Ahoy normally is used as a hail by seamen to greet another ship or person to attract attention. It is also used by sailors to announce that something, usually another ship or land is in sight. But in the Gulf of Guinea this ahoy has become a dangerous one as it connotes imminent danger of deadly pirate attack which now is common place throughout the waters.
From obvious indications, member states of the Gulf of Guinea Commission have clearly shown they are incapable of tackling this evolving problem on their own as it is suspected to be a much more widespread set of activities. And as said by Kwesi Aning, head of research for the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center in Ghana, “every country in the region has been hit. They are trying to make us all think that piracy is about oil in the Gulf of Guinea. That is not true. It is also about narcotics. It's about small arms. It's about human trafficking.” These other areas the joint operations should also look at.
The seriousness of the problem would be better appreciated if we look at statistics of the frequency and scale of some reported cases. Few major incidents reported (media) as chronicled by Wikipedia included in 2009 alone: the hijacking of the French ship Bourbon Leda with five Nigerians, two Ghanaians, one Cameroonian and one Indonesian on board on January 4. It was freed January 7 after its cargoes were discharged and also ransom paid. The diesel tanker MT Meredith was attacked by gunmen on January 21 and a Romanian was kidnapped but released a day later. Also, the Exxon tanker MV Ngoni was attacked on the 23rd of that same month and a tugboat was also seized.
Two crew men were kidnapped after the Turkish ship Ilena Meran was attacked on April 21, 2009. Also on November 24, of the same year, pirates hijacked the Liberian-flagged Cancale Star off Benin and killed a Ukrainian officer before robbing the ship. And December 1 2009 saw the Ghanaian navy intercept the hijacked oil tanker African Prince a week after it was taken. The pirates escaped after killing the ship's chef.
Following the coming onstream of the Nigerian government’s amnesty programme for militants in the oil producing Niger Delta region, reported incidents of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea dropped drastically in 2010 though the following cases were recorded: March 13, A Chinese fishing vessel was hijacked off the Bakassi Peninsula, Cameroon. Seven fishermen were abducted. The kidnappers demanded a ransom and later released the vessel and its passengers on March 18. Also in September 23, Three Frenchmen were kidnapped from a vessel belonging to the company Bourbon off the Nigerian coast.
The flag-down in the criminal activity continued into 2011 where one of the major incidents reported occurred in August 3 when two Panamanian-flagged tankers were attacked off Benin's coast but the ships were not taken. This was barely one week after an Italian diesel tanker and a Swedish tanker were also attacked off Benin.
However, for whatever reason, the third quarter of 2012 heralded another hike in the dangerous ahoy in the Gulf of Guinea. According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate incidents off the West Africa seaboard in 2012 increased to 94 from the 45 cases reported in 2011 which was almost at par with reported major hijackings in 2010.
In August 2012 two major hijacks and several other minor incidents of armed robberies were reported. On the 19th of that month, a British-owned oil tanker was hijacked in the Port of Togo. This was followed by another incident on August 28 where a Greek-owned oil tanker was hijacked in the Port of Togo on Tuesday. The August 2012 attack introduced another dimension to the activities of the criminals as in all the recorded incidents, cargoes of the vessels which were majorly stolen crude oil from Niger Delta and petrol and gas oil (diesel) was siphoned from the hijacked vessels and tankers.
Abu Dhabi Star, a Singaporean-flagged oil tanker was hijacked on September 4 and this was followed by another incident on October 15 when a Luxembourgish-flagged anchor handling vessel named AHT Bourbon Liberty 249 was hijacked while off the coast of Nigeria. In December 23 2012, an Italian-registered ship was hijacked by seven pirates off the coast of Bayelsa state. Pirates successively released the ship with most of the crew, but took three Italians and a Ukrainian as hostages, who were freed a couple of weeks later after ransom was paid.
Then this year (2013) alone, four major hijacks were already reported. The first was on January 16 when a Panamanian-flagged vessel, ITRI, (owned by Ivory Coast company, Koda Maritime) was hijacked while transferring 5,000 tons of oil near Abidjan. This was followed by the hijacking of a Luxembourg-flagged oil tanker, Gascogne (owned by France) was hijacked approximately 70 nautical miles south of the port city of Abidjan on February 3.
Marshall Islands-flagged chemical tanker, Pyxis Delta (owned by the UAE), was hijacked off the coast of Nigeria on February 4. A Filipino crew-member was killed during the hijacking. This was followed a week later (February 11) by the hijacking of a UK-flagged cargo ship, Ester C, (owned by the Isle of Wight-based Carisbrooke Shipping) was hijacked by pirates between the Cameroonian port of Doula and the port of Malabo in Equatorial.
Interestingly, most of the reported cases involved mostly oil tankers, vessels and supply ships/boats. And seized oil vessels and tankers were redirected to chartered tankers that receive the stolen oil. So you see that it is a matter of oil. And as rightly captured by Raymond Gilpin, the director of the Center for Sustainable Economies at the U.S. Institute of Peace, “It's clear that the gang or gangs involved in this know exactly what they are looking for - oil tankers that are either anchored or moored in some form. The intent is to take over the vessel, direct it to a safe location and offload its cargo.”
According to a report done for Ajazera Centre for Studies by Freedom C. Onuoha, Research Fellow at the African Centre for Strategic Research and Studies at the National Defence College, Abuja, on “Piracy and Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea” a good percentage of the oil imported into the West and even East (China) come from the Gulf of Guinea. Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola and Katanga province of DR Congo are all oil producing. Cameroon in addition to its marginal production serves as the most critical terminus of a pipeline that drains oil from Chad.
So this thing is no longer a Nigerian problem as previously perceived by other countries in the region. The astronomical rise in the number and brutality of these attacks in the Gulf of Guinea should no longer be treated with levity and if countries in the region cannot on their own check the evolving menace, they should call for assistance from foreign navies and intelligence organizations to shore up maritime security in the region as done in waters in the Gulf of Eden off the coast of Somalia.
Is it not curious that the Gulf of Guinea is witnessing a rapid increase in hijacks, pirate attacks and other criminal activities despite the presence of foreign initiatives such as the Africa Partnership Station (APS), led by the U.S. Navy under the aegis of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)?
What are these collaborations supposed to be doing in the region- make the waterways safe or just watch while things go bad? Were they not supposed to be strengthening local capabilities through robust engagements?
Although, the United States may be restricted in its efforts to help because coordination may be tricky, as armed criminal gangs in most of the Gulf of Guinea states particularly Nigerian, Equatorial Guinea and Angola, claim their activities were mere expression of grievances against marginalization by their respective governments. But if AFRICOM cannot come in for full military intervention, it should actually play a more active role in capacity building in the area of quick response and intelligence to assist Navies and other maritime security agencies of the Gulf of Guinea states.
IFEANYI IZEZE can be reached on: [email protected]; 234-8033043009)