All posts by Dirk Steffen

Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security in 2016

By Dirk Steffen

2016 witnessed a marked increase in maritime security incidents over the previous year, irrespective of the counting standards. Denmark-based Risk Intelligence counted 119 verified attacks by criminals on all kinds of vessels in West Africa (Senegal to Angola) – compared with 82 in 2015. The vast majority of attacks in 2016 were perpetrated by Nigerian criminals, including all of the 84 that were concentrated in and around Nigerian waters.

However, as alarming as such figures may seem, 2016 was neither unusually busy nor were there any significant changes to the patterns of maritime crime in West Africa, specifically the Gulf of Guinea, when assessed in the long term. Over a 9-year period (since 2007), the average number of maritime security incidents for West Africa is 122 – typically ranging between 80 and 140 per year. Of this figure, Nigerian waters alone account for an average of 87 attacks per year.

Annual pirate and piracy-related attacks against shipping in West Africa (Senegal to Angola) 2007-2016. (MaRisk by Risk Intelligence)

Throughout this period, maritime kidnappings steadily increased and focused almost exclusively on Nigerian waters. Since 2013, maritime kidnappings have accounted for around 30 percent of all attacks (including failed attacks) off Nigeria. In 2016, most successful kidnappings were concentrated in two cycles of attacks: the first in January to mid-May 2016 (mirroring almost exactly the development of 2013), the second in the last two months of the year. Hijackings, a common feature during the MEND insurgency in the Niger Delta between 2006-2009, and again during the period of tanker hijackings between late 2010 and 2013, have all but stopped, following the successful intervention of the Nigerian Navy against the hijackers of the tanker MAXIMUS in February 2016.

The real strategic concern for the Nigerian government in 2016 was the resurgent Niger Delta insurgency. It was spearheaded by a group called the “Niger Delta Avengers,” whose campaign of oil and gas infrastructure disruption reduced the Nigerian oil output to a historic low of 1.1m barrels per day (bpd) (vis-à-vis the projected 2.2-2.4m bbpd and the average 1.75m bbpd on average in 2015) during the summer of 2016. One impact on maritime security was the disruption of crude oil loading and an increased demand for petroleum products (due to Nigerian refineries being cut off from their crude oil supplies), thus creating, at least in theory, a more target-rich environment. However, the dynamics of maritime insecurity in Nigeria are historically driven by other factors. As the insurgency went through its customary cycles of issuing threats, militant action, and “cease-fires” to regroup and reiterate demands, the maritime security situation displayed an inverse correlation: the spate of attacks reminiscent of the first 4 months of 2013 swept across the seas off the Niger Delta between March and mid-May 2016, followed by a lull as militant groups were actively engaged in onshore violence throughout the summer. Offshore attacks returned to the waters outside the Niger Delta in November and December 2016 because of calmer weather, cyclical pre-Christmas criminal activity, and lower onshore militancy. This pattern suggests that at the tactical level, the “attackers” ,when not employed in militancy, oil theft, illegal bunkering or gang warfare, engage in piracy to cover some of their funding needs.

The wider Gulf of Guinea was less affected by these developments than it was when the tanker hijackings originating from Nigeria peaked in 2011-12. While the capability to enforce security even in very limited parts of their territorial waters remains constrained for some nations, like Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Liberia or Sierra Leone, organized piracy has not really taken hold in any of those places. In Guinea-Conakry, however, members of the armed forces are engaged in armed robbery at sea and extortion of foreign fishing vessels, even in neighboring Sierra Leone. Ghana experienced a spate of petty thefts at Takoradi anchorage, which gave it some bad press, but no violence against crews was reported. By and large, when speaking of “Gulf of Guinea piracy” as a problem for international shipping, it is Nigerian piracy that we mean. Other forms of maritime crime, on the other hand, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), smuggling of oil, drugs, agricultural products and other goods were – and are – the more pressing day-to-day challenges for coastal nations in the region.

Piracy and maritime security incidents in the Gulf of Guinea (Ivory Coast to Gabon) in 2016. (MaRisk by Risk Intelligence)

It is important to understand that many acts of Nigerian “piracy” also have a hidden context that the uncritical reporting in the international press is unaware of. Locally trading product tankers are often attacked, and crew members kidnapped or cargo stolen, as a part of criminal “turf” wars or other disputes between criminal parties. The kidnapping of crew members from fishing (and refrigerated cargo) vessels is often related to extortion within the criminal business of illegal fishing and transhipment of catch. This may, for example, have been the case on 27 November 2016, when the SARONIC BREEZE was attacked 80 nm off Cotonou. The Panama-flagged vessel, according to the Benin Navy, was in a different place than where it should have been (at the anchorage) when it was attacked and three crew members kidnapped.

Regional Cooperation

Against this slightly disconcerting backdrop, there is the gradual increase of political will and ability by some West African nations to take ownership of maritime security. Following the successful rescue of the MAXIMUS, the Nigerian Navy launched Operation ‘Tsare Teku’ in the face of intense pirate activity, and prolonged the operation throughout summer, while being engaged in counterinsurgency operations at the same time. While the impact of the operation was assessed as modest even by Nigerian planners, it demonstrated that the Nigerians were, for the first time, publicly owning up to the problem of maritime piracy emanating from their country. More recently, the flag officer commanding the Eastern Naval Command, Rear Adm. James Oluwole, quite rightly pointed out that the lack of prosecution reduced any effectiveness the Navy might have in the battle against maritime criminals.

Naval police stand guard as suspected pirates are paraded aboard a naval ship after their arrest by the Nigerian Navy at a defense jetty in Lagos, August 20, 2013. (Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye)

The lack of prosecution, and in many cases the lack of legislation that permits prosecution of pirates, is still one of the shortfalls of the implementation of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct as it came under review in mid-2016, when its initial three-year trial period ended. Information sharing, maritime domain awareness, and maritime law enforcement capacities and capabilities vary sharply throughout the region, and are by and large wholly insufficient, although measurable progress has been made in all fields. Nigeria, as the main country of origin for serious criminals in maritime piracy, is in the process of passing a law that will allow it to prosecute pirates who had hitherto gone unpunished or were indicted for lesser crimes.

The Role of Private Maritime Security

Gulf of Guinea states remain wary of private security solutions, yet various models of private-public security partnerships exist in the region. In Benin and Togo, both navies operate “secured anchorages,” in addition to providing embarked teams of navy troops through agents and local security companies. In Ghana and Cameroon, naval or, in the case of Cameroon’s Battalion d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), army protection can be obtained through direct liaison with those nations’ militaries.

