The security situation in the Gulf of Guinea continues to be a cause for concern for many observers. Under reporting in the region is at an all time high, with most incident reports coming via third parties or even through local media.
There have been multiple incidents already in 2014 in West Africa, although you would be forgiven for not having noticed, as few came via reporting agencies in the region. On January 9th, the Press and Information Office of Equatorial Guinea confirmed that the Spanish-owned MV San Miguel had been hijacked. The incident took place on January 3rd as the ship and crew of nine (five Indian nationals, three from Equatorial Guinea and one from Sao Tome & Principe) offered assistance to a vessel they believed was in distress. The Captain allowed them to pull alongside and the pirates boarded the ship armed with automatic weapons. The crew was robbed and the Captain was then ordered to continue sailing while they looked for other vessels to attack. When none was found, the Captain was then taken from the boat as a hostage along with a welder and engineer. The ship and crew then returned to Bioko Island. The incident wasn‚Äôt officially confirmed until January 16th, when the Spanish Navy issued a statement.
The hostages were finally released in an operation conducted by the Nigerian military, which was announced in the press on February 3rd.
The kidnapping of senior crew is becoming a trend in the region, and one which has not generally been picked up on by the media. On October 23rd 2013, the Captain and Chief Engineer of the US-flagged C-Retriever were kidnapped by gunmen off Brass, Nigeria. The incident made headlines around the world, primarily because the ship and hostages were all American. Both were freed after a ransom was allegedly paid, but the trend of kidnapping senior crew continues.
On January 10th, Nigerian media reported that a passenger craft had been attacked by robbers, who shot and killed at least one passenger before abducting two senior staff from the Nigerian Agip Oil Company. Then, on January 26th, a tug travelling from Port Harcourt to Brass was reportedly attacked and boarded by seven pirates who kidnapped the Captain and Chief Engineer. On January 31st, an Offshore Support Vessel (OSV) was reportedly attacked and boarded by pirates who also kidnapped the Captain and Chief Engineer. Unfortunately, none of these incidents have been confirmed by authorities in the region.
On February 6th, we received unconfirmed reports of three separate incidents in the region. The MT Suez Vasilis was reportedly attacked by pirates on February 5th at around 0045 LT SE of Brass, in position 03:46N-006:24E and this was reported by the IMB on February 8th.¬† The PSV Mariner Sea, a cable-laying vessel, was reportedly attacked at approximately 0900 LT around 60nm offshore of Pennington or Brass and the Captain and Chief Engineer kidnapped. The attackers left the ship in position 03:49N-005:43E.
Finally, the MT Cher was reportedly attacked at around 1000 LT in roughly the same area, SW Pennington and about 52nm off shore.
None of these incidents have made the headlines and only one has appeared on any official reports. That in itself should raise many questions. If kidnappers are now targeting senior crew, as would seem to be the case, then the shipping industry needs to be made aware of the fact. As has been well documented, the security model applied by shipping companies in the Indian Ocean cannot be used in West African waters; the territorial nature of the Gulf of Guinea means that armed guards can only be supplied by locally registered companies who contract naval personnel or members of the marine police.
Until the region is able to provide genuine reporting and protection, however, senior crew will remain at serious risk of kidnap. This is a situation which no-one in the security and shipping industries can be happy with, and we hope that things will change sooner rather than later.