Maersk calls for military action over surge in piracy off West Africa

A Maersk container ship travels along the English Channel, January 15 2021. Picture: REUTERS/JOHN SIBLEY
A Maersk container ship travels along the English Channel, January 15 2021. Picture: REUTERS/JOHN SIBLEY

Lagos — The world’s biggest shipping company demanded a more effective military response to surging pirate attacks and record kidnappings off the coast of West Africa.


The number of attacks on vessels globally jumped 20% in 2020 to 195, with 135 crew kidnapped, the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB’s) piracy reporting centre said in a January 13 report. The Gulf of Guinea accounted for 95% of hostages taken in 22 separate instances, and all three of the hijackings that occurred, the agency said.

The attacks have pushed up insurance and other costs for shippers operating off West Africa, with some resorting to hiring escort vessels manned by armed navy personnel. AP Moller-Maersk, which transports about 15% of the globe’s seaborne freight, said decisive action should be taken.

“It is unacceptable in this day and age that seafarers cannot perform their jobs of ensuring a vital supply chain for this region without having to worry about the risk of piracy,” said Aslak Ross, head of marine standards at Copenhagen-based Maersk. “The risk has reached a level where effective military capacity needs to be deployed.”


The Gulf of Guinea encompasses a vast tract of the Atlantic Ocean that’s traversed by more than 20,000 vessels a year, making it difficult for under-resourced governments to police. Fringed by an almost 6,500km-long shoreline that stretches from Senegal to Angola, it serves as the main thoroughfare for crude oil exports and imports of refined fuel and other goods.

Twenty-five African governments, including all those bordering on the gulf, signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct in 2013 to tackle piracy. It aims to facilitate information sharing and established five maritime zones to be jointly patrolled, but has been only partially implemented and most navies remain focused on safeguarding their own waters.

There is little international appetite for getting involved in Nigeria’s security problems
Jakob Larsen, head of maritime security at the Baltic and International Maritime Council

Bertrand Monnet, a professor of criminal risk management at France’s EDHEC Business School who has studied piracy in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region for 15 years, estimates that a maximum of 15 bands operate offshore West Africa, each comprising 20-50 members.

Hostages are usually held for ransom in Nigeria, the regional powerhouse that has taken the lead in preventing attacks. Its government plans to commission nearly $200m of new equipment in 2021, including helicopters, drones and high-speed boats, to boost the navy’s capabilities.


Nigeria is committed to “ensuring that this menace of piracy is [eliminated from] our waters, so that those with legitimate business in shipping, fishing, and oil and gas can go about their business without fear”, Rear-Adm Oladele Daji, commander of the Nigerian Navy’s western fleet, said.

Many shipowners favour a more muscular international effort modelled on the military response to hijackings offshore Somalia, which was the global epicentre of piracy from about 2001 to 2012. Armed guards and warships dispatched by the EU, Nato and a US-led task force to protect vessels travelling through the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest trade routes linking Europe to Asia, helped bring the problem under control.

If national governments focus on their territorial waters — the 12 nautical miles from their shores — major naval powers could reduce piracy further afield in the gulf by deploying two or three frigates equipped with helicopters, said Jakob Larsen, head of maritime security at the Baltic and International Maritime Council, a Copenhagen-based shipowners’ group. He considers such support unlikely because the sea routes aren’t as strategically important as those off Africa’s east coast.

“There is little international appetite for getting involved in Nigeria’s security problems,” he said.

The Liberian Shipowners’ Council urged the Nigerian authorities to disrupt the pirates’ onshore criminal activities. Improving employment prospects for impoverished coastal communities would reduce the threat of piracy in the longer term, but won’t address the immediate problem, said Kierstin Del Valle Lachtman, the council’s secretary-general.

Abductions common

While the West African attacks were initially concentrated offshore Nigeria, they have since spread to waters off Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Togo and Cameroon, said Kamal-Deen Ali, executive director of the Accra-based Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa and a former Ghanaian naval officer.

The number of violent attacks in the Gulf of Guinea has remained fairly consistent over the past decade, but abductions of more than 10 people have become increasingly common, said Dirk Siebels, senior analyst at Denmark-based Risk Intelligence.

The pirates are increasingly operating deeper out to sea, with kidnappings on average taking place 60 nautical miles offshore in 2020, according to the IMB. The furthest out took place in mid-July, when eight machine-gun-wielding pirates boarded a chemical tanker off Nigeria’s coast and seized 13 crew members before fleeing. Only unqualified seamen remained on the Curacao Trader, which was left adrift 195 nautical miles from the coast. The crew were freed the next month.

“The perpetrators of such incidents are perfectly aware there is almost no risk of being caught,” said Munro Anderson, a partner at London-based maritime security firm Dryad Global said. “That is precisely the kind of incident an international naval coalition could mitigate.”