The most unusual arrangement though has evolved in Nigeria. Although various models have been employed by security companies and shipping companies, not always with authorization by the Nigerian government, the pre-eminent security solution is the security vessel or patrol boat. Security vessels have a long history that date back to the early 2000s, when the first armed unrest spread onto the creeks and off the Niger Delta. Typically, the security vessels of that era were ordinary offshore support vessels with four to six embarked soldiers. These vessels were (and still are) predictably ineffective against groups of heavily armed attackers, who engage with two to three large speedboats, often with one or two general purpose machine guns between them.

Converted offshore service vessels with improvised firing positions, like these two fast crew and supply boats at Borokiri (Port Harcourt), form the bulk of Nigeria’s privately contracted “auxiliary” navy. (Dirk Steffen)

The model of choice though, originally conceived at the height of the Niger Delta insurgency between 2006 and 2009, was for private companies to supply and maintain patrol boats, which would be put at the disposal of the then dysfunctional Nigerian Navy. When not on military business, those vessels and their Nigerian Navy gun crews with mounted weapons and ammunition would be available for protection missions for commercial clients. Sixteen Nigerian companies entered such an agreement with the Nigerian Navy in 2016 under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), effectively providing the bulk of offshore oil field security, and increasing the amount of merchant vessel protection in- and outbound from Nigerian ports. A privately operated joint venture also manages the secure anchorage off Lagos, the only such dedicated area in the region officially promulgated on admiralty charts.

More than 100 such privately contracted security vessels are in operation in Nigerian waters. No one knows the exact number – not even the Nigerian Navy. The quality of these vessels varies – ranging from purpose-built law-enforcement and patrol boats to hastily converted offshore support vessels (or vessels with embarked troops only.) While this contractor fleet provides a welcome relief for the Nigerian Navy, which has only a few assets capable of patrolling the exclusive economic zone, it also presents a major headache for the Nigerian Navy’s operations department to monitor the activities of these contracted patrol boats and supply men, weapons, and ammunition to them and ensure compliance with the terms of the MoU.

NNS GBEDE, a privately contracted patrol boat, returns to Port Harcourt from sea trials on the Bonny River (Nigeria). These boats are examples of the type of vessels envisaged by the Nigerian Navy’s Memorandum of Understanding with private maritime security companies. (Dirk Steffen)

The document envisages a partnership between the Nigerian Navy and the private companies for maintenance, training, welfare, and information sharing, thus leveraging the Navy’s “investment” in terms of hard-to-get trained personnel and weapons into the public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, most companies appear to consider the partnership as an “optional” element of their relationship with the Navy. This is compounded by commercial and contractual pressures that preclude many security vessels from rendering assistance to attacks or incidents other than those involving their clients. Unless the MoU is enforced more rigorously, it is therefore unlikely that anyone except for a handful of commercial clients with sufficiently deep pockets will benefit from this arrangement.


Despite the brief surges of offshore piracy in 2016, the Gulf of Guinea remains “business as usual” in terms of maritime security, with incidents in Nigerian waters or emanating from Nigeria accounting for the lion’s share of incidents. For the other West African countries, with a few exceptions, piracy is persistent, but one of the lesser problems in a region characterized by weak maritime governance.

For Nigeria, 2016 was one of the hardest years since the county’s return to democracy in 1999, politically and economically. While the “Niger Delta Avengers” failed to incite a broad-based insurgency in the Niger Delta, their pinpoint targeting of critical oil and gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta was more effective than MEND ever was in that respect; even the temporary loss of control of considerable territory in the northeast to Boko Haram in 2013-14 was strategically less significant.

The onshore security situation in the Niger Delta had a direct impact on the maritime security situation in Nigerian waters and the wider Gulf of Guinea. The seesaw between onshore violence and surges of offshore piracy underlines that while Buhari and his government have made some inroads against the “godfather” system, the latter is far from defeated. It continues to bind criminal, economic, and political interests in Nigeria together. Nigeria will thus remain the nexus for organized crime in western Africa and any regional efforts can only contain the maritime element of this threat until the problem is solved in Nigeria.

Private maritime security will likely remain the (expensive) sticking plaster to fix the situation for commercial ship operators in the short term. However, few of the models in use, short of purpose-built and suitably armed patrol boats, are likely to provide any meaningful deterrent against Nigerian pirates in particular, who are both capable and willing to overcome armed resistance. Except for Ghana and Cameroon (where the use of naval/army assets for commercial purposes is severely circumscribed), none of the “private” or public-private maritime security solutions is likely to enhance the scarce maritime security assets and capabilities of the West African nations.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in the African Partnership Station exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014, 2015 and 2016 at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Featured Image: A Nigerian Marine Police checkpoint on the Bonny River designed to intercept illegally refined petroleum products from being marketed in Port Harcourt. Endemic corruption in Nigeria’s police force casts some doubt on the effectiveness of such measures. Photo: Dirk Steffen.

Who are the Niger Delta Avengers?

By Dirk Steffen


The Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) are Nigeria’s “new” Niger Delta militancy phenomenon. They have issued challenges to the Nigerian government, international oil companies, and the military. Within a span of less than 3 months they are believed to be primarily responsible for reducing Nigeria’s oil production from a (theoretical) 2.2m barrels per day to around 1.4m barrels per day by the end of May 2016. They have mainly targeted Nigerian state and international oil companies’ pipeline infrastructure with explosives attacks. The spectre of their involvement in maritime piracy and kidnappings has been raised as well.

There is very little evidence-based information on the NDA. Even the Nigerian security services are not totally sure what they are up against, although the group has made stock demands for Niger Delta autonomy, greater participation in the oil wealth, and cessation of environmental destruction. Former militants, the government, and other stakeholders variously blame former militant leader Tompolo, the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), former President Goodluck Jonathan, and other ex-militants for being behind the group. The NDA themselves reveal little, except for their geographic origin: Warri South West local government area (LGA) in Delta state. So far they have run rings around the Nigerian military, avoiding direct confrontation and eluding arrests.

Although the area of operations west of Warri between the Benin and Forcados Rivers is a coastal strip only 30nm long and 30nm deep, it is a militarily challenging riverine and inshore environment of mangrove swamps and wetlands with no road infrastructure.

nda 2016
Militant activity against oil and gas infrastructure and military units in the Niger Delta in 2016 (purple) up to early June and other maritime security related incidents. Source: MaRisk by Risk Intelligence.

The NDA in the present form emerged in or around January 2016 and publicly claimed its first attack on 10 February on the Bonny Soku Gas Line, in Bayelsa state.

