Maritime Governance BRIEF

Gulf of Guinea: Piracy-Graphics 2020

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Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, in 2020, revealed a continuity from previous years as well as new and emerging trends, particularly regarding the modus operandi of Pirate Action Groups (PAGs). In terms of absolute numbers, the statistics show an almost perfect hyperbola in actual incidents at sea when the years 2018, 2019 and 2020 are compared, decreasing from 135 in 2018 to 121 in 2019 and increasing to 130 in 2020
(cf. Figure 1). The subsequent graphical representations depict the identified threat profile.

Type of Attack201820192020
Attempted incidents191520
Suspicious approaches9719
Fired upon incidents8128
Armed robberies21298
Figure 1. Overview of incidents for 2018, 2019 & 2020

DISCLOSURE: The data contained in this report was largely sourced from reports produced under the Yaoundé Architecture.


While the incidents in 2020 have progressively followed the occurrences from previous years and fit into the piracy profile of the region, there are new trends that deserve detailed analysis (cf. Figure 2). Some of these dynamics are a consolidation of evolving indicators in the immediate past years, others are adaptations to counterpiracy responses, while some are new manifestations. Altogether, these trends have scaled up the insecurity and piracy threat profile in the Gulf of Guinea.

CemLaws Trends
Figure 2. Trends in 2020

Range of Attacks
One progressive trend that has reached its momentum in 2020 is the significant increase in pirates’ operational range, manifested by the extended distances from the coastline along which pirate groups conduct their activities. Up until 2012, pirate attacks across the region were concentrated in coastal areas with the distance of attack averaging less than 40nm from the coastline. As ships increased their distance from the shore to avoid pirates, the latter innovated by using mother vessels to extend their range and subsequently improved their capabilities by using boats with greater endurance. Generally, however, attacks were still not deep into the sea.

A number of attacks in 2018 and 2019 signalled an increasing range of incidents, which has continued exponentially into 2020, with an average distance of 150nm from the coastline (cf. Figure 3). The attack on the chemical tanker CURACAO TRADER, which happened at 244nm on 17 July 2020, clearly showed that the range of attacks has taken a new dimension.

Figure 3. Average distance of attack from coastline

Examples of other deep-sea incidents in 2020 are:

  • IRENES RESOLVE, 21 February 2020: attack on the Liberia-flagged container ship about 160nm south-west off Bayelsa State, Nigeria.
  • CAP DIAMANT, 25 March 2020: suspicious approach on the Liberia-flagged crude oil tanker about 155nm south-west off Brass, Nigeria.
  • BW TAGUS, 14 June 2020: suspicious approach on the Singapore-flagged product tanker about 250nm off the Nigerian coast.
  • MV KOTA BUDI, 2 July 2020: attack and kidnapping on the Singapore-flagged general cargo vessel about 150nm off Cotonou, Benin.
  • CURACAO TRADER, 17 July 2020: attack and kidnapping on the Liberia-flagged product tanker about 224nm south of Cotonou, Benin.
  • VALLEY OAK, 11 November 2020: suspicious approach on the Marshall Island-flagged chemical tanker about 198nm south off Cotonou, Benin.
  • MINERVA EVROPI, 4 December 2020: fired upon incident on the Greece-flagged crude oil tanker about 230nm south off Cotonou, Benin.
  • MT VERRAZANE, 5 December 2020: attempted incident on the France-flagged product tanker about 210nm south off Lagos, Nigeria.
  • MT NEW RANGER, 5 December 2020: attack on the Malta-flagged product tanker about 200nm south off Lagos, Nigeria.

Hunt, Fix and Prey
The increasing range of attacks signifies an important adaptation by pirates to the concurrent responses of the shipping industry and national security enforcement agencies. As vessels sail far from the coastline to avoid attacks, and navies have stepped up counter-piracy patrols, pirates are leap-frogging the patrol lines and ‘catching’ both their prey and the law enforcement agencies off guard. Traditionally, such deeper sea attacks are aided by the use of motherships, but there has been no confirmation of the use of such ships in support of incidents in 2020. Thus, one is left to logically conclude that pirates have innovatively adapted to reach deeper at sea, the main elements being faster speedboats, greater endurance, supporting boats, embarkation of resupply fuel and enhanced skills and experience (cf. Figure 4).

