Humanitarian Challenges of Piracy Off West Africa

Feb 15, 2013

by the Rev. David M. Rider, President & Executive Director

I represented the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) in London at the second of a series of meetings on piracy off the coast of West Africa sponsored by Oceans Beyond Piracy. The 20-person group involved a wide cross section of stakeholders including ship owner associations, diplomatic and military leaders, maritime organizations, major oil companies, industry groups, shipping associations and several humanitarian organizations.

Using an off-the-record forum to encourage frank discussion, the group reviewed emerging trends documenting increased activity in the Gulf of Guinea, an area of the Atlantic Ocean combining international waters and the sovereign territorial waters of Nigeria, Benin and Togo. While anti-piracy authorities presume many attacks on ships and fishing vessels go unreported because owners fear getting caught up in criminal bureaucracies that delay voyages, in 2012, officials recorded 62 incidents in the region, including 10 successful hijackings with 185 crew taken hostage, 26 seafarers kidnapped from ship to land and at least four killed. Although most attacks took place at anchorage or during ship-to-ship fuel transfers (vessels trading in the region are at much higher risk than those passing by on international shipping corridors), the distance from shore where these attacks occurred stretched up to 120 miles.

While East Africa (Somalia) piracy hijackings typically last for months, during which the crew is held for ransom while cargo is ignored, West Africa hijackings target petroleum chemical tankers to steal fuel for resale on the black market. This transnational organized crime requires highly technical knowledge to accomplish, though hijackers sometimes force crew to engineer stolen fuel transfers. More intelligence-led than opportunistic, such attacks also need corrupt collusion by land-based officials to turn a blind eye in territorial waters, permitting illicit ships to blend into the marketplace. The hijackings are typically short-duration—perhaps several days—but hijackers resort to gratuitous violence to subdue the crew and because ransom negotiation—requiring live hostages—seldom occurs.

Legally, hijacking in territorial waters is called armed robbery, while the same act in international water is called piracy. The distinction has consequence for jurisdiction, investigation and prosecution, but seafarers face the same personal crisis regardless. Widespread rumors of violence and fatal attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have fostered fear among seafarers, especially when corrupt local officials fail to take emergency action to deter the crime or rescue the ship. Even the citadel strategy—where the crew of an attacked vessel locks itself in the engine room or other secure space to avoid harm—works only if rescue is imminent but may backfire or even blow up the ship if attackers use grenades to break through and force crew cooperation. Whereas in Somalia live crew increases the value of ransom payment, in the Gulf of Guinea, hijackers often only value crew as facilitators to cargo theft. Woefully, at other times, attackers kill crewmembers to eliminate prosecutorial witnesses.

I led a session highlighting SCI’s recent research on seafarer trauma and resilience amid extreme conditions of piracy. We discussed in depth the humanitarian toll of long-duration captivity off Somalia compared to briefer but more violent scenarios in West Africa. Using anecdotal cases, our group discussed protocols for medical evaluation and crew change after short-term hijackings versus immediately getting underway when real-world pressures force a return to sea with all but the most injured remaining on board. We discussed the therapeutic importance of crew cohesion that allows shipmates to make sense of the ordeal together after its conclusion. I stressed the importance of seafarers’ resilience to promote full recovery. Above all, SCI strongly encourages competent medical evaluation and individualized follow-up treatment to assure seafarer health and dignity.

Unfortunately, armed robbery and piracy present a persistent challenge in the busy shipping corridors of East and West Africa. Piracy remains a symptom of intractable shore-side challenges as much as a maritime problem in itself. As a humanitarian organization, SCI remains committed to alleviating seafarer suffering while working to build clinical protocols to employ in this highly challenging and medically underserved part of the world.