximately 31 NM from the Nigeria-Cameroon maritime border. Armed military guards onboard the trawler fired shots toward the two speed boats, which resulted in them aborting their approach and moving away from the area. The vessel, crew, and military guards have been reported as safe. (Source – Multiple – B2)
  4. Cameroon inshore – Armed Attack – At approximately 00:28 hrs local time on Thursday, 02 February 2023, an unnamed vessel was attacked off cap Debundscha, Cameroon. The vessel was attacked, but the attempted boarding was unsuccessful.  It is suspected that the vessel had an armed, military protection team on board. Vessel and crew were reported as safe. (Source – B2)
  5. Cameroon Inshore – Armed Attack – At 0400 hrs local time on Friday, 17 February 2023, an unnamed oil vessel was attacked and fired on by suspected militants while anchored off the Idabato subdivision of the Bakassi Peninsula.  The attackers boarded the vessel after shooting and killing two escorts. They then attempted to set the vessel ablaze.  The attackers escaped before Cameroonian security forces arrived. (Source media – C3)
  6. Angola Inshore – Boarding Theft – At approximately 03:15 hrs local time on Wednesday, 01 March 2023, an unnamed container ship anchored in approximate position 06:05S – 012:14E, off Soyo, was boarded by armed men from a skiff.  The boarders threatened a crew member with a knife before stealing items from inside a container. The local authorities were alerted, and the crew was reported as safe. (Source – C3)
  7. Ghana Inshore – Illegal Boarding – At approximately 02:36 hrs UTC on Thursday, 02 March 2023, the Danish flagged product tanker Nord Stingray, IMO number 94197835, was illegally boarded while at anchor in position 04:53.70N  001:41.20W, in the Takoradi Anchorage. Duty crew onboard an anchored tanker noticed an unauthorised person near the forecastle and immediately raised the alarm. Upon hearing the alarm, the individual escaped with stolen ship’s stores. The incident was reported to Takoradi port control, and a patrol boat was sent to investigate. (Source – Multiple – B2)


