Last week was a difficult one for Accra. To begin with, Ghanaian government websites, including the navy homepage, were infiltrated by a little-known Turkish hacker group called ‘Alsancak Tim’. This would have been bad enough for naval and other department officials, had Ghanaian leaders not already come under fire over their maritime-policing capabilities following yet another pirate assault. Indeed, just 7 days prior to the cyberattack on 21 January 2015, 8 armed assailants – allegedly Nigerian nationals – shelled the MT OCEAN SPLENDOR, a Panama-flagged bulk carrier that had been adrift 157 nautical miles (nm) south east of the Ghanaian capital. Of course, neither incident can be described as being related. Nevertheless, from cyber security to maritime security, Accra appears to be on the public relations defensive, by promising that swift justice will be brought to any and all criminal perpetrators in country – whether they be online or in the sea.
YET ANOTHER PIRATE ATTACK
The attack on the OCEAN SPLENDOR can only be described as harrowing. In the late-night hours of 14 January 2015, 8 armed pirates opened fire on the bulk carrier, before boarding and taking all personnel hostage. Some crew members were even assaulted by their kidnappers, who only released their victims after stealing their personal belongings and other valuables from the OCEAN SPLENDOR. The pirates then dismantled the bulk carrier’s communications equipment and threatened the crew, warning them not to “move the vessel” until sunrise – presumably to allow the assailants sufficient time to escape. This incident, however, would not be the last recorded in Ghana. Within 3 days, reports would also emerge regarding a separate incident: the hijacking and later recovery of the crude oil tanker MT MARIAM.
According to reports from local news outlets, on 17 January 2015, the Ghanaian navy found the MT MARIAM drifting some 26 nm south east of Tema. Upon boarding the vessel, Ghanaian forces arrested 8 pirates believed to be the very same perpetrators of the attack on the OCEAN SPLENDOR. Tema port authorities claim that amid the raid, they found a number of weapons, including 4 AK-47 rifles, 10 fully-loaded AK47 magazines with a total of 300 rounds of ammunition and one pump-action gun. Approximately 43,850 Nigerian Naira (US$236.32) was also discovered in the hands of the perpetrators, leading Ghanaian officials to suspect that Nigerian assailants had, in fact, orchestrated the attack. Further details of the security operation, however, remain a bit shrouded in mystery.
Ghanaian officials maintain that the pirates had actually hijacked the MT MARIAM near Warri, Nigeria, in on 11 January 2015. Upon seizing the vessel, the 8 assailants then syphoned 1,500 metric tomes of crude oil before taking the vessel westward into Togo. However, the vessel soon began to drift into Ghanaian territorial waters, forcing the GNS BLIKA to deploy to the scene. By 17 January 2015, the Ghanaian navy rescued the ship, arrested the pirates and freed the MT MARIAM’s 9 crew members. Although additional reports have yet to be released, the information revealed thus far has raised speculation as to where the incident actually took place. Nigerian pirates, for example, rarely attack a vessel within Nigerian waters first, before taking it westward into Togo and Ghana. On the contrary, most attacks occur in reverse: many Nigerian assailants first traverse the Gulf of Guinea westward, with the aim of hijacking vessels near the Ghanaian / Togolese border, before bringing the vessel back east into Niger Delta-area locations, such as Warri. Concurrently, it is conceivable that the assailants may have, upon hijacking the MT MARIAM, aimed to use the tanker as a pirate mothership from which further attacks could be launched, including the attack on the OCEAN SPLENDOR.
