Firearms, barbed wire, strong rooms: how sailors protect themselves from pirates in the Gulf of Guinea
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The Gulf of Guinea has become a hotspot for pirates – the number of sailors kidnapped increased by 40% between January and October 2020, according to the International Marine Bureau. Kidnappings in this region account for 95% of cases reported globally. The FRANCE 24 Observers obtained images of two recent pirate attacks.
The Gulf of Guinea stretches between the coast of Senegal, to the north, to the Angolan shores in the south. It includes the coasts of Togo, Cameroon and Nigeria and has become the new global epicentre of piracy, surpassing the Gulf of Aden, a former pirate hotspot that has been curbed in recent years.
This type of piracy began in the 1970s in the Niger Delta, in southwest Nigeria, the principal petrol-producing region in Africa.
In the past, these criminal groups stole oil, then sold it on the black market. But after oil prices fell in 2015, they changed tactics and started to pillage ships and kidnap sailors for ransom.
In most kidnapping cases, the authorities don’t participate in hostage negotiations. These are directly carried out by the shipowner and the ransom is paid by their insurance. The price can go up to 200,000 euros for a hostage from the West.
Faced with the growing insecurity in the region, shipping and petrol companies have had to adapt in recent years. When their vessel travels across an at-risk zone, some shipowners hire local armed guards, most of whom are soldiers or former soldiers.
This video, showing guards armed with rifles thwarting a pirate attack, was posted on YouTube on December 7.
Screengrabs of the video posted on YouTube on December 7.
Filmed from the gangway, this video shows armed guards and pirates exchanging fire as the pirates advance quickly in a small boat. The security team is speaking in Russian. About one minute, ten seconds into the video, one of the sailors – likely the captain – makes an announcement on the loudspeaker, again in Russian.
"Warning, team! Pirate attack, pirate attack, everyone go inside, stay away from the windows on the right side." About 1 minute and 56 seconds into the video, the pirate boat starts moving away from the vessel. The man filming cries out, “It’s ok, they’ve turned around [...]. Thankfully, we got guards, we would have been in deep s*** otherwise. [...] Bravo, guys, bravo!”.
The footage also shows that barbed wire has been put up, especially on the gangway.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to identify the ship shown in this video with the help of Dirk Siebels, a researcher in marine security.
There were not so many ships in the recent past which have reported a pirate attack that was then deterred by armed guards since that practice is generally not legal in Nigeria. Out of the reports in recent weeks, there has only been one ship that would be consistent with the vessel that can be seen in the video: the Cool Girl.
The reported time of the attack was 9:30 GMT on December 3. As you can see in the screenshot, the speed increased from the normal speed of around 12 knots (which the ship was sailing with for the voyage up to this point) to more than 18 knots which is reasonable to assume as the maximum speed on this type of ship. That is also consistent with what you can see takes place on the bridge in the video (increase in speed, but no course change).
The second image shows the overall track of the vessel before the attack. The ship went to Lagos first where it is reasonable to assume the armed guards were picked up (very likely Nigerian Navy or other military personnel), then the voyage towards Port Harcourt started. They could not have picked up armed guards somewhere out at sea but the ship did not go into port in Lagos, it was only at anchor for a short time there.
The screenshot is from the video at around 1:45, showing the funnel of the ship and particularly the white stripes on blue. That is consistent with the look of the ship in a photo taken in November, where you see the blue funnel with white stripes.
The Cool Girl flies under the Panamanian flag, but it is owned by a company registered in Greece, Baltmed Reefer Services Ltd. The company doesn’t have a website and its phone number isn’t public.
Lack of transparency is common in the world of shipping. Many shipowners prefer to remain discreet about their activities, especially those who put their ships under flags of convenience, which means they fly a different flag than where the shipowner is based. Flags of convenience allow companies to benefit from fiscal advantages and can also free them from having to comply with certain environmental and security restrictions.
As for a shipowner hiring armed guards; it hovers at the very edge of legality.
"When a ship crosses a country’s territorial waters, it has a "right to innocent passage" as we say in marine law – which means they can’t be armed. You need an official authorisation from the country to be able to sail in their territorial waters with arms,” says Éric Frecon, a researcher and teacher at the French Naval Academy. “But in practice, some shipowners contact local patrons or VIPs for this kind of service. They might reach out to a ranking officer in the army for example, instead of getting a green light from the government.”
A "citadel” to protect sailors from pirates
Some shipowners have actually built safe rooms where their sailors can hide during a pirate attack until help arrives. These strong rooms with reinforced doors are known as “citadels” in the naval world.
The sailors on the Errina oil tanker were very happy to have a citadel when their vessel was attacked by pirates on October 22. The sailors remained in the safe room for 24 hours. One of the sailors used his phone to make a video of the incident.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted him. A month after the attack, Ambrosio (not his real name) says he’s still in shock from the attack:
We were coming from Togo and heading towards Cameroon when the attack happened.
The alarm went off at 6am. We all ran towards the citadel, which is located in the engine room, and we closed the bullet-proof door behind us.
At a certain point, the pirates started hitting the door with a heavy object. We barricaded the door with all different objects and, thankfully, it held. We were really afraid. Some people were crying, others were praying. Because it was located in the engine room, we were really hot and really thirsty. We had very little water. I remember that, at one point, I took off my shirt and wrung it out over a cup. Then I drank several drops of sweat in a desperate attempt to hydrate myself.
The next day, around 6am, the captain decided to open the door. When we went back up, the pirates had already left and a Nigerian navy vessel was en route to help us.
The pirates ransacked our cabins and stole all of our objects of value, including phones, computers, jewelry and watches.
There has been increased international cooperation in recent years to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The Yaounde Process, which was launched in 2013, was meant to improve information-sharing amongst the countries in the region and included a plan to build 26 surveillance centres.
Since 2018, the French, Italian and American navies have been carrying out joint military exercises with the naval forces of countries in the Gulf of Guinea each October, in an attempt to improve their tactics for fighting crime on the high seas.