  1. Congo Republic Offshore – Maritime Kidnap – At approximately 21:38hrs UTC on Saturday, 25 March 2023, more than ten pirates armed with guns attacked and boarded the Liberian flagged product tanker MT Monjasa reformer, IMO number 9255878, while underway in position 05:03.00S 009: 35.00E, approximately 135nm WSW of Pointe Noire. The alarm was raised, and all crew members mustered in the citadel. On being notified of the incident, the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre immediately informed the regional authorities in the Gulf of Guinea and the French authorities and requested their assistance. The pirates managed to break into the citadel, took hostage all crew members, and took control of the tanker. They hijacked the tanker and sailed to another location. All communication with the tanker was lost as the pirates had destroyed the navigational and communication equipment. The IMB broadcast a missing tanker message to all ships at sea. On 30 March 2023, the French patrol boat Premier Maitre L’Her intercepted the tanker Off Bonny, Nigeria. A team boarded the vessel and treated three crew members for minor injuries. Part of the cargo was stolen and six crew were reported kidnapped. The tanker was then escorted to the port of Lome, Togo. On 08 May 2023, the Owners confirmed that the six kidnapped crew were released safely. (Source – Multiple – B2)
  2. Angola Inshore – Boarding Theft – At approximately 0230 hrs UTC on Sunday, 26 March 2023, The Maltese flagged Tug Komodo, IMO number 9328273, was boarded by robbers who had approached the vessel in a canoe while the vessel was at anchor in position 08:44.61S 013:17.36E in the Luanda Anchorage.  Alert crew noticed the robbers and informed the OOW who raised the alarm and crew mustered resulting in the robbers escaping with stolen ship’s properties (including empty plastic food trays, an air hose which was coiled on top of the portside tugger winch, and the main deck c/w electrical extension wire in used daily for deck maintenance.  Port Authorities informed. (Source – Multiple – B2)
  3. Angola Inshore – Boarding Theft – At approximately 0318 hrs local time, on Wednesday, 29 March, 2023, an unnamed container vessel was boarded while steaming in approximate position 06:08S – 012:15E off Soyo Anchorage.  The boarders threatened a duty crew member with a knife, then made their escape with items from one of the containers. Local authorities were informed of the incident and the crew were reported as safe. (Source – Multiple – B2) 
  4. Ivory Coast Inshore – Attempted Boarding – At approximately 22:00 hrs UTC on Friday, 31 March 2023, the Singapore flagged Container Ship, MV Maersk Vigo, IMO number 9401697, was approached and a boarding attempted while the vessel was anchored in position 04:44.47N 006:37.13W in the Port of San Pedro. Two unauthorised persons attempted to board the berthed ship by crawling under the razor wire while a third was assisting from their wooden canoe to move the razor wire. Alert crew detected the persons and raised the alarm. Hearing the alarm and seeing the crew alertness, the persons escaped without stealing anything. At the time of event the pilot was still onboard. (Source – Multiple – B2)
  5. Ivory Coast Offshore – Maritime Hijack – At approximately 13:50hrs UTC on Monday, 10 April 2023, the Singapore flagged product tanker MT Success 9, IMO number 9258131, was attacked and boarded by twelve pirates armed with firearms while underway in position 00:06.90N 004:34.00W, approximately 307 nM SSW of Abidjan.  The pirates hijacked and self-navigated the tanker. On being notified of the incident, the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre immediately informed the regional and French authorities in the Gulf of Guinea. A missing tanker message was broadcast to all ships to lookout for the tanker. Position updates received from all sources were communicated with the relevant authorities for their coordination. On 15 April, a French naval asset located the tanker and the tanker escorted to a safe port by an Ivory Coast Guard patrol boat. The pirates had destroyed the navigational equipment, handcuffed all 21 members of the crew with cable ties and stolen part of the cargo before escaping. All crew reported safe. (Source – Multiple  – B2)
  6. Angola Inshore Attempted Boarding – at approximately 02:30 hrs local time, on Wednesday, 19 April 2023, an unnamed refrigerated cargo ship was boarded while at anchor in approximate position 08:44S – 013:18E in the Luanda Anchorage. The duty watchman noticed an unauthorized person climb up the anchor chain and through the hawse pipe while another individual waited below on a small boat. The watchman raised the alarm and mustered the crew. Upon seeing the alerted crew, the perpetrator jumped into the water and escaped in the small boat. The master confirmed that all crew were safe and that nothing was reported stolen. (Source – Single security source – C3)
  7. Angola Inshore – Boarding Theft  – At approximately 02:30 hrs UTC on Tuesday, 25 April 2023, the Panama flagged crew change vessel, MV Bourbon Shamal, IMO number 9656931, was boarded while anchored in position 08:47.06S 013:14.85S in the Luanda Inner Anchorage.  Alert crew noticed unauthorised persons onboard attempting to steal an outboard engine of the FRC. The alarm was raised and ship’s horn sounded resulting in the robbers escaping. Authorities informed and the police boarded the vessel for investigation. (Source – Multiple – B2)
  8. Lagos Inshore – Illegal Boarding – At approximately 05:00 hrs UTC on Tuesday, 28 April 2023, the Liberia flagged general cargo ship MSC Wave F, IMO number 9232462, was boarded by approximately 8 persons armed with knives while berthed in position 06:25.76N 003:20.53E in the Tin Can Island Terminal.   Alert crew on rounds spotted the persons resulting in the persons escaping empty handed in their boat.  (Source – Multiple – B2)

16. Gabon Inshore – Maritime Kidnapping – At approximately 02:00 hrs local time on Tuesday, 02 May 2023, Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier MV Grebe Bulker, IMO number 9441312, was boarded while at anchor in approximate position 00:16N – 009:29E in the Owendo Inner Anchorage in Libreville.  Three crew members were kidnapped. The remaining crew members and vessel were reported safe. The vessel notified the local authorities of the kidnapping. (Source – Multiple – B2)

NIMASA Determined to Remove War Risk Insurance Surcharge

On 15 November, Mr. Ubong Essien, Special Assistant on Communication and Strategy to the Director-General of NIMASA, disclosed that NIMASA remains committed to achieving the lifting of the War Risk Insurance (WRI) Additional Premium, often referred to as a ‘surcharge’, imposed on international shipping operating in part of the Gulf of Guinea by the Joint War Risk Committee. (JWRC)

In September 2021, Arete reported the same ambition still being held by the Director-General of NIMASA, Dr. Bashir Jamoh, despite a rebuff by the JWRC following a previous lobbying attempt by NIMASA in June.  The position of NIMASA is premised on the apparent reduction in piracy and other acts of maritime criminality in Nigerian and littoral waters of other Gulf of Guinea states.  

While the piracy figures in the region have indeed fallen in 2021 compared to previous years, there are many variables and numerous underlying factors that may explain the drop in the number of reported piracy incidents other than an increase in regional maritime security.  Arete published its own analysis of these factors, including a review of the current rate and intensity of maritime criminality in the region, in October 2021, you can read it here.

