Last week, the Danish military killed four pirates in the Gulf of Guinea, a global hotspot for piracy. The incident raises fresh concerns about the safety of seafarers and vessels operating in West African waters.

The Danish crew in a frigate were responding to reports of an “increased risk of piracy” in waters south of Nigeria. The ship and a helicopter were deployed to observe any activity, according to a statement by the Danish military.

In an area with merchant ships, the helicopter crew spotted a fast-moving motorboat with eight men on board with tools associated with piracy, including ladders. Soldiers called on the pirates to let them board. When the pirates did not respond, the Danish forces fired warning shots. The pirates opened fire on the soldiers with the military firing shots back. The exchange killed four pirates and left one injured.

The Danish government announced plans to deploy the frigate to combat piracy in the region in March. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had been scheduled to visit nearby Ghana on November 24, the day of the incident, to observe Denmark’s work patrolling the region.

Michael Howlett, director at the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), tells GTR: “The IMB commends the Danish navy for disrupting an active pirate action group. If left unchecked, such groups have the capability to directly impact innocent seafarers in the region and the vital trades they facilitate.

“This incident also reinforces the need for a timely and meaningful information exchange mechanism to report and respond robustly to such incidents.”

Bashir Jamoh, director general at the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (Nimasa), said in a statement: “Let me assure you that Nimasa is in contact with the Nigerian navy and relevant actors, as we continue to collaborate towards a total de-confliction, not only in our waters, but also in the Gulf of Guinea.”

Nigerian newspaper Punch has reported that the Nigerian Maritime Law Association (NMLA) has raised concerns over the killing of the pirates by the Danish naval forces.

“The association supports all efforts to rid the Gulf of Guinea of piracy, maritime offences and all forms of criminality. It is concerned, however, about the sanctity of Nigeria’s sovereignty, application of the rule of law and respect for protocols of engagement with regard to the… incident,” reads a statement by NMLA published by the paper.

The Gulf of Guinea extends from Senegal to Angola and is a major shipping route for the transportation of oil and gas, as well as goods, between Central and Southern Africa. Each day, 1,500 fishing vessels, tankers and cargo ships navigate the gulf’s waters. It has become a hotspot for piracy due to high unemployment rates in coastal West Africa, weak security, and a lack of enforcement of maritime laws.


Risky waters

Despite the incident, figures from the IMB last month note a decrease in piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea this year. The body said the region recorded 28 incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the first nine months of 2021, in comparison with 46 for the same period in 2020.

However, it warns the “risk to crew remains high in the region and that… efforts must therefore be sustained”. In the briefing, IMB also points to “worrying signs” in the Singapore Strait and concerns about the area off the coast of Peru.

According to the bureau’s piracy alerts, the last reported attack in West African waters was only a few weeks ago, on November 12. Robbers boarded an anchored offshore supply ship near Angola, stole the ship’s stores and escaped. This type of attack is different to what has been occurring in West African waters in the past few years – pirates have been focusing on kidnapping seafarers and holding them for ransom, rather than thieving cargo.

The IMB’s Howlett adds: “Since 2016, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of multiple crew kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea. All types of vessels are being targeted at increasing distances from the shore.”

Regional efforts are being ramped up to improve maritime safety. Earlier this month, Nigeria agreed to implement the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Whole of Government Approach to Maritime Security programme to boost safety. The scheme is made up of integrated workshops and tailored support aimed at helping IMO member states to develop national maritime security committees, risk registers and strategies.

This year, after a rise in piracy incidents in 2020, Nigeria launched its US$195mn “Deep Blue Project” to secure Gulf of Guinea waters. The project is being implemented by Nimasa and “provides both land and surveillance capabilities”. The programme involves the acquisition and deployment of high-tech equipment, including vessels, weapons, drones, helicopters and satellite communication systems.

The efforts follow IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim writing a letter in February to all agencies of the United Nations about piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. He said it presents a “serious and immediate threat” to crews and vessels operating in West African waters.

Lim called for better co-ordination between stakeholders and regional organisations to improve safety for ships and their operatives, while also highlighting a fatal incident involving a container ship in late January as the catalyst for action.