Faced with maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, the response is getting organized

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Lieutenant-Commander Yves Le Goff, of the French naval vessel

The alert this time came from the United Nations. “While Southeast Asia and the Gulf of Guinea experienced almost the same number of incidents in 2020, 623 of the 631 sailors (99%) affected by kidnappings around the world in 2020 are working in the Gulf of Guinea”, reveals a report titled “Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea: A Cost Analysis for Coastal States”. The document published Tuesday, December 7, estimates that piracy has cost $ 1.925 billion per year to the African countries concerned.

“Although there has been a decrease in the number of pirate attacks so far in this dry season, we have seen more brutal attacks where more sailors have been kidnapped.”, explained the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anniken Huitfeldt, who came to New York to sensitize the members of the UN on this crucial issue for this maritime nation and who financed the report.

Read also Shipping companies call for coalition against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Stretching from Senegal to Angola, and known for its hydrocarbon-rich waters and fishery resources, the Gulf of Guinea is considered the most dangerous maritime area in the world. For several years, international mobilization has increased, but the task is titanic: every day, nearly 1,200 boats cross in these waters, the extent of which is as large as seven times the size of France.

Hosted since June 2016 in Brest, in the basements of the Maritime Prefecture of the Atlantic, some 5,500 kilometers from the West African Gulf, the Maritime Information Cooperation and Awareness Center (MICA Center) is at the heart of the system. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, any report of an act of piracy on the surface of the globe is processed there in real time. The service is free for boats – regardless of their flag or nationality – for which it is sufficient to indicate their presence when entering a risk area.

« Urgent, urgent… Piracy Attack ! »

On February 6, 2021, this is where the call for help from the Sea Phantom, a 130-meter tanker. A few hours after weighing anchor from Lomé, capital of Togo, towards the Cameroonian port of Limbe, the tanker was approached by a skiff sailing at high speed with nine pirates on board from the Niger Delta, in southern Nigeria . In a few minutes, they deploy a ladder of ten meters and climb aboard the vessel registered in the Marshall Islands.

It was 11:19 p.m. when the captain of the Sea Phantom launches an alert message: « Urgent, urgent, urgent… Piracy Attack ! Crew Inside Citadel. » [Attaque de pirates ! L’équipage est réfugié dans la citadelle, une salle du navire dont les accès sont sécurisés] On board, the pirates take control of the ship and shut down the engines on the high seas.

The French navy ship “Commandant Birot” in the Gulf of Guinea, off the port of Tema, near Accra, in February 2014.

“First, we warned all the surrounding boats so that they would move away, indicates Gilles Chehab, Lieutenant-Commander and Commander of the MICA Center until August. When an attack fails, the pirates stay in the area and return to other ships until they achieve their goal. “

At the same time, local authorities in all coastal countries are warned that an attack is underway. The Sao Tome National Navy plans to send the Zaire, a Portuguese Navy ship crossing in the area. But the rallying distance is considered too great.

Zero tolerance in Nigeria

Equatorial Guinea finally decides to divert a Nigerian military ship and another Cameroonian. In the early morning, the crew of the Sea Phantom manages to regain control of the ship. At 3:20 p.m., the tanker was finally secured by Cameroonian sailors and soldiers. The pirates, realizing that the game was lost, set off a few hours earlier.

If a drama was narrowly avoided, the episode illustrates the complexity of fighting against the phenomenon. In 2013, the nineteen countries that make up the Gulf of Guinea signed the Yaoundé agreement to carry out joint and concerted actions against piracy. At the beginning of November in Pointe-Noire (Congo), a symposium, organized with the French defense ministry, brought together all the security officials of the countries to mark the start of the operationalization of this Yaoundé architecture. It ended with the organization of Exercise Grand African Nemo, a dynamic demonstration of the Marines off Pointe-Noire.

Read also 50% increase in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in 2019

Nigeria has also taken strong action. In July, the country’s justice sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment ten men who in 2020 hijacked off the Ivorian coast FV Hailufeng, a Chinese ship. This was the second trial under a new anti-piracy law.

“This verdict sends a strong warning: Nigeria has zero tolerance towards maritime criminals and its institutions”, said the spokesperson for the Nigerian Navy. In June, the country also acquired sixteen fast interceptor ships and three helicopters at a total cost of $ 195 million.

« Business Model »

These joint efforts appear to be paying off: In a report released on October 14, the International Maritime Bureau said criminal activity off Nigeria’s coast was down 77% from the first nine months of 2021.

“Nigeria is now giving a very strong impetus, but there is also a rise in power for Ghana and Togo, considers the French admiral Olivier Lebas, commander of the Atlantic maritime zone. Today, pirates are forced to attack further offshore, which means it is more difficult for them to target ships and motivate potential attack candidates. By complicating their business model, we cut them in their tracks. But we must remain cautious. ”

Read also Piracy in West Africa, “a threat to all countries”

In ten years or so, maritime piracy has moved from the Gulf of Aden, where it has almost disappeared thanks to Operation Atalanta, a military and diplomatic mission initiated by France and implemented by the European Union. at the end of 2008, in the Gulf of Guinea. But, geographically and diplomatically, the situations are totally different.

“The Gulf of Aden is a corridor and therefore it is easier to control, recalls Olivier Lebas. East of Africa, we are faced with failed states, like Yemen and Somalia, which cannot ensure the security of their coasts. In the Gulf of Guinea, there are a multitude of ports and therefore roads over a territory which is immense. And the coastal countries bordering it want to take control of their security. »

The profile of criminals is also different. Faced with the former fishermen converted into pirates that we can meet off the coast of Somalia, we find perfectly structured bands off the coast of Nigeria, Cameroon or Benin. They are run by gangs headed by powerful leaders who have built their empires through hostage trafficking but also drug trafficking.

According to the UN report, the pirate groups concentrated in the Niger Delta which overlooks the Gulf of Guinea “Earn maybe $ 5 million in direct income per year from theft and hostage-taking”.