NIMASA’s GMSC: Fresh hopes for safer Gulf of Guinea region

Piracy and other criminalities have continued to plague the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) region, with increasing economic consequences, in spite of past and ongoing efforts to arrest the trend. themetrofile.com.ng looks at some issues of concern as ahead the Global Maritime Security Conference (GMSC) to be hosted by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) later this month.

A staggering 62 seafarers out of the reported total of 75 taken hostage onboard or kidnapped for ransom worldwide as at July 2019 were captured in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG), according to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

Also in same period, 73 per cent of all kidnappings at sea and 92 per cent of hostage-takings took place in the region, where armed pirates kidnapped 27 crewmembers in the first half of 2019, while eight of the nine vessels fired upon worldwide occurred at an average of 65 nautical miles off the coast of Nigeria – meaning that they were piracy acts.

The resurgence of piracy and high sea criminalities in the GoG region is a sad reminder of similar situation off the Somali coast up till about 2011, when over half of the reported global attacks of 439 were traced to Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It took a global intervention, like the one in view, to put it at rest.

The IMB report lists the coasts of Benin, Cameroun, Guinea, Nigeria and Togo as the world’s worst piracy hotspot and the most dangerous, even as security consultancy outfit, Africa Risk Compliance (ARC), noted that piracy remained chronically under-recorded, and in fact might double the figure recorded.

The region encompasses such West and Central African countries Angola, Benin, Cameroun, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

In addition to the violent attacks and the frequency of occurrence, piracy in this area has since about a decade focused mainly on kidnapping for ransom, which puts vessel crews particularly at greater risk. The Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), Hassan Bello, noted that over 88 pirate attacks on vessels calling at Nigerian seaports were recorded in 2017-2018.

The most easily noticed consequence seems the escalating cost of shipping to the region, as operators of ocean liners continually spike their insurance premium (War Risk Surcharge), which affects freight charges on Nigeria-bound goods, as shipping companies are forced to provide security escort for their vessels to ports, with incidental price increase on the economy.

Equally endangered is the region’s geostrategic and maritime potentials, including crude oil, diamond, gold and fishes, beside its huge deposit of hydrocarbon. The GoG holds about 50.4 billion barrels of proven reserves and produces 5.4 million barrels of oil per day, harbouring nearly 70 per cent of Africa’s oil production.

Consequently, its over 6,000 kilometre coastal arc, from Senegal in West Africa, through Cameroun in Central Africa to Angola in Southern Africa, without any constraints to shipping or vulnerability to accidents, is an area of global geo-maritime importance and a key hub of commercial maritime activities.

Given the gradual but steady growth of the political underpinnings and economic sabotage which partly fuel the criminalities in the area, including oil bunkering and trafficking in small arms and light weapons, sea piracy was only a matter of time to gain foothold.

While international piracy has dropped in the Gulf of Aden (East Africa coast) since 2013 following the deployment and patrol by regional and international naval forces, it has spiraled in the western coast, fueled by political and economic instability, as kidnap for ransom and theft of oil (crude and even imported refined petrol) boom.

If unchecked, the scourge will have a stronger casualty in Nigeria’s recent campaign for a greater (local and foreign) investment in the nation’s abundant potentials of the blue economy, even the region’s gain participation the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCFTA).

Nigeria’s 853km-long coastline, exclusive economic zone and location in the Gulf of Guinea make it strategic for both maritime activities and security issues, as it is positioned on a major shipping route.

Nigeria accounts for about 70 per cent of the maritime economic activities and highest port calls in the region, with over 5,000 ship calling yearly (including product tankers, crude oil tankers, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carriers, general cargo vessels and tankers operating in its exclusive economic zone).

In view of such huge economic potentials, the area had become a source of concern to the international community due to high level of insecurity, with the Nigerian maritime domain the most hit as insecurity became a major deterrent to existing and prospective businesses.

Against the foregoing, the shipping community, flag states and agencies from the GoG gathered at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) earlier in June for a symposium on maritime security in the region. Among the concerns expressed notwithstanding, the Head of Security at Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), Jakob Larsen, noted that “the problem can be solved easily and quickly if Nigeria partners international navies.” 

This, however, will require a tailored short and long term strategy through regional and international collaborations than “imposed solutions.” Describing the region’s waterways as a key navigational route for international commerce, and naturally the hub of extensive trans-Atlantic trade linking Africa with Europe and the Americas, the NIMASA Director-General, Dr. Dakuku Peterside, said “the only option is to work together, we cannot have imposed solutions.”

Towards such negotiated solution, NIMASA is hosting the Global Maritime Security Conference (GMSC) from October 7 to 9 in Abuja, alongside the Nigerian Navy, for the international community to develop actionable strategies to end piracy and other security threats in the region.

Given the global economic, social, political and environmental implications of maritime insecurity, the conference is expected to define the precise nature and scope, and develop tailored solutions for coordinated regional and external partners’ responses, the agency said. It will also evaluate the relevance and impacts of the various interventions already initiated, with a view to revising and adapting them to address current challenges.

Others include decisive policy harmonisation and effective implementation through regional integration and co-operation as principal method of delivering effective and efficient security in the region; give alternative approach to preventing cyber security attack and other forms of emerging maritime security threats, and advocate deeper global commitment to deployment of resources to end maritime insecurity in the region timeously.

Upbeat on helping the nation to harness its abundant ocean resources to grow its economy, NIMASA has already begun new initiatives to improve the capacity and capabilities of Nigerian security agencies and own personnel to end the atrocities in the GoG within a short time.

No doubt, the expected positive outcomes of the conference will strengthen such efforts, including the recently signed anti-piracy bill and NIMASA’s Deep Blue Project – an integrated security and waterways protection infrastructure utilising personnel from the various strata of the nation’s security agencies and NIMASA for surveillance, intelligence gathering and analysis, and appropriate response to maritime domain threats.

According to Peterside, “the Deep Blue Project is a multi-pronged approach towards building a formidable, integrated surveillance and security architecture that will comprehensively combat maritime crime and criminalities in Nigeria’s waterways up to the Gulf of Guinea.”

It comprises personnel training and acquisition of fast intervention vessels, surveillance aircraft and other facilities, including the Command, Control Computer Communication and Information (C41) centre for data collection and information sharing (which was launched in Lagos in August) to aid targeted enforcement.

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