The NDA espouse the following military and political objectives:

  1. Cripple the Nigerian economy (‘Operation Red Economy’)
  2. Force the government to negotiate on their demands in a ‘sovereign national conference’
  3. Re-allocation of Nigerian ownership of oil blocs (in favour of Niger Deltans)
  4. Autonomy/self-determination for the Niger Delta

Some 21 attacks/clusters of sabotage took place against oil and gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta between 15 January and 10 June 2016. The NDA have directly claimed responsibility for 13 attacks/clusters of attacks between 10 February and 1 June 2016, nine of which were in the Warri/Escravos/Forcados area and four in the Brass/Nembe area. They have also retrospectively claimed responsibility for four further attacks between 15 January and 9 February (three in Warri/Escravos area and one in the Brass/Nembe area). Of the 17 attacks claimed by the NDA, 15 were in swamp/inshore areas, one was coastal (Forcados export pipeline on 10 February) and one was close offshore (Chevron Okan field valve platform). No one has been killed in the attacks on the oil and  gas infrastructure; all targets were unmanned and unguarded. The NDA have not claimed responsibility for any kidnappings so far.

The hitherto unknown “Red Egbesu Water Lions” (Egbesu is an Ijaw war deity) claim association with the NDA and have also claimed responsibility for one attack in Bayelsa state (South Ijaw LGA), but there has been no reciprocal “acknowledgement” by the NDA. Two attacks (on 20 and 22 May –against the Escravos-Lagos gas line near Ogbe-Ijoh and Brass-Tebidaba pipeline), during the grace period of an NDA ultimatum are unclaimed. Additionally, on 9 June 2016, a Nigerian Petroleum Development Company crude oil pipeline line in Warri South West LGA was blown up by unidentified attackers.

“General Ben” of the Concerned Militant Leaders (CML) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of five crew members from the LEON DIAS on 31 January 2016; he later also claimed association with the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement (denied by IPOB and the Nigerian Army) and with NDA (not acknowledged by the latter). The NDA have not carried out (or claimed responsibility for) any maritime attacks, although they issued a warning to ship operators on 22 April 2016. In total, 15 individuals have been arrested so far by the Nigerian military in connection with the attacks, but their association with the NDA is unproven.

Burning pipeline in the Niger Delta. Photo:


The Nigerian government’s initial plan to simply disrupt the criminal godfather system in the Niger Delta by removing corrupt personnel and terminating the funding means for this relationship (amnesty payments and security contracts to demobilised ex-militants) has failed in the short term. While the rise of the NDA is directly linked to this, it was not a guaranteed outcome of the government’s planned “post-amnesty” policy at this point. Many former militants seem to be content keeping their heads low for the time being.

It was apparent that Niger Delta armed groups, lavishly supplied with weapons and ammunition by political parties in the run-up to the 2015 national elections, were fighting amongst each other. New groups and alliances were emerging, and continue to emerge, as the former militants’ networks were weakened through the absence of patronage and funds by the previous government of President Goodluck Jonathan. This development began to take shape in mid-2015, as privileges and contracts were gradually removed by the government. By January 2016 new groups, like the CML or the re-invigorated Niger Delta People Democratic Front (NDPDF) became noticeably more public, vying for influence and public attention. Threats of resumption of violence abounded whenever the topic of the reduction or termination of the Presidential Amnesty Programme was raised by the government.

The emergence of the NDA can be seen in this context and is likely linked to the collapse of Tompolo’s influence in his home area of Warri South West LGA in Delta state. Tompolo had been one of the major profiteers of the amnesty payments and inflated security contracts with the Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (NIMASA). In January 2016, the Nigerian government made an example of NIMASA’s senior officials and their sponsor, indicting them to appear before court on no less than 40 counts of fraud.

Whether the NDA are Tompolo’s former foot soldiers, clients, constituents or rivals that were kept low through his “security” activities in Delta state is uncertain, but the constant reference to Tompolo and Gbaramatu Kingdom (a traditional chieftaincy) sufficiently defines the geographic location to make the NDA a local phenomenon – for the time being. The overwhelming number of attacks carried out in the Warri South West LGA (and the neighbouring Burutu LGA) also supports this assumption. Nigerian intelligence and military, encouraged by statements of former militants like Boyloaf, seem convinced that Tompolo, who is a fugitive since the court order was issued against him on 12 January 2016, is involved in NDA activities. While this is possible, it is also highly unlikely since he would have nothing to gain from such an involvement in his current predicament.

A circumscribed geographic location allows a rough estimate of the personnel strength of the NDA. Based on historical patterns of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) insurgency (2006-9) and camp sizes in the area, a core strength of not more than 100 fighters, most likely of Ijaw extraction, would seem likely. The NDA assign them to “Strike Teams” although this, like during the MEND insurgency, seems to be a largely propagandistic element. The NDA also claim “mixed ethnicity,” being at least Ijaw and Itsekiri. This is, at least in theory, plausible, since Warri lies at the crossroads between the Ijaw, Itsekiri (both reside in the coastal area) and Urhobo communities. Organisations of all three ethnic groups have vigorously denounced the NDA.

The NDA have an active communication strategy that appears to work well. For the time being, they are shaping the information battlefield with the Nigerian government falling behind. The NDA utilise two primary outlets: their website and a Twitter account. They also send emails to an email distribution list, but it would seem to be a backup. The NDA fashion themselves very much like a MEND 2.0. Their spokesman is “Brigadier­-General” Mudoch Agbinibo (recently promoted from the rank of “Colonel”), a jibe against the Nigerian military, whose Director of Information is Brigadier-General Rabe Abubakar. Whereas MEND revelled in reports of successes against the Nigerian military, however, the NDA have gone to great lengths to stress that they have not caused a single military casualty so far (even if a number of attacks on military outposts have been blamed on them). They prefer to deride the security services for their inability to prevent attacks that are being carried out under their noses.

The NDA strategy benefits from the group’s relative smallness. Unlike MEND, the NDA do not rely on compromises (MEND fragmented early in its life due to a disagreement over payments of ransom money from the Wilbros kidnappings in 2006), have a unified command, a target-rich but small operating environment, as well as trained personnel – better trained than MEND ever had thanks to the amnesty programme, and something the NDA credit themselves with. The NDA are active in only two localities: Warri South West LGA (including the fringes of the adjacent Burutu LGA) and the Brass Nembe LGA. Their actions are typically seen to follow government action, more recently preceded by more or less specific threats and usually followed up with multiple attacks against oil and gas targets. Reactions by traditional chiefs in Gbaramatu Kingdom suggest that there is no consultative process or even tacit agreement; the NDA rely solely on   themselves. This has allowed the NDA to escalate the conflict to an intensity rarely achieved during the MEND insurgency. This aggressive strategy may cut both ways in the way of classic insurgency theory. It can alienate the population it is meant to inspire and subsequently deny a larger popular following for the NDA, possibly leading to the creation of competing militant groups. It can also generate a bumbling military backlash against (most likely) uninvolved communities and leaders thus generating a popular following for the NDA by driving disgruntled individuals into their arms – or those of their more violence-prone rivals.

