Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea - the problem that won’t go away

Piracy’s lofty heights in the mainstream media seems to have passed with the demise of Somalian piracy which cost the industry billions of dollars and worse, the lives of and trauma to so many seafarers. Various reasons have seen almost the complete end of piracy in that region, but the recent attack on the MV MOZART in the Gulf of Guinea is a timely reminder that piracy continues to curse the industry and put the lives of innocent seafarers at risk.


On 23 January 2021, it was reported that the MV MOZART had been boarded by armed pirates while proceeding from Lagos, Nigeria to Cape Town, South Africa. The crew retreated to the citadel, but this was breached by the pirates. Fifteen crew members were kidnapped and one was killed, three crew members were left on board to sail the vessel blindly towards Gabon using radar only, due to damage to the vessel’s controls. On 12 February 2021, it was reported that all fifteen kidnapped crew members were safely released.

The growing problem

Since 2012, statistics from the International Maritime Bureau show a steady downward trend in global piracy such that, excluding the Gulf of Guinea attacks, actual and attempted attacks have fallen to less than 50% of the 2012 figures. However, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has moved in the other direction and these incidents are now almost 50% more than the 2012 figures. Furthermore, it is not only the increase in the number of the attacks which gives cause for concern, but also the evolving modus operandi of the pirates.

When piracy first re-emerged, violent attacks on and subsequent ransacking of vessels (which was effectively maritime robbery) were common, but the pirates tended not to take hostages. However, and perhaps with an eye on the Somalian pirates’ increasing returns, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea changed tact and began targeting the cargos on board vessels. There were violent hijackings of product or chemical tankers, which would be ‘lost’ for five or so days with their AIS switched off whilst the cargo was transhipped. The vessel and crew would then be released and the cargo sold on the black market.

The significant drop in the price of oil in 2014 (a fall of almost 60% in seven months) made this modus operandi less lucrative, and West African pirates turned to the kidnapping of seafarers for ransom. In 2014 there were nine reported instances of crew kidnappings worldwide, six of which were in Nigeria. According to the IMB’s annual piracy report for 2020, this has increased to 135 instances, 130 – or 95% - of which were in the Gulf of Guinea in 22 separate incidents. The Gulf of Guinea is now undeniably the global epicentre of piracy in the form of crew kidnap for ransom.

The increasing capabilities of pirates in the region are also reflected in attacks taking place further away from the shoreline. Hostages are generally taken by pirates back to land and this has previously meant attacks occur closer to the shore. However, the average kidnapping incident in 2020 took place 60NM from the shore; the attack on MV MOZART was 100 NM offshore, and one incident occurred almost 200NM away. The IMB now recommends that vessels remain 250NM off the coast where possible until they are able to transit to berth or safe anchorage to commence cargo operations. 

Why is the Gulf of Guinea such a hotspot for piracy?

There are a myriad of complicated reasons why piracy continues in the region in the way that it has, which makes finding a solution all the more difficult.

  • On a socio-economic level, poverty and unemployment continues to be rife. Piracy may have its risks, but it is potentially lucrative. With limited legitimate alternatives, it is easy to see why there is no shortage of those willing to engage in this criminality. This is fuelled by the widely held belief regarding the theft of oil monies by politicians, rather than reinvestment into the region.
  • Kidnapped crew members are often brought to the Niger Delta swamp forests until a ransom for their release has been agreed. Not only are the conditions inhospitable for the crew, it is increasingly difficult for the authorities to police the vast, swampy, largely inaccessible area.
  • High volumes of vessels trade in the area, which has significant oil reserves. Spanning an area of 2.35 million square kilometres along 6,000 kilometres of coastline, it is a difficult region to police and easy for pirates to get away before assistance arrives.
  • The perceived lack of protection and failure of many countries in the region to enforce international maritime laws makes piracy a relatively low risk endeavour in the Gulf of Guinea, especially when prosecutions for piracy in the region are rare.
  • Many of the solutions used in the Gulf of Aden are not available, such as the use of private armed guards on vessels. This is not allowed in the waters off most of the Gulf of Guinea states. Instead, many states only allow the hire of escort vessels with that state’s naval officers, which can be costly and have varied reliability. In any event, the effectiveness of armed guards in this region has been questioned due to the fact that West African pirates are seen as being better armed and more capable than Somalian pirates.
  • Naval escorts through the Gulf of Aden allowed naval forces from around the world, in particular the EU and the US, to protect trade through the shipping lanes. This was possible in international waters or even in Somalian waters where the government (such that it was) was in no position to object to the foreign naval interference. The same is unlikely to be the case for the states in the Gulf of Guinea who will wish to protect their sovereignty. In any event, the cost of doing so is likely to discourage foreign nations from stepping in – especially in the absence of the sort of media attention that Somalian piracy had, which no doubt prompted states to intervene.