In addition to the exponential increase in the depth of attacks, incidents have also spread widely from the primary piracy enclave (Niger Delta Region) across the Gulf of Guinea. This phenomenon, although not entirely new, has become more visible with some new dimensions in 2020.

Piracy attacks have occurred in 9 countries outside the Nigerian hub – Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Sao Tomé and Principe and Togo. The geographical spread of incidents in 2020 is equally unique in the sense that the extension unfolded simultaneously in both westwards and south-eastwards directions from Nigeria.

As 2020 came to an end, pirates also registered their presence firmly in Ghana’s EEZ, notably with the attack on the Ghanaian-flagged fishing vessel AP 703, which resulted in the kidnapping of two foreign crew members. Other pirate activities have occurred in Ghana’s territorial waters, such as the attempted attacks on the MT HAFNIA PHOENIX (22 September) and the AGNES 1 (26 September), as well as the attack on the MV AGISILAOS on 29 November, which resulted in the kidnapping of 4 crew members. This development is important because, over the years, there have been fewer attacks in Ghana’s coastal area. More importantly, the attacks amplify the increasing insecurity in Zone F†, which correlates with the extension of high-risk areas in the Gulf of Guinea region (cf. Figure 5).

Figure 5. Risk zones in 2020

The emergence of these new hotspots is perhaps an indication that Nigerian counterpiracy efforts are effective, at least in the short term. Thus, the pirates are exploiting the “softest areas”. This resilience and adaptation imply that pirates will continue to exploit less monitored/patrolled areas, maintaining their operational threshold, thus representing a widening threat to the safety and security of shipping and seafarers in the region. Pirates in the region are also known to move mainly through the maritime corridors into the territorial waters of other states. However, it is also possible that they are exploiting other means of movement, either by land or sea.

† The Yaoundé Architecture delimits the five zones in the Gulf of Guinea region as follows: Zone G (Cabo Verde, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mali); Zone F (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso); Zone E (Benin, Nigeria, Niger, Togo); Zone D (Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Principe); Zone A (Angola, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi).

Mass Kidnapping
A decade review of Gulf of Guinea piracy reveals an interesting evolution regarding kidnapping for ransom (KFR). Earlier in the piracy phase, pirate attention was focused on product tankers, thus giving rise to the petro-piracy terminology. With time, kidnapping became a recurrent trend due to a combination of factors. Arguably, pirates gained a better understanding of the industry’s behaviour and consequently found ransom payment a good opportunity to increase their financial inflows. Thus, KFR has been relatively consistent over the past 5-6 years – usually targeting the captain and a few others (especially non-African captains and crew). Overall, the number of kidnapped crew members has increased over the past years, from 108 in 2018 to 142 in 2019 and to 154 in 2020 (cf. Figure 6).

Figure 6. Kidnapped crew members in 2018, 2019 & 2020

However, indications of mass kidnapping emerged towards the end of 2019 and have prevailed in 2020. If we consider the baseline for mass kidnapping incidents to be the kidnapping of 5 or more crew members, which is twice the number from the traditional kidnapping of the captain and an additional crew member (e.g., the chief engineer), the statistics depict a considerable increase from 2018 to 2019, with respectively 6 and 12 cases. This high number of mass kidnapping incidents has continued in 2020, with a total of 13 cases (cf. figure 7).

Figure 7. Cases of mass kidnapping 2018-2020

The following cases highlight some of the more significant mass kidnapping incidents in 2020:

  • MSC TALIA F, 22 March 2020: attack on the Portugal-flagged container ship (Gabon) and witnessed the kidnapping of 10 crew members.
  • TOMMI RITSCHER, 18 April 2020: attack on the Portugal-flagged container ship (Benin) and witnessed the kidnapping of 8 crew members.
  • VEMAHOPE, 30 April 2020: attack on the Panama-flagged product tanker (Nigeria) and witnessed the kidnapping of 10 crew members.
  • SENDJE BERGE, 2 July 2020: attack on the Singapore-flagged (Nigeria) and witnessed the kidnapping of 9 crew members.
  • CURACAO TRADER, 17 July 2020: attack on the Liberia-flagged product tanker (Benin) and witnessed the kidnapping of 13 crew members.
  • ZHEN HUA 7, 13 November 2020: attack on the Liberia-flagged heavy load carrier (Sao Tome and Principe and witnessed the kidnapping of 14 crew members.
  • MILAN, 25 November 2020: attack on the Saint Kitts-flagged cargo vessel (Nigeria) and witnessed the kidnapping of 10 crew members.
  • M/V STEVIA, 16 December 2020: attack on the Cameroon-flagged cargo vessel (Nigeria) and witnessed the kidnapping of 8 crew members.