The risk of the NDA losing “control” over the insurgency is very real and their first competitors and rivals for public attention (and a seat at the negotiating table) have manifested themselves in late May and early June 2016. Some may also have simply spotted an opportunity for self-enrichment through extortion in a failing security environment. The elitist and purposeful strategy employed by the NDA clearly does not appeal to all. In late May and early June 2016 the Bayelsa-based Joint Niger Delta Liberation Front (JNDLF), for example, issued threats against the military in a more provocative manner (including pronouncing a no-fly zone for the Nigerian Air Force); unknown gunmen attacked an army houseboat near Warri on 1 June, killing as many as 20 persons in the process, and the Monty Pythonesque-named New Delta Suicide Squad (NDSS) went public with a bid to extort private oil and gas facility operators or face acts of sabotage.

The NDA have emphatically denied being involved in any of these activities or organisations. This denial is likely to be credible, since the NDA would view such activities as a distraction from their operations and agenda and a dilution of their own role in Niger Delta affairs. They are also likely acutely aware that the killing of soldiers in May 2009 was used as an excuse by the Nigerian government to launch a massive military operation in Gbaramatu Kingdom that effectively ended the MEND threat in Delta state. 

Nigerian Government Strategy

 The government’s strategy to quell the resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta, and the NDA in particular, seems two-pronged following the failure of the strategy aimed solely at dismantling the godfather networks and marginalising corrupt and criminal elements that had become pre-eminent in the Niger Delta under the previous presidency.

While president Muhammadu Buhari declared on 13 April that he would crush the Niger Delta insurgency like he crushed (of sorts) Boko Haram in the North-East, he is sufficiently alert to reality to understand that this is a necessary threat that needs to be issued, but military action alone will most likely not be the main thrust of his counter-insurgency strategy. At least not initially, although a concentration of forces in the Warri area is already becoming palpable. The Nigerian Navy shifted its focus from the suppression of piracy to counter-insurgency, re-deploying its vessels assigned to Operation ‘Tsare Teku to the area. Like the government and the rest of the security forces, the Navy had been caught on the back foot by the sudden intensity of the NDA’s pipeline bombing campaign. Intelligence on the group remains sketchy and a severe constraint on focused counterinsurgency operations.

P 263 Suncraft Manta escort for HAM
Small naval craft like this Nigerian Navy Suncraft Manta will find themselves re-directed toward a counter-insurgency effort in the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta, where the Mantas played a role in the 2009 offensive against Tompolo’s Camp 5. Photo: Dirk Steffen.

As oil production plummeted in May 2016 as a result of the pipeline attacks, Buhari quickly reversed his previous policy of marginalising former militant leaders. Although some former militants had even joined the president’s camp, the majority were agitating against the planned reduction and discontinuation of the amnesty programme; it seemed to come down to a pecuniary issue for them. As such, it was comparatively easy for Buhari to do an about face at the end of May and hold out the prospect of a “re-engineered” amnesty to those ex-militants (with further prospects of enrichment for them). While this has cost his anti-corruption drive some credibility, it was a pragmatic solution for containing the NDA threat and preventing it from spilling over into the areas controlled by those former militants. The “rehabilitated” ex-militants also dutifully obliged by denouncing the NDA. The success of the overall strategy now very much hinges on the degree of influence of those ex-militants and stakeholders that Buhari can marshal for his ends. There is also a time constraint. Buhari’s sworn political enemies are currently in disarray. He therefore needs to succeed before his political detractors can rally local support to sabotage the process. He also needs to succeed before NDA attacks further drive down oil production and government revenues, thus impacting on the Nigerian state’s ability to deliver basic services to its population.

stingray army
Small riverine craft like this Suncraft Stingray landing craft of the Nigerian Army will carry the brunt of any joint military and inter-service effort against the NDA. Photo: Deutsche Welle/M. Bello.

Because diplomacy without force is like music without instruments, Buhari also made it clear that if all else fails he will use force. It should be remembered that in spite of all criticism (and the very real limitations) of the Nigerian military, it was the military offensive against the militant camps in Gbaramatu Kingdom in May/June 2009 that forced Tompolo, then the most powerful “General” of MEND, to the negotiating table and that cleared the way for the relative success of the Presidential Amnesty Programme by the late President Yar Adua. The cost to the local population was high – more than 1,000 persons were believed to have been killed and 30,000 were made temporarily homeless. The message Buhari could be sending to the communities, as warships and ground attack helicopters assemble in the area, is: give up the NDA or risk a repeat performance of 2009.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in the African Partnership Station exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014, 2015 and 2016 at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Featured Image:  Fighters of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) prepare to head off for an operation against the Nigerian army in the Niger Delta on September 17, 2008. MEND declared full-scale ‘oil war’ against the Nigerian authorities in response to attacks by the Nigerian military launched against the militants. “Our target is to crumble the oil installations in order to force the government to a round table to solve the problem once and for all”, said Boyloaf, leader of the militants (now, in 2016, an ally of the government). AFP PHOTO/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI.

OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015: Two steps forward. One step back.

Between 19 and 27 March OBANGAME EXPRESS, African Partnership Station’s annual exercise since 2011 took place off the coasts of West African states between Côte d’Ivoire and Angola. It is the fifth iteration of this exercise that has grown from nine participating nations in 2011 to 23 this year, including 12 Gulf of Guinea countries. Crucially, the framework for OBANGAME EXPRESS has changed since the last exercise. On 25 June 2013, 22 West and Central African countries signed the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, a document that obliges the member states to co-operate on preventing and prosecuting all forms of maritime crime and illicit activities at sea and to share information between each other. OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015 was the first exercise in this series to rehearse and test the new structure and, where they existed, procedures.

Broadly speaking, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCoC) provides for a hierarchical information sharing and co-ordination structure that includes all countries from the two regional economic communities – the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). The YCoC structure envisages an Inter-regional Co-ordination Centre (ICC) for the strategic level, regional reporting centres for both ECOWAS and ECCAS and below those, for operational co-ordination, Multinational Co-ordination Centres (CMC), grouping the Gulf of Guinea countries into five zones: A, D, E, F and G.

