The Gulf of Guinea is currently still one of the most dangerous regions in the world for seafarers; in 2014, 16% of attacks involved kidnap for ransom; in 2015 it was 28%; this year, we have arleady reported 28 incidents. In order to understand why kidnap for ransom has increased in Nigeria, weneed to understand a bit about the political background in Nigeria.
Nigeria currently faces a number of threats. I have listed just three of them here:
- Boko Haram: mainly is in the North and the East of the country. The Nigerian military really made heavy weather of dealing with Boko Haram; the situation is improved but a political solution is still a long way off.
- MEND - the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta: This group fought an insurgency against the Nigerian government but in 2009 there was an amnesty, but the group did not disband. The Nigerian government actually paid them to refrain from violence and the new president, President Buhari, has indicated that he wants to bring an end to some lucrative contracts that were given to MEND, so in return, MEND have retaliated by attacking oil pipelines.
- More recently we got new groups appearing: the NDA - the Niger Delta Avengers - which are a threat to both the government and the established groups.
So far, the kidnappings undertaken have been for purely financial gain; there have been no political demands. Other reasons why there may have been an increase in kidnap for ransom, is that the Nigerians have actually increased their Naval Patrols. That makes it more difficult for the pirates who are into cargo theft, because it has become more risky; cargo theft generally takes a few days, so there is the risk that they might be caught. Also, the drop in oil price has meant that cargo theft is not as lucrative as it used to be, so our feeling is that some of the pirates who were involved in the cargo theft have now moved to kidnap for ransom and any solution to these problems seems a long way off at the moment.
The kidnappers do not appear to be linked to any of the insurgent groups but they thrive in this lawless situation. The organization of the groups varies; sometimes the leader is present, sometimes he is not, sometimes the leader will do the negotiations, sometimes he will not. Discipline varies. We hear debriefing sessions from the hostages on occasions that the leaders do not even need to shout their orders. The hostages are thought to be held in the Delta States, that is everywhere from Delta in the West across the Cross River, in the East.
During a kidnap, abductions are always dangerous as they may result in either death or personal injury - in fact the Hellenic experienced one case last year with both unfortunately. The pirates are increasingly well organized; they use fast speed boats picked up from another hostage from a recent debrief with speed boat of two 200 horse power engines. The pirates will generally take the lightest skinned hostages because they are thought to bring a premium to the ransom. They do occasionally take local Nigerian ships and they will take Nigerian hostages but they do not command the ransom that the European might command. Most abductions are over pretty quickly, 20-30 minutes but the journey from the ship to the holding side can take 3-4 hours.
The conditions in which the hostages are held are very poor. Torture and prolonged physical maltreatment are rare. The basic threat is from these unhygienic conditions and the hostages quickly decline into ill health. Something like 60-70% of hostages go down with malaria. However, there is no known fatality during the period of captivity, most hostages survive their ordeal and ironically the unhygienic conditions do act as a break on the period of captivity because the pirates know that it is not in their interest to have seriously ill hostages on their hands. What I would say is if you are unlucky enough to be involved in one of these incidents is not to overlook the mental impact on those seafarers who narrowly escape kidnap. The weather also has a bit of an impact, Nigeria experiences heavy rains from March until July and then again from the beginning of September through into the middle of October. From what we have heard from hostages, we do know that the pirates wanted to end the situation before the heavy rain started. There are kidnappings during those periods but they tend to be a bit of a reduction.
Escape is not really an option; hostages are held in Niger Delta area. Armed rescue attempts have been made in the past but it puts the hostages into great danger. The gangs seem actually more concerned about the threat from rival gangs stealing their hostages than they do from the authorities. Again feedback from the hostages is that they have seen the gangs being well organized; they drill their defenses in case they are attacked by rival gangs. Another debriefing from hostages recently was that they told the team that they were held in two huts, but they had seen the gang that was holding them constructing a building that had 15 or 20 rooms. So, I was just wondering if they are about to scale up that business model.
The release is also a dangerous time: generally takes place in the Niger Delta, usually the hostages are released into the care of specialist teams. As soon as they are safe, individuals undergo medical checks and hospital if needed and new clothes are provided. Then, we move them to Lagos and they are repatriated as soon as they are fit to travel. They are followed up with after care in their own country. How the crew and the families are being supported is a key factor when it comes to recovery. Always consider the use of a trained psychologist joining the debrief team. At the Hellenic it is something that we recommend and we pay for. Companies mostly deal with the payment of any outstanding wages very promptly and also compensate for any loss of effects; that is to avoid any feelings of animosity.
Company can be prepared by looking at their insurance arrangements such as what is their underwriters’ record when it comes to the payment of ransom, will they advance the ransom?
Practical tips follow which they are taken from BMP4 and comply with the Guidelines against Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea:
- Ship operating at heightened state of security
- Ship and voyage specific risk assessment performed as recommended by BMP4
- Limit use of lights at night
- Comply with Guidelines for Protection against Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea
- Limit external communications with third parties
- Regular reporting to MDAT-GOG
- Take advice if considering the use of armed guards
The Hellenic in the last few months has had two cases where the ship had been boarded but the crew made to the citadel. The pirates had been onboard for up to 2 hours and then they left, so there has been theft and damage but none of the crew had been taken. Our advice is that owners need to have access to professional kidnap response management. The companies need to consider training CSOs and crews. Training for crews should include support for the family. The family should be encouraged not to answer phone calls from the pirates. The crew members need to have confidence that the family is being looked after while they are undergoing this ordeal and the hostages themselves should avoid becoming involved in the negotiations.
Training for companies should ensure that the crew understands the risks. If crew members take medicines, try to ensure that they carry a stock with them. Also, they should consider availability of insect repellent as many hostages are going down with malaria. Essentially, those companies that are prepared tend to get over the ordeal quicker and better than otherwise.
Now what next? In my view, the kidnap threat is unlikely to disappear in West Africa any time soon.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.
Rod Lingard, Joint Managing Director, Thomas Miller War Risks Services Ltd
Rod is a Master Mariner and has degrees in, Nautical Studies, Law and an MBA. After 11 years at sea, mainly on bulk carriers, Rod worked as a cargo superintendent for a short while before joining the Sunderland P&I Club in 1987 and then Thomas Miller/The UK P&I Club in 1991. Rod became a Syndicate Manager with Thomas Miller in 1995 and he managed several different Syndicates, including Thomas Miller (Hellas) Ltd from 2008 to 2014, providing claims handling and advisory services to UK P&I and UK Defence Club Members. Rod returned from Greece to London in 2014 to become the joint Managing Director of Thomas Miller War Risk Services Limited the consultants to the Managers of the Hellenic Mutual War Risks Association (Bermuda) Limited and in April 2016, in addition to keeping his war role, Rod moved to the Isle of Man and recently became Chairman of Thomas Miller (Isle of Man) Limited.