The recent attack on an oil tanker off Ivory Coast underlines what many are saying- that Nigerian pirates are getting bolder in the face of the international community’s greater focus on Somali piracy and that piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is as dangerous a threat to shipping and mariners.
The attack on a Panamax tanker on October 6 was a first- and furthest. The vessel was anchored off Abidjan for a ship to ship operation when more than a dozen men armed with AK47s boarded and hijacked it. The vessel was forced to leave Abidjan and sail through waters controlled by Ghana, Togo and Benin; she was taken into Nigerian waters. The tanker was finally released on October 9, but not before about 2500 MT of gas oil had been stolen by the pirates; she was carrying a total of about 30,000 MT. Fortunately, none of the 24 crew- Filipinos and Greeks- were injured, although the vessel’s communication system was trashed by the pirates.
The spread of piracy coupled with the rise of Islamic terrorism in Nigeria is now beginning to alarm more than a few analysts. The malaise has spread far beyond Nigerian waters; about 20 tankers were attacked last year off Benin, Nigeria’s western neighbour. Togo has seen a dozen attacks on anchored vessels off its coast this year after Benin and Nigerian navies took action in their waters; pirates simply moved west. And now, the waters off the Ivory Coast are becoming dangerous.
Operators have been moving their STS operations westwards in response to the spreading menace.
It seems, however, that the pirates are unfazed and not hesitant about operating far from their bases in Nigeria. What is worrying the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting centre, according to a recent report, is that the attack off the Ivory Coast represents a “potential game changer”; it is the furthest the pirates have struck from their bases so far. Masters and owners too, will have to rethink their planned STS operation locations immediately.
The IMB is also concerned about the fact that these attacks are specific. They target product tankers, and these attacks are not opportunistic. It follows that the criminals are getting their intelligence from somewhere, and are well organised with logistical support, so that they can pump out the cargo- usually gas oil- into smaller barges or tankers and then disappear.
There may be some parallels here with Somalia. “The gangs have access to ship movement intelligence along with a substantial network, personnel and expensive physical assets. These are well organised and resourced criminals. If the law enforcement agencies of the coastal countries in the Gulf of Guinea do not take determined action to arrest and prosecute them, they may find they have a growing criminal phenomenon taking root in coastal communities which they are unable to bring easily under control,” says an IMB report published a few days ago.