The information sharing and reporting structure as envisaged by the Yaoundé Code of Conduct and the degree of implementation (in green) during OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. (AFRICOM)
The information sharing and reporting structure as envisaged by the Yaoundé Code of Conduct and the degree of implementation (in green) during OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. (AFRICOM)

One of the key differences of this year’s OBANGAME EXPRESS was that it took place off all the Gulf of Guinea states’ coasts rather than in a single exercise area. This made for a realistic setting regarding the command and control as well as logistical challenges for the region’s navies.  It also allowed the YCoC structures to be tested with realistic timeframes, as target vessels transited through the Gulf of Guinea nations’ waters. It also added another layer of complexity to the already very demanding schedule of OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014. Was it too much, given some of the modest outcomes of last year’s exercise? Was it an exercise in window dressing? Or is the Gulf of Guinea on a good path towards becoming part of the “global network of navies” as the exercise’s officer in tactical command, Commodore John Rinko (USN), predicted during the opening ceremony in Accra, Ghana? The truth, as always in this region, is probably somewhere in between.

The core functionality that this exercise tested was that of the 21 Maritime Operations Centres (MOCs) on national, sub-regional and regional levels and their ability to communicate, co-ordinate and direct maritime interdiction operations (MIO) represented on a tactical level by patrol boats, boarding teams and special forces teams.

It became clear during the exercise that the information flow functioned broadly as envisaged by the YCoC despite a lack of reporting standards and procedures, absence of a common interpretation of the situation picture, organisational and technical deficiencies (which affected some MOCs more than others). There is also still an overreliance of many MOCs on tracking vessels via their Automated Identification System (AIS) signals. Given that the majority of criminally active vessels in the Gulf do not broadcast this signal, in addition to an increasing number of merchant vessel switching off their AIS as a self-protection measure as per industry guidance, it effectively reduces any Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) capability to near zero outside coastal radar range. This is a particular challenge also for tracking and combating illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities, since many fishing vessels do not have AIS transponders or choose to switch them off while poaching.


Additionally very few Gulf of Guinea nations, such as Ghana, have integrated their coastal radar stations into their MDA systems. Farther south, in the Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo and in Angola there is no meaningful coastal radar coverage at all at the moment. On a positive note: the Nigerian Navy, as the first Sub-Saharan navy ever, transmitted a radar picture via data link from a vessel to the MOC. Given the recent acquisition of three more large Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV), this at least opens the prospect for a better surveillance of the Nigerian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

NNS OKPABANA intercepts the German frigate BRANDENBURG, which simulates a tanker carrying a cargo of stolen oil, on 24 March 2015. (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back)
NNS OKPABANA intercepts the German frigate BRANDENBURG, which simulates a tanker carrying a cargo of stolen oil, on 24 March 2015. (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back)

Beyond the artificiality of the exercise, however, old suspicions and prejudices are hard to eradicate. While Nigeria and Cameroon played their part well in exercising tracking and intercepting suspect vessels at the border between Zone E and Zone D, Cameroon does not grant Nigeria the right of hot pursuit into her territorial waters in real life. Equally, the Ghanaian chief of naval staff, Admiral Biekro, casually announced the formation of an “information-sharing coalition” comprising Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin, conspicuously leaving out the elephant in the room. Circumspection in sharing information with Nigeria is widespread in the northern part of the Gulf of Guinea and, based on the performance of Nigerian criminal networks and their current relationship with the Nigerian political and military elites, certainly justified.

Nevertheless the Nigerian Navy was determined to contribute as best as it could in the face of political constraints. The detachment of one of the Nigerian Air Force’s precious ATR-42 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), which are used as reconnaissance planes in the campaign against Boko Haram in Nigeria’s northeast, was a signal that, whatever the shortcomings, Nigeria was willing to engage. Only a few days later, the same MPA flew out to south of Sao Tomé to assist in the real-world episode of the scuttled IUU fishing vessel THUNDER. This mission, too, reflects the spirit of the YCoC; Sao Tomé lacks air assets for Search and Rescue (SAR) – for the purpose of the exercise this had been simulated just a few days earlier by a Portuguese Air Force P-3 Orion flying out of Sao Tomé.

On the tactical level, results were also mixed, ranging from pleasant surprises to disappointments. All navies struggled with the absence of formalised and trained procedures for Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO). The teams deployed by the African nations typically lacked consistent tactical skills for boat handling, boarding and close-quarter including room-clearing as well as command procedures. Poor communications equipment aggravated those shortcomings; usually only the team leader had a VHF radio to communicate with the mother ship. The dismal performance of the Nigerian SBS team was particularly disappointing after last year’s credible performance. However, this year’s team which boarded the German frigate BRANDENBURG in an opposed boarding scenario was actually a land-trained team that had seen combat in Nigeria’s northeast. The tactical deficiencies that this team displayed are a lesson for those (especially in the private sector) who believe that combat experience alone is sufficient qualification for succeeding in maritime security missions.

Togo’s embryonic MIO capability on the other hand made visible progress since last year. While tactics where still not near anywhere that would enable the Togo Navy to carry out anything else than compliant boardings, the team appeared more professional and self-assured than last year. Once on board, the team, which included specialists from other agencies, made a good job of securing the crime scene and preserving and collecting evidence.

A Togolese soldier provides rearward security for the Togo boarding team on the bridge of the target vessel BRANDENBURG during OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back)
A Togolese soldier provides rearward security for the Togo boarding team on the bridge of the target vessel BRANDENBURG during OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015. (Photo: German Navy/Steve Back)

Ghana’s MIO teams for the exercise received a three-day pre-sail training by the German Navy’s naval infantry. It was also a useful lesson for the Ghana Navy that the exercise should really test real arrangements rather than such made specifically for the exercise. In this case Ghana had hand-picked four MIO-teams from different vessels for OBANGAME EXPRESS. Lack of familiarity of the boarding officers with their teams as well as the inclusion of non-naval specialists from the Police, Fisheries etc. made for very mixed results.