The key issue behind the drive to remove the surcharge is the economic impact on Nigeria’s macro-economic situation, as shipping operators seek other options other than to use/enter Nigeria’s congested ports.  Additionally, the inflationary pressure felt in the domestic markets as suppliers pass on the additional costs of shipping goods into the country is significant.

The rapid response by the JWRC to Nigeria’s previous lobbying in June 2021 reflects the conservative position of the Committee. The JWRC is a grouping of underwriting representatives from the Lloyds Market and other insurance underwriters’ associations.  The body meets quarterly to represent the interests of marine hull insurance business and identifies so-called ‘Hull War, Piracy, Terrorism and Related Perils Listed Areas’.  Listed Areas are defined as those areas where risks are elevated to the point where additional insurance cover is required to protect shippers against those risks.

The Committee sets the Listed Areas purely for business reasons and does not have any political or security function.  This is an important point as it means the Committee’s decisions are purely pragmatic and driven by metrics.  What that means for Nigeria is that although the country has invested heavily in securing its territorial waters, the strong evidence that acts of piracy outside those waters, in the EEZ and beyond, are still being carried out by Nigerian organised crime groups (OCGs) generates a view that there remains a latent risk inside Nigerian waters.  Furthermore, the listed area encompasses the territorial waters and EEZs of other littoral states in the region.  It is unlikely that the JWRC will lift the Listed Area status for Nigerian waters when Nigerian gangs continue to prey on shipping in neighbouring states’ waters.

Arete sources reported that in the last two weeks the Nigerian Senate approved the borrowing of a further $16 billion by the Federal Government, $1 billion of which will go into defence and security budgets.  It is hoped that some of this will trickle down to projects and procurement programs aimed at defeating maritime criminality in the region.  However, the extensive, diverse, and relentless instability onshore is possibly of greater priority – or certainly of a higher profile at the moment.

While it is evident that the Nigerian Government has serious intentions of dealing with the threats in the Gulf of Guinea, there remains much work to be done onshore to defeat the fundamental drivers of the criminality that pervades the region’s waters.  Meanwhile, the JWRC will seek evidence that the apparent reduction in maritime crime is genuine and sustainable before any real prospect of lifting the Listed Area status of the Gulf of Guinea is likely.  For now, Dr. Bashir Jamoh’s ambitions will likely remain just that, with little prospect of any substantial change. 

However, there is a possibility that a political initiative might move the problem forward.  In 2010, a new form of maritime crime emerged.  Several cartels operating out of Nigeria began extended hijackings of oil products tankers and chemical tankers for the purpose of extended cargo theft in ship-to-ship transfers.  The stolen cargo was being sold into storage tank farms in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.  This very lucrative criminal enterprise continued until early 2014 when the US government revealed to the Nigerian Government that it had detailed and accurate intelligence on the identities of the criminals behind the trend.  It was suggested in media reporting at the time that the list of names included people close to the government.  The practice of hijacking tankers and stealing of cargoes ended almost overnight.  

Perhaps if the economic cost to the country caused by piracy in the region is deemed to be sufficiently damaging, the Federal Government might exert the same pressure that shut down the cargo theft cartels.  This would be a game-changing step forward for Mr. Jamoh and Nigeria.

Danish frigate kills four pirates in Gulf of Guinea

The Danish Navy has released a statement that the Frigate Esbern Snare currently operating in the Gulf of Guinea, was able to respond to reports issued of an increased threat of piracy in the South of Nigeria. The Naval Frigate deployed the Seahawk helicopter to carry out advance observations.

The crew of the helicopter identified a speeding motorboat with eight (8), suspicious persons, onboard, with tools associated with piracy, including ladders. The Esbern Snare launched her RHIB’s manned by members of the Frogman Corps to board the suspicious motorboat. The Esbern Snare made attempts to hail the motorboat to instruct and allow the Frogman to board, no response was received the Danish Soldiers fired warning shots which immediately resulted in the suspected pirates returning fire.
The Danish Soldiers reacted in self-defense and returned fire. It was reported that the pirate motorboat was sunk with five pirates being hit. Four (4) were confirmed as dead and one injured. The remaining three (3) were captured. All eight (8) pirates have been taken aboard the Frigate Esbern Snare, with medical treatment being issued to the injured man.
As more information becomes available and verified, we will update further.

Piracy Drop reports from Gulf of Guinea – Is this Progress?