AN IMAGE TO PROTECT
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding either incident, both illustrate that piracy remains a serious threat to Ghana. This is despite protests from authorities in Accra, some of whom still deny that the barrage of attacks recorded in Ghana in 2014 actually took place within their borders. Ghana’s Deputy Interior Minister James Agalga is one such individual. Following the rescue of the MT MARIAM, the Ghanaian official noted that “some time ago”, Ghana had “a similar incident and I made it very clear that the government has invested a lot in maritime security so we are safe”. Agalga was of course referring to the hijacking of the MT FAIR ARTEMIS, a Liberian-flagged oil products tanker that was taken by pirates on 05 June 2014. Similar to the most recent wave of incidents reported near his country, following this particular attack, Agalga denied reports that the hijacking had taken place within Ghanaian territory, arguing that the maritime borders are just too “dangerous for pirates to operate”. In June 2014, another senior official at Tema port also argued that the MT FAIR ARTEMIS had been captured and robbed in “Togolese waters”. However, both assessments contradicted reports from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) as well as other maritime reporting agencies. This difference in views could suggest that Ghanaian leaders have been trying to deflect potential criticism of their security operations in order to maintain their country’s reputation, and diffuse uneasiness among foreign investors keen on capitalising on Ghana’s potential as an offshore energy powerhouse, and as a major maritime transportation hub. Indeed, Ghana is believed to have between 5 billion – 7 billion barrels of petroleum reserves, making it the 6th largest in Africa. Given that 3 of Ghana’s 4 attacks recorded in 2014 occurred within the vicinity of the country’s hydrocarbon-rich Keta-Sub Basin, it is perhaps no wonder that Accra would be hesitant to admit to security failures.
THE GHANAIAN SECURITY RESPONSE
Gas and oil production is significant; it could attract greater vessel traffic, and will undoubtedly require port expansion – something leaders in Accra are already keen on accomplishing. In November 2014, for example, the Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority (GPHA) already confirmed it would divert US$1.5 billion to refurbishing the port of Tema, with the aim of making it the largest in West Africa. With so much at stake, it is understandable why Ghanaian leaders might be anxious over reports of piracy. And to be fair to Accra, for the most part the country’s maritime security experts appear to be responding to issue. Case in point: Ghana has already taken a strong approach to the case of the MT MARIAM. Although dithering with regard to the potential repatriation of the Nigerian attackers, Ghana’s Bureau of National Investigations (BNI) says it will continue to examine how the vessel managed to enter Ghanaian waters in the first place. In October 2013, the country’s navy also confirmed that it would deploy further “special boat units” to protect offshore oil infrastructure as well as monitor the country’s waters for “smuggling, illegal fishing, weapons and drug trafficking”. These improvements, however, can only go so far. Indeed, the size of the Ghanaian navy, and its capacity to effectively monitor the country’s maritime assets, continues to be called in question. As of 2014, the military wing is believed to number just over 1,000 personnel with only 27 naval ships, among of which include 4 Chinese-built Snake Class Patrol Vessels, 2 US Balsam Class Patrol Ships and 4 German-produced fast attack crafts. Although these figures should be weighed with the country’s relatively small population; it nevertheless remains to be seen as to whether Ghana’s navy could quickly thwart all potential attacks.
In defence of Ghana, the country presents as a comparatively lower-risk area for maritime crime, at least when compared to Nigeria and other more piracy-prone nations in the Gulf of Guinea. Nevertheless, its projected energy expansion, and potential unfortunate security side effects, cannot be denied. With an increased growth in commercial vessel transits, comes more potential targets for the Gulf of Guinea’s pirates. Similar to that which unfolded in the aftermath of Nigeria’s oil boom, in which pirates began trying to capitalise on the flow of vessels carrying oil-related pirates, assailants, particularly those based in Nigeria, could potentially shift their operations westward toward Ghana. A caveat to this, however, is that Nigeria and Ghana are entirely separate countries, with different political, economic and social histories. Nevertheless, Ghana’s security may inherently be linked to the capacity of its regional neighbours to thwart criminal activity within their own territorial waters. Breakdowns in security along Côte d’Ivoire, for example, could impact western Ghana. Meanwhile, the inability of Nigerian authorities to counter criminal activity within the Niger Delta could also embolden assailants and further destabilise surrounding West Africa, including Ghana. In other words, Ghana cannot afford to be in denial about its piracy problem.