The risks of the lack of formalised procedures were apparent during the real world incidents of the MT MARIAM and FV LU RONG YUAN YU 917. Both vessels were hijacked by Nigerian criminals in January and February 2015 respectively and subsequently recovered by Ghana Navy boarding teams from the patrol boats BLIKA and CHEMLE, both of which took part in the exercise. In the case of the MT MARIAM luck and good improvisation played a great part in the success of the mission. The Ghana Navy boarded the tanker 26 nm outside the port of Tema (the BLIKA having unwittingly passed the tanker INVICTUS, which had siphoned off the MARIAM’s cargo, on the way) with a boarding team comprising a mere seven persons (in addition to the two-man crew of BLIKA’s sea boat). The fact that five of the eight suspected pirates on the MARIAM were hidden away in a water tank without guns only emerged after a while and after the initial team (of five persons) had almost given up the search. The remaining three suspects were holed up in the chain locker. One of the apprehended suspects from the water tank was used as a mixture of human shield and go-between when the Ghana Navy team had to approach the only entrance to the compartment through a narrow corridor. Fortunately, the three remaining suspects gave up and then, bizarrely, tried to hide themselves in the small compartment. In the end it was perhaps fortunate that, whether abetted by the MARIAM’s crew or not, the Nigerian criminals chose to place themselves into a position where the small Ghana Navy team could deal with it effectively. However, the vignette also holds a strong message that in the case of a non-compliant or opposed boarding this vessel recovery would not have gone ahead or if it had, could have ended in disaster due to the inadequacy of the boarding team.

From exercise to reality: GNS BILIKA’s boarding team boards MT MARIAM, a tanker that had been hijacked under dubious circumstances off the Niger Delta on 11 January 2015. (Photo: Ghana Navy)
From exercise to reality: GNS BILIKA’s boarding team boards MT MARIAM, a tanker that had been hijacked under dubious circumstances off the Niger Delta on 11 January 2015. (Photo: Ghana Navy)

The Ghana Navy’s Flag Officer Fleet, Commodore Mark Yawson, and the Director of Operations, Commander Derrick Attachie saw this exercise as an opportunity to improve and to identify what should be the navy’s priorities in training and procurement. Clearly, this is what an exercise is designed to do, but in some cases there remains some doubt that even though there is a will to address deficiencies identified in the exercise capabilities may not be available. Low operational readiness of some navies, absence of reliable fuel supplies (even for the exercise), systematic communications infrastructure shortfalls (poor internet, a “gap” between VHF and HF coverage at sea) are not problems easily addressed without a significant increase in funding, which is unlikely to be forthcoming in the short-term. Some improvements, while noteworthy and laudable, are improvements from an extremely low level, such as those made by Côte d’Ivoire, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo or Sao Tomé and Principe. In the latter case, in spite of great personal engagement by junior officers and NCOs, there appears to be very little top-level support. The evaluator for the Sao Tomé MOC pointed out that the centre did have a higher level of performance some years ago, but that it seemed the operation had been started from scratch again.

The true “success” of OBANGAME EXPRESS over the years is really in highlighting all these aspects and tracking progress – or absence thereof. The annual exercise also provides a benchmark and while the political message will always be one of continuous improvement, the analytic tools are actually fine-grained enough to register the nuances of change in either direction. As in 2014 the closer look at the individual results and how they came about raises the question of “sustainability” of the progress achieved so far. It is evident from this year’s results that gains made in the past can be lost in no time for as long as the effort does not become systemic.

There is a strong desire by the US to get other nations more involved in the maritime security effort. With the EU’s new Gulf of Guinea action plan the time may be auspicious to broaden the base of this capability-building effort with more permanent and long-term commitments by extra-regional powers (where this is desired), but with a view to “responsibility sharing”, rather than an open-ended engagement. This effort will be complex, given different priorities:  Europeans and Americans are worried about drug trafficking while most West African governments are more concerned with the smuggling of cigarettes and oil products. Piracy is another priority for the EU and the US while it is less important for many African politicians who have to fight against pirate fishing to be able to feed their growing populations. The road ahead is still long. And as this year’s exercise showed: it also is not straight.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in Exercise OBANGAME EXPRESS 2015 as an observer during the German Navy’s MIO-team training in Ghana before transferring to the Exercise Control Group as a Liaison Naval Officer. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed here are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Risks in Contracting Government Security Forces in The Gulf of Guinea

My previous article explored the use of police and naval forces in Nigeria for the provision of private maritime security. The analysis focused on the Nigerian Navy’s Western Naval Command’s area of responsibility and visiting merchant vessels, rather than the use of security forces on oil & gas prospects inside the Nigerian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

This article investigates the effectiveness of various private arrangements with Nigerian security as well as some updates on the “usage” and liability implications for shipping companies utilizing such services.

Status of the use of Nigerian Navy and Police for private maritime security roles

There is no single legislation specifically dedicated to regulating maritime security issues in Nigeria. Rather, the issue of maritime security in Nigeria is dealt with in piecemeal fashion in various legislative instruments, as a result of which there seems to be some degree of overlap of functions between the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Marine Police (NMP). What we observe at the moment is the evolution of rules and policies through practice adopted by security agencies within their respective jurisdictions. As I have pointed out in my last article here, there is a discrepancy between the individual arrangements by unauthorised agents and clients and the rules and policies set by the security agencies irrespective of whether those are enforced or not.

Subsequent to my previous article, the Inspector General of the Police (IGP) has reiterated in writing to the Commissioners of Police (Maritime) in the relevant coastal states of Nigeria his policy that his personnel (the NMP) are not to be used outside their jurisdiction. Some agents and security providers have sought to side-step this restriction by alleging they had been granted permission to embark naval personnel. The Nigerian Navy’s position remains that any use of Nigerian Navy personnel without a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) or in contravention to the terms therein is considered “unofficial allocation” and thus unauthorised. No evidence in writing, except the acknowledgement by various naval commands of receipt of enquiries, have been provided to back claims that the Nigerian Navy has reversed its previous stance that it has adopted since 2012.

[Photo: “Acknowledgement of receipt” provided by a security provider to a client as “evidence” of approval to embark naval personnel.]
[Photo: “Acknowledgement of receipt” provided by a security provider to a client as “evidence” of approval to embark naval personnel.]
Embarked security teams vs patrol boats

Embarked security forces are a relatively new development in Nigeria. Traditionally, government security forces (in the Niger Delta) have utilized light craft for escort duties. Embarked teams were largely confined to platforms, which inside the EEZ constitute extensions of sovereign territory. Whether this approach was the result of a deliberate security planning process or not is now hard to establish, but it has had implications on how the navy’s light forces have evolved from their operational and tactical low point in 2006/7 until today and how the Nigerian Navy views its role in securing private assets in Nigerian waters.

Embarked security teams in Nigeria, where they exist, continue to share many attributes of the poorly trained and motivated forces that make up the bulk of Nigeria’s garrison army and land-based security forces. Adding this to the lack of aptitude (in terms of training, familiarization etc.) of those teams for the maritime environment, then it becomes clear that the question whether to use embarked security or escort vessels is more than a legal (or even financial) question; it is about the ability to deliver effective security and mitigate risks without creating (more than is necessary) new ones.