There is a general acceptance among maritime security analysts that the Gulf of Guinea has witnessed a reduction in piracy and maritime crime in 2021 as compared with previous years.  

The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported that in the month of June 2021 just four incidents of successful or attempted attacks on vessels were reported.  This compares very starkly with the same month in the previous four years which saw 13 incidents in 2017 and 31, 21 and 14 incidents in 2018-2020 respectively.1  

The Maritime Domain Awareness for Trade: Gulf of Guinea (MDAT) biannual report for the first half of 2021 listed a total of 38 incidents in the region.  This compares favourably with the total of 68 reported for the equivalent period in 2020.

Despite this apparent fall in the number of incidents, the Gulf of Guinea is still the most active hotspot in the world for maritime kidnapping and hijacking.  Data held by Arete analysts indicates that in 2020, more than 150 mariners were abducted in the region, 99 of which were abducted in the waters of countries other than Nigeria.  Thus far, in 2021, the same data shows that 56 mariners have been abducted from vessels outside Nigerian waters and 13 taken from passenger boats on the Bonny River.  This apparent elimination of maritime kidnapping from Nigeria’s coastal waters is a very positive development, However, the long-range attacks continue to persist.

The key question is whether this is an anomaly or a reflection of a significant change in the threat levels in the region.  If we look just at open-source statistics, there does appear to be a significant reduction in the levels of activity.  But is that the whole picture?

IMB Statistics show a total of 22 incidents reported in 2021 in Nigerian waters.  Data gathered by Arete analysts for Nigerian waters show a total of 7 (7) in January, 5 (6) in February, 4 (7) in March, 1 (2) in April, 1 (3) in May, 1 (2) in June, 1 (2) in July, 1 (1) in August and 2 (0) in September.  Note: the number in brackets shows the number of incidents recorded by Arete in the region outside Nigerian territorial waters and Economic Exclusion Zone. 

This very quick comparison of statistics reveals a fundamental problem in the reporting of security incidents – that of definitions and categorisation.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) records incidents using a methodology very similar to that used by Arete 2  and includes riverine activity on navigable inland waterways as well as distinguishing between coastal waters and deep offshore activity.  

In contrast the IMB only records incidents against ships that are internationally registered and therefore almost all the riverine activity and much of the activity in territorial waters continues to go unrecorded.   This is an important consideration, as many groups that use riverine crime to build up their funds and to obtain additional boats and engines then progress to attacks on commercial vessels in coastal waters.  Thus, the overall picture serves to generate sometimes valuable warning and indication of an emerging capability for a group that will then expand its operations to impact on commercial shipping.  Additionally, a lot of activity against commercial fishing vessels occurs inside the 12-mile limit and many of these incidents are unreported as the vessels are only locally registered.

While these different methodologies and reporting criteria serve their own purpose in that they support the information requirements of the bodies compiling the data, the resultant understanding of the threat can sometimes vary quite significantly.   Whilst this might lead to varying perceptions concerning the rate of criminal activity, there is a consensus among analysts that the overall levels of reported activity have fallen quite significantly in 2021.  So why is this?


Under-reporting of activity is complex.  It can be driven by variables in reporting criteria from one organisation to another.  However, and of greater significance, it can also reflect systemic weaknesses in the platforms and communications channels used to report activity.  Furthermore, there are commercial and sometimes political factors that also result in under-reporting of incidents.

Commercial shipping is vulnerable to heavy costs if a vessel is delayed in a port.  Thus, many incidents are reported to a vessel’s Company Security Officer but not to a local port authority.  The concern is that a vessel could be delayed for considerable periods if it is declared a scene of crime by a littoral state’s law enforcement bodies.  Furthermore, a vessel’s history and projected routes will be factored in to setting insurance premiums.  Even crewing costs might be affected if a vessel has an established history of incidents.  

It is sometimes speculated that littoral states manage the threat picture very carefully to manage costs of shipping goods through busy ports.  There is currently great concern among politicians and maritime bodies in Nigeria that the continuing application of War Zone surcharges against commercial shipping insurance disadvantages their maritime trade and impacts on the onshore economy as costs are passed on to customers.

The above factors can generate a picture that falls short of the reality and security analysts have for several years believed that the actual rate of incidents involving shipping is significantly greater than that reported in open sources.