What is being done

Updated Best Management Practice

For years, the industry has been familiar with Best Management Practice (BMP) which provides advice to vessels transiting the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea (and is now in its fifth edition), and which helped eradicate Somalian piracy. However, whilst many parts of BMP5 were helpful, it was not designed with the Gulf of Guinea specifically in mind. From a legal perspective, a vessel’s seaworthiness in the Gulf of Aden was directly linked to its adherence to BMP5 however the same could not be for vessels in the Gulf of Guinea.

Guidance for vessels in the Gulf of Guinea has been more difficult to achieve, perhaps due to the complexity of the problem. Maritime security in any region cannot be achieved without cross-border cooperation and to that end the Interregional Coordination Centre for the Implementation of Regional Strategy for Maritime Safety and Security in Central and West Africa was created. This led to the governments of 25 countries in and around the Gulf of Guinea signing the “Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery against Ships, and Illicit Maritime Activity in West and Central Africa”, widely known as the "Yaoundé Code of Conduct" with the aim of promoting regional maritime cooperation and a stable maritime environment through regional cooperation and information sharing. 

In March 2020, the Gulf of Guinea received its own BMP, with the publication of BMP West Africa, containing advice to vessel owners as to how to best detect, avoid, deter, delay and report attacks in the region. The IMB 2020 Report recommends that this is followed as a general rule. As with BMP5, insofar as BMP West Africa becomes the industry norm, it will likely be linked with the seaworthiness of the vessel.

International initiatives

The role of international shipping lanes in international trade makes piracy in any region a global concern and the EU has also implemented a number of projects to promote maritime security and support regional efforts in the Gulf of Guinea.

The IMO is due to form a Gulf of Guinea piracy working group this year, and is calling for enhanced cooperation and the proper implementation of BMP West Africa. There are also increasing calls for Western naval intervention in the region.

However, and as seen in the apparently minimal impact of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in reducing the number incidents in the region since its creation in 2013, cross-border initiatives can take decades to implement and rarely reap short-term benefits.

Power to convict

In August last year three men were fined €44,000 each by the court in Port Harcourt in Nigeria for their involvement in the hijacking of a vessel in the Gulf of Guinea in March 2020 and extracting a €169,000 ransom for the crew, under the recently enacted Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Bill of 2019.

These relatively new laws, enacted with the specific intent to curb and deter Nigerian piracy incidents, give effect to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, and the International Convention of Unlawful Act against the Safety of Navigation (SUA), 1988, and its Protocols. Whilst the first convictions are a welcome development, it is too early to assess whether they will achieve the stated aim of reducing piracy in the region, and must be viewed as part of the wider package of initiatives to be taken by the industry to reduce the threat.

The recent attack on the MV MOZART has however brought the problem to the forefront again, resulting in a IMO Circular Letter (no. 4382) on 10 February 2021 in which the Security General expressed his deep concern for the problem and encouraging, amongst other things, the implementation of BMP West Africa.


The findings regarding the Gulf of Guinea in the IMB’s annual piracy report for 2020 are no anomaly and reflect the continuing upward trend of piracy in the region which saw an ‘unprecedented rise’ in 2019 according to the IMB. The risks to vessels and their crew in the region continues to be a significant one. The current global pandemic, which has and will continue to adversely affect the livelihoods of West Africans, is only going to make piracy a more attractive option to many desperate to earn money.

The various factors discussed above mean that this issue is not going away any time soon. The underlying problems and causes are perhaps more complicated and difficult to resolve than those for the east coast of Africa. Until they can be resolved or there is a solution which effectively deters piracy, it is a financial cost that will continue to fall on the shipping industry and insurers, especially if the pirates become bolder in their actions.

In that regard, there is sometimes a tension between third-party Protection and Indemnity (P&I) liabilities arising out of piracy incidents (provided that terrorism exclusions do not apply) when crew members are kidnapped and removed from the vessel, given that ransom is not an expressly covered risk (but may be offered on a discretionary basis), and the availability of alternative kidnap and ransom insurance.

However, it is the human cost on innocent seafarers which should be of most concern. This means that all parties need to be aware of the dangers in the region, prepare their vessels and crew accordingly, and be ready to react promptly should any incident occur.

Read other items in Marine Brief - March 2021

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