Embarked security teams

The record of embarked security forces on client vessels is in the Gulf of Guinea is mixed. Contrary to the Indian Ocean experience, vessel carrying embarked armed teams off Nigeria have been boarded and seized by attackers or crewmembers kidnapped, although this was most frequently the case in the context of the Niger Delta insurgency between 2006 and 2009 that targeted floating offshore installations, such as the FSO OLOIBIRI, the FPSO MYTRAS or the BERGE OKOLOBA TORU. However, the conditions and modus operandi that embarked teams continue to face in and off the Niger Delta remain similar and many target vessels today are in fact tankers that are stationary, drifting or engaged in ship-to-ship transfers and therefore tactically not more challenging to the attackers (who are for the most part ex-militants). If anything, the small product tankers are easier to board than the high-freeboard Floating Production Storage & Offloading units targeted by the militants during the insurgency.

The vulnerability of embarked security teams is even more pronounced for security vessels, especially those of an improvised nature with no mounted weapons, which are a requirement for those vessels approved by the Nigerian Navy under the current MoU. In the discussion on pirate violence in Nigeria it is often forgotten that almost half of the casualties to date in pirate incidents have been government security forces – usually embarked on vessels of oil & gas contractors. This has prompted the Nigerian inter-agency Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta to declare a ban on using such embarked teams from 19 November 2013 onwards in favour of river gun boats. Companies continue to ignore this at their own risk, as a recent example of an attack on a contractor vessel on the Sambreiro River on 17 June 2014 shows: one soldier and two crewmembers were injured before the attackers managed to snatch an employee of an oil company from the boat.

The embarked security forces’ shortfalls range from inability to detect and engage at night (when the bulk of attacks take place off Nigeria), inability to manoeuvre, and lack of co-ordination to poor weapons discipline. Poor motivation of the embarked soldiers and police officers in the face of aggressive and well-equipped attackers complement the picture. This pattern has not fundamentally changed since 2006/7.

Case Study 1: SP BRUSSELS

The fatality of one crewmember on board the PYXIS DELTA roads during a shoot-out between her embarked security detachment and attackers on Lagos roads the night of 4 February 2013 was brushed off as a tragic accident. The attack on the Marshall Island-flagged product tanker SP BRUSSELS off the Niger Delta on 29 April 2014, however, highlighted the risks associated with embarking armed teams in the Gulf of Guinea, especially off Nigeria. These risks are commonly misunderstood by people who believe that armed teams have the same effect in the region as they have in the Indian Ocean. This is not the case.

The SP BRUSSELS’s chief engineer paid for this misunderstanding with his life; the 3rd officer narrowly escaped when the ship’s bridge suddenly turned into a shooting gallery. While, arguably, the guards prevented the ship from being hijacked, they did so at a price. Given that none of the 38 successful tanker hijackings since the VALLE DI CORDOBA incident in December 2010 in the Gulf of Guinea had resulted in a fatality, this was an avoidable result.

From the confused crew accounts of the attack on the SP BRUSSELS and the Nigerian Navy’s investigation several things become clear:

The vessel was transiting in international waters with two embarked Nigerian policemen (NMP) as security guards. At the time of the attack (ca. 2015 hrs) by a single speedboat and a total of 8 attackers, the ship was idling at 6 kts approximately 35 nm from the Bayelsa coast, SW of Forcados (Delta State), a notoriously dangerous area off the Niger Delta at the time.

  • Of the 2-man team, one was on watch, smoking at the time of the attack in the starboard bridge wing (the attack unfolded on the port side, leading to the death of the chief engineer)
  • There was no general alert and the second guard had to be roused by a crewmember. By the time he arrived on deck it appeared some attackers had already boarded.
  • The guard team appears to have made their stand on the bridge, possibly killing two pirates in the process while the ship’s crew hid in the citadel (with the exception of the injured 3rd officer and the dead chief engineer).
  • The actual course of events until the next morning remains controversial, with the Nigerian Navy alleging that their intervention by NNS BENIN and NNS IKOT-ABASI had resulted in the defeat of the pirates and the subsequent arrest of the 6 surviving attackers.
  • The chief engineer’s exact circumstances of death are uncertain as is the injury of the 3rd officer, as he fled the bridge.

[Photo: Damage to the bridge of SP BRUSSELS from the firefight on the bridge. (Source: withheld)]
[Photo: Damage to the bridge of SP BRUSSELS from the firefight on the bridge. (Source: withheld)]
The ship was eventually taken into custody by the Nigerian Navy on Lagos roads the following morning and detained for several weeks as a part of the investigation, which also extended to the question whether or not the ship had been permitted to carry NMP personnel outside their jurisdiction.

Case Study 2: SEA STERLING

The Nigerian-flagged product tanker SEA STERLING was attacked on 26 August 2014 west of the Pennington Loading Terminal, 45 nm SSE of the position in which the SP BRUSSELS had been attacked in an area, which to date in 2014 had experienced no less than 3 kidnappings, a hijacking and at least 7 attacks against product tankers – the majority in January-March 2014.

The SEA STERLING carried a team of three Nigerian Navy ratings, procured through a PMSC that had recently set up business in Nigeria and held the same MoU with the Navy like all 42 security companies, which, as mentioned above, only permits the use of navy personnel on “suitable” and “approved” vessels, i.e. patrol boats which are entered into the Nigerian Navy’s list of warships.

[Photo: The SEA STERLING on Lagos roads in April 2014. (Dirk Steffen)]
[Photo: The SEA STERLING on Lagos roads in April 2014. (Dirk Steffen)]
Like other episodes, which have aroused the suspicion of Nigerian authorities, the contrasting versions of the incident do not quite add up. The ship allegedly spotted a bunker barge trailing her at 1810 hrs and then claimed to have been pursued until 2100 hrs at which point a speedboat was lowered and approached the tanker. The distress signal was sent at this point, although the ship’s AIS had been switched off at 1812 hrs, indicating a speed of 6.2 knots at the time and a destination port of Lomé, rather than Onne, which was claimed to be the vessel’s destination. There ensued an on-and-off engagement in which the attackers subjected the ship to suppression fire – allegedly with two belt-fed weapons – and at least two individuals boarded the tanker.

A privately contracted patrol vessel (name withheld) from an adjacent oil field responded to the distress call and arrived on the scene at 2345 hrs, firing several warning shots which prompted the boarders to disembark, return to the bunker barge and flee the scene of the crime. The ship was inspected by the naval craft, but lacking further authority could not prevent from SEA STERLING departing from the area in the early hours of 28 August with her AIS still switched off.