The UNODC raises the question of whether there has been a reduction in the levels of support offered to the pirate and criminal gangs among their host riverine communities in the Niger Delta.   This is an interesting consideration as all piracy emanates from onshore communities.  The UNODC report points out that the riverine armed robbery gangs have a different relationship with host communities, compared to a gang operating deep offshore.  The latter will often disburse some of their profits among sections of the community, thus buying favour, whereas a riverine armed robbery gang will often have a heavy negative impact on its host or neighbouring communities.  

This is reflected in Rivers State where, in July 2021, after a hiatus of 7 months, we witnessed the return of armed attacks against passenger boats on the Bonny River.  The impact on travellers using the waterways is heavy, with deaths, abduction and financial loss being the normal consequences of such attacks.

We have also seen an evolution in the capability and behaviour of the more organised criminal gangs.  The UNODC report speculates that between four and six organised crime groups (OCGs) now operate deep offshore, conducting most of their attacks outside the Nigeria EEZ in the waters of neighbouring countries, or international waters.  This reflects the acquisition of vessels that are now used as motherships, which reflects the vastly increased levels of investment into the equipment and vessels required by the gangs to operate at such distances.  

The implication is that the gangs now have serious backers with deep pockets.  It is likely that these funds originate in the huge amounts of money disbursed by the Federal Government of Nigeria as part of its Niger Delta Amnesty program as well as the multi-million-dollar contracts awarded to companies owned by former Niger Delta militants.  

The increased operating range of these groups, as well as the higher capacity to take and detain abducted mariners on mother ships, means the gangs have also evolved their modus operandi but also their expected revenue streams.  Thus, ransom rates for mariners kidnapped deep offshore have been inflated and now far outstrip the ransom rates for riverine passengers and mariners abducted in inshore waters. 

We have witnessed a significant change in the operating range of Nigeria based pirate groups in the last two years.  They now readily operate around 200NM from nearest landfall.  These groups have much greater endurance and can remain at sea for weeks rather than hours or days.  They have also, as described above, acquired the capacity to hold greater numbers of abducted mariners, which means the same group might now be responsible for multiple attacks within a single operation.  These groups will attack opportunistically when in transit between their long-range operating area and their home bases in Nigeria.  However, this increase in range sometimes leads to a misperception that the threat is somehow decoupled from the overall threat in Nigerian Waters whereas in reality, it is a significant increase in the severity of the threat.  

The capacity and confidence to hold larger numbers of captives at sea for prolonged periods has generated a kidnapping trend which contradicts the overall incident trend numbers.  The number of mariners abducted in the region has steadily increased, with data from the MDAT showing the total number of abductees increasing from 37 in 2015 through 54 (2016), 60 (2017), 99(2018), 146 (2019), and 142 (2020).  

This contrast with the falling overall number of incidents indicates a shift in targeting and the ‘business model’ adopted by the pirates.  Clearly, their aim now is to acquire funds through fewer operations that have a higher capacity to generate revenues – more abductees per incident.  

Ransom values have also increased substantially when associated with the long-range pirate groups, with ransom payment more than 10 times the 2008 value according to data provided by UNODC.  A further indication of the increasing sophistication of the kidnapping industry is evidenced by a single reported case of a ransom demand being made using Bitcoin as the payment currency. 

This use of mother ships allows the gangs to reduce their time at sea and allows them to operate in areas where the indigenous navies have lower capabilities than those of the Nigerian Navy, both of which reduce their exposure. This operating profile also allows them to operate a more advantageous economy of scale than previously.   The overall effect is to make their ‘businesses’ leaner and more profitable.

If we separate the activities of these deep-water groups and focus on inshore piracy and armed robbery, we see a slightly different picture.   While the deep offshore threat is expanding, that of the inshore gangs seems to be contracting.  Setting aside the problem of under-reporting, there does seem to have been a reduction in activity levels.  We have seen almost no reports of boardings in the Lagos anchorage and few reports of similar activity in the ports of Lagos or Onne.  Furthermore, there is a significant reduction in reported attacks on coastal shipping and riverine commerce.  So, what has changed?

The Nigerian Government and Nigerian Navy have attributed this significant change to the program of equipment procurement for the Navy and the launch of the Deep Blue project, which is claimed to have the capability to monitor coastal activity along the entire seaboard of the country.   

The commissioning of the Deep Blue system may well have had an effect on the maritime dynamic in Nigeria’s coastal waters, particularly the integrated surveillance and response capability that has the potential to change the operating environment for both commercial shipping and maritime criminals.

It is still probably too early to say conclusively whether its launch has achieved the aim and it might be that the reduction in coastal activity levels is entirely coincidental and driven by other factors.  We have yet to see the system’s full capability demonstrated in a coordinated interdiction of a criminal group, but we cannot rule out the possibility that its mere existence has served to deter criminals from going to sea.  

