Ankur Varma, third officer on the oil tanker M/V Cotton, opened his cabin door at five minutes to midnight on July 14 to find two men pointing AK-47s at him.
‚ÄúThey just pushed me into the cabin with the guns in my chest and they told me to stay silent,‚Äù Varma said in a phone interview from¬†India. ‚ÄúThey were threatening, they were showing the guns, pointing at us. They took everything — everything that we had — including clothes, toiletries, electronics.‚Äù
They also took the ship‚Äôs cargo. The Maltese-flagged vessel was carrying about 10,000 tons of¬†fuel oil¬†belonging to France‚Äôs largest oil company when it was attacked by 15 pirates off the coast of Gabon in West Africa. The hijackers kept control of the tanker for seven days as they siphoned off the fuel.
While¬†Total SA (FP)¬†eventually got its fuel oil back with the help of¬†Ghana‚Äôs navy, Varma‚Äôs story is becoming increasingly typical as Africa‚Äôs west coast replaces¬†Somalia¬†as the world‚Äôs most piracy-prone area. The attacks, which are getting more frequent and more violent, threaten shipping in sub-Saharan Africa‚Äôs largest oil-producing region.
West Africa‚Äôs Gulf of¬†Guinea¬†had 40 piracy attacks in the first nine months of the year, compared with 10 incidents in waters around Somalia, according to¬†data¬†from the International Maritime Bureau‚Äôs Piracy Reporting Center. As well as stealing from ships, kidnappings are on the rise. Last month, two U.S. citizens were seized from a supply ship before being released after more than two weeks.
‚ÄúInitially they were interested in holding the ships, stealing the cargo, taking this ship‚Äôs crew possessions and money and leaving,‚Äù said¬†Roy Paul, a director at Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response¬†Program. ‚ÄúThis year, we‚Äôve seen an increase in taking hostages‚Äù for ransom.
Nigeria, Gabon, Ghana and other countries around the Gulf of Guinea, produce more than 3 million barrels a day, or about one-third of Africa‚Äôs output, according to data compiled by BP Plc. The region‚Äôs crude, often so-called sweet grades that are refined into high-value motor fuels, is shipped to refiners in the U.S.,¬†Europe¬†and¬†Asia. Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea are also leading liquefied natural gas exporters.
This year, piracy has spread through the region from Nigeria, where theft from ships has long been common, and ships are being attacked further offshore, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Boardings or hijacks have been reported off Togo,¬†Ivory Coast,¬†Sierra Leoneand Guinea.
Piracy‚Äôs rise in West Africa has been mirrored by its decline off Somalia, where kidnappings spurred a response from shipowners and western governments. The deployment of warships and the use of armed guards has resulted in the number of incidents plunge this year.
The use of private security may be less appropriate in the Gulf of Guinea because the pirates are more violent, said Jan Fritz Hansen, who chairs the piracy task force at the¬†European Community Shipowners‚Äô Association.
‚ÄúThey are becoming more and more organized,‚Äù Hansen said in an interview. ‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt really rely on private armed guards. It should be a more strong force from governments. The criminals down there are a bit better equipped and armed.‚Äù
International¬†oil companies¬†exporting from the region are taking steps to protect ships from attack.
‚ÄúWe take additional precautions on all our LNG tankers for security,‚Äù Andrew Gould, chairman of U.K.-based producer¬†BG Group Plc (BG/), which exports all of Equatorial Guinea‚Äôs natural gas, said in an interview. ‚ÄúWe have a procedure in place. We have warned people.‚Äù
Peter Voser, the chief executive officer of¬†Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA), the biggest operator of¬†oil fields¬†in Nigeria, and Total Chief Financial Officer Patrick de la Chevardiere said they had policies to protect their vessels from attacks.
‚ÄúWe are facing a difficult situation in Nigeria. We are protecting our staff there,‚Äù de la Chevardiere said. ‚ÄúWe faced several kidnappings in Nigeria for money. We were able to solve all of them.‚Äù
West African nations made some progress on fighting piracy after agreeing on a¬†Code of Conduct¬†to help protect trade and shipping, said Simon Bennett, a director at the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents companies controlling more than 80 percent of the world‚Äôs merchant tonnage. Last month, politicians agreed to develop coordination mechanisms in 2014, the United Nations Office for West Africa¬†said.
The M/V Cotton‚Äôs 24 crew members were released unharmed after more than a week being held by the pirates, who claimed to be from Nigeria, Varma said. The seafarer is considering a new line of work.