Patrol boats: opportunities and limitations

In a report of Gulf of Guinea tanker hijackings Risk intelligence identified at least 11 cases between December 2010 and August 2013 which involved a local or international naval response with warships, either as part of a patrol scheme or in response to an ongoing at­tack. This figure does not include incidents where local navies were called and did not respond or react. In six of the seven “prevention cases” the naval forces were success­ful in disrupting the attack; in one case two Beninese naval vessels were too late to intervene in order to prevent a hi­jacking. This was in part owed to the ship under attack – the RBD ANEMA E CORE (hijacked on 24 July 2011 off Cotonou) – waiting too long before sending out a distress call.

Once pirates have boarded a ship, the scope for any intervention is much reduced, as the “response cases” show. The unsuccessful sortie of the Togolese Navy in response to the attack on the ENERGY CENTURION on 28 August 2012 off Lomé stands out as an example of local navies’ inability to ensure security of the patrolled zones and to respond effectively at the same time. This argument has been made before, but since that very early stage of the (then very vaguely defined) Togolese secure anchorage, this type of failure has not been repeated.

The inability of local naval forces to provide a timely and effective response is a key argument for those promoting embarked security forces, even though dedicated escort is available both in the Secure Anchorage Area and the Bonny River Convoy. Neither of those two secured operations has so far experienced a successful pirate attack. Patrol boats can also be hired directly, but the cost is a multiple of the embarked team, which serves as a commercial deterrent and is more likely to be the key argument in favour of the embarked security forces.

[Photo: NNS IKOT-ABASI, pictured here on Lagos roads in April 2014, responded to the distress call made by the SP BRUSSELS. (Dirk Steffen)]
[Photo: NNS IKOT-ABASI, pictured here on Lagos roads in April 2014, responded to the distress call made by the SP BRUSSELS. (Dirk Steffen)]
On balance, however, experience of the past 2-3 years has shown that attackers usually desist or abandon their endeavours in the presence of patrol boats – be they actual navy vessels or privately contracted look-alikes. The drastic, most likely punitive, killings of 13 of the 16 pirates who boarded the Nigerian-owned tanker NORTE (with a cargo owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company) on 17 August 2013 is thought to have had an impact on the mindset and modus operandi of would-be tanker hijackers in terms of that it will become more likely that attackers will resort to using human shields while retreating to the safety of the creeks in the Niger Delta. Equally, restraint by the navies (as was the case in the hijacking of the ADOUR on 13 June 2013, although this was an intervention after the deed, not one that resulted from a failed protection mission) can ensure safety of the hostages in case of a successful boarding by pirates.


In terms of liability and externalisation of risk, the patrol boats have some advantages over the embarked navy teams. Since even the contracted patrol boats are under navy operational command, law suits for loss of life of navy personnel or damage to navy property will be unlikely, especially inside territorial waters. Conversely, a major European charterer is currently being sued by the Nigerian government over the death of a policeman who was killed while being part of an embarked team.

The possibility of the patrol boat directing its fire against the client vessel (for example to prevent a boarding) is a real risk and probably the gravest. So far, this has not occurred in the Gulf of Guinea. On the other hand, several casualties have occurred as a result of embarked security teams being involved in the defence of merchant vessels. While, it is unclear who actually shot the 3rd officer on the SP BRUSSEL’s bridge, the use of Nigerian Police Force personnel outside their jurisdiction and outside territorial waters had wider-ranging implications for the vessel’s insurance and potentially also opens up the way for a lawsuit by the deceased chief engineer’s relatives against the shipping company.

Many of these liability issues are at the moment only being superficially considered by shipowners and operators especially when arrangements for the provision of embarked security forces are made or implemented in breach of existing legislation or other “policies” promulgated by the security agencies – also referred to as “unofficial allocations” in Nigerian Navy parlance. In this regard, it must be noted that every marine insurance policy has an implied warranty that the voyage is lawful. Thus, having embarked armed guards (or a patrol boat escort as well for that matter) without an express provision in the insurance policy to cover such operations, and that such operations conform to applicable law, may render a lawful voyage potentially unlawful, which in turn may invalidate the policy and discharge the insurer(s) from the liability.

As far as claims by the Nigerian government are concerned, the Nigerian Navy and Police Force may be confronted with a situation in which they will not be indemnified for suffering losses for providing a service inside territorial waters which they would be obliged to render anyway (maritime security) even without pay. However, it is evident that the Nigerian government intends to pursue shipowners or charterers for compensation regardless.


In spite of both local and foreign (even if incorporated in Nigeria) security providers’ attempts to exploit the legal loopholes and lack of inter-agency co-ordination and enforcement of security agencies’ policies, the use of embarked Nigerian security forces in Nigerian waters or offshore Nigeria remains fraught with risks which appear to outweigh the benefits. The use of such teams is frequently an excuse for neglecting other security measures and, understandably, a product of cost and expedience.

The Nigerian Navy remains committed to promoting its own vision of providing localised security through (often privately operated) patrol boats and secured areas and will continue to apply political leverage to that effect, therefore creating a tangible risk for all “unofficial allocations” of government security personnel. As evidenced by the IGP’s directive and the Flag Officer Commanding Central Naval Command’s written approval for the use of NMP inside their jurisdiction on contractors’ security vessels, the Nigerian Police Force’s policy is not as divergent from the Navy’s as it is frequently portrayed.

Photo: Letter by the Flag Officer Commanding Central Naval Command authorizing the use of Nigerian Police inside their jurisdiction on contractors’ security vessels.
Photo: Letter by the Flag Officer Commanding Central Naval Command authorizing the use of Nigerian Police inside their jurisdiction on contractors’ security vessels.


The current lawsuit over the death of a Nigerian policeman also illustrates that the “official” Nigerian policy takes a dim view of what little regulation exists being undermined by foreign shipping companies and charterers through the use of what are effectively rogue security teams. Whether or not the security agencies’ policies are driven by particular (pecuniary) interests rather than by an overarching security strategy is immaterial with regards to the risks that parties run when ignoring these “official” policies, which are de facto enforced, in favour of “unofficial arrangements”.

Finally, it is becoming increasingly evident that embarked teams – whether contracted directly or through foreign PMSCs – do not provide the level of risk reduction as advertised (or experienced in the Indian Ocean) because they often attract violence by a particular type of Niger Delta-based attackers in a way that embarked security does not in other places of the world.

Dirk Steffen is the Director Maritime Security for Denmark-based Risk Intelligence. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004.