In time, as the various maritime bodies in Nigeria learn how to operate the system to its optimum capacity, we might see the coastal waters actively patrolled and aggressive, intelligence-led interdiction of maritime criminals at sea.  The system will only come into its own however if it is fully integrated with other capabilities – onshore intelligence gathering and security forces operations to disrupt or detain criminal gangs.  To achieve this, the Nigerian authorities will need to overcome inter-agency rivalries and generate truly integrated operations based on intelligence fusion centres and agile decision-making structures that can deploy the right response, to the right place, in the right timeframe.

One other factor that has possibly impacted on the overall security of the region is the ever-increasing international interest in the region.  2021 has seen the deployment of several foreign naval assets to the region, including warships from Italy, France, the USA, and most recently from the UK.  HMS Trent recently arrived in Lagos with a team of Royal Marines on board (see our previous article here).  The latter specialise in cross-decking, boarding, and interdiction operations.  It is intended that they will conduct several training exercises with indigenous navies during their five-country, three-month deployment.  This reflects the UK government’s acknowledgment of the region as a strategically vital region for commerce.  Japan has also pledged to invest $260,000 in training and other programs to support efforts to combat piracy in the region.

Regional cooperation and information sharing among indigenous navies is evolving – but very slowly.    Numerous summits have been held over the last decade, and they invariably conclude with ambitious statements about international cooperation.  Unfortunately, as genuine as these ambitions are, they are rarely enabled; protectionism and vested interests undermine the results.  However, there is an incremental improvement in the amount and effectiveness of international cooperation.  This is driven by economic reality and, over time, will generate greater effectiveness in cross-boundary/border operations.

Other factors should also not be ignored, and these include the links between criminality and the electoral cycle in Nigeria.  Historically, as an election approaches, acquisitive criminal activity increases.  This is true of the maritime domain as well as onshore, with historical links between spikes in inshore criminal activity and the generation of electoral funds for some campaigners in the coastal states of the country.  Currently, Nigeria sits in mid-term, which has generally seen a lowering of maritime criminal activity.  However, as the next election approaches, we should expect to see an increase in robbery, hijacking and kidnapping in Nigeria’s waters.

Additionally, we have recently seen greater efforts by the courts of Ghana and Nigeria to pass down meaningful sentences to criminals convicted of acts of piracy and maritime armed robbery (see our piece on a recent Togolese court ruling here).  Whilst it is normally the low-ranking ‘foot soldiers’ who are captured and tried, the imposition of long jail terms on those convicted might serve to loosen tongues and reveal the sponsors and patrons behind the pirate gangs.  In the short term, this could weaken the resolve of the low-ranking actors and serve as a warning to the men in the background.  In the long term, this could result in the exposure of a senior sponsor behind one of the gangs – although any resultant prosecution would require considerable political will if the prosecution is to be successful.


While there does appear to be a reduction in piracy according to open-source data, anecdotal information suggests that significant numbers of incidents are not reported.  It is not possible to say whether this reporting gap is contrived or simply attributable to systemic challenges.  It is also hard to say whether the under-reporting has escalated, although the percentage of successful attacks within those reported has increased, which would indicate again that more are not being reported.  What can be determined is that the threat to mariners in the region remains severe, with the risk of kidnapping being higher in Gulf of Guinea waters than anywhere else in the world.  Additionally, the region hosted all of the world’s hijackings in 2020-21.  

Finally, as we approach the end of the year, we should expect to see the annual trend of a spike in maritime criminal activity in the run-in to Christmas and other end-of-year festivities.  The next few weeks will be informative insofar as if the downward trend is maintained then we might need to consider the possibility that a fundamental shift has occurred.  However, if we see a spike in activity, it might suggest that the reduction in activity rates this year might be anomalous or just a temporary lull. 

Therefore, Arete recommends that commercial shipping organisations maintain their existing states of preparedness and countermeasures.  Ship Security Officers and Company Security Officers should ensure their vessels are compliant with the requirements of the ISPS Code and adhere to the recommendations enshrined in Best Management Practices 5.  Arete is ready to assist and support with our full range of maritime risk management solutions – including Security Operations Support provided from our 24/7/365 Joint Operations Centre located in Lagos, Nigeria. 


[1] ICC IMB Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for the period 01 Jan 2021 – 30 Jun 2021

[2] UNODC – Pirates of the Niger Delta: Between Brown and Blue Waters