Target Variability
Attacks in 2020 are also signalling target-variability. Previously, pirate attacks were generally against larger vessels, especially tankers, cargo vessels and offshore support vessels. While there have been cases of attacks against fishing vessels in the past, the analysis of incidents in 2020 shows that fishing vessels are now progressively exposed to piracy attacks. The table below depicts the details of the incidents against fishing vessels in 2020 (cf. Figure 8).

Figure 8. Attacks on fishing vessels in 2020

A number of explanations may account for the trend of attacks on fishing vessels. Perhaps this new paradigm flows logically from the fact that ransom piracy has now become dominant, and since the target is the crew rather than the vessel or cargo, all types of vessels are susceptible to attacks. Secondly, fishing vessels may be softer targets; while larger vessels have acquired or employed advanced security measures, fishing trawlers remain vulnerable. Thirdly, it is also possible that the engagement of fishing vessels in illicit activities, notably illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, is leaving them susceptible to piracy attacks. A fourth hypothesis is the possible emergence of a new PAG or a scheme of piracy franchising that is targeting fishing vessels.

Agility and Swiftness
As piracy emerged in the Gulf of Guinea a decade ago, pirates were visibly on the frontline. As a parasitic activity to militancy, pirate activities were generally noticeable and characterised by openly carrying weapons and firefights with security forces. It was also common to see multiple pirate boats chasing vessels. This posture of insurgent-piracy persisted even after the cessation of militant activities following the amnesty in 2009. Gulf of Guinea pirates have, however, progressively changed their tactics and are much more discreet in their operations. They have also perfected their skills and ability to conduct very swift operations leaving limited foot or sea prints. A classic incident is the attack on the TOMMI RITSCHER at Cotonou anchorage on 18 April 2020, which the timeline below illustrates (cf. Figure 9).

Figure 9. Timeline of attack on TOMMI RITSCHER

Accounts of the attack and kidnapping of the crew from the PANOFI FRONTIER, offCotonou on 24 June 2020, further confirmed the agility and swiftness of pirates. Samededuction can be made regarding the multiple attacks on the MT NEW RANGER, which was boarded thrice on the 5, 6 and 15 December 2020.

Improved Business Model
As pirates’ strategy developed over time, so has the opportunity to enlarge the operational and financial scheme accompanying it. Indeed, a business model of piracy is becoming a significant aspect of the Gulf of Guinea, particularly as criminal groups have shifted from thefts and robberies to KFR. The network required to sustain the KFR model of piracy is larger than the traditional case of piracy cargo stealing. This includes negotiators, intermediaries, facilitators and racketeers who will be part of the piracy network, as well as individuals acting in an official or professional capacity such as insurance and risk analyst, professional negotiators and security companies. Therefore, there is a blend of actors – the pirates and their associates or networks and legitimate or pseudo-legitimate actors – all practically sustaining the business model. There is also a high level of secrecy surrounding negotiation, payment and the true identity of both the criminal and legitimate actors. The cyclical KFR business model, including the various actors and the money flow, is summarised below (cf. Figure 10).

Figure 10. KFR Business Model

The figure particularly emphasises the role of intermediaries, as well as the multiplicity of involved actors. Indeed, the role of the intermediaries becomes paramount in terms of facilitating the ransom payment and the ensuing release of the kidnapped crew members. This trend is likely to prevail in 2021, as KFR has proven to be a lucrative activity for PAGs, enabling them to maintain and improve their modus operandi.


As 2020 came to an end, the need to prevent, halt, counter and contain piracy and illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea is ever prevailing. Security enforcement agencies and the shipping industry are adjusting their response mechanisms to criminal groups’ ingenuity and resourcefulness and vice versa, which has resulted in an on-going and complex cycle. Developments on both sides have been significant over the last decade, from the adoption of the Yaoundé Architecture in 2013 to the expansion of piracy networks across the region. Efforts are being made to share information and intercept maritime criminals by maritime stakeholders at all levels, including national Maritime Operation Centres (MOCs), Multi-National Maritime Coordination Centres (MMCCs), sub-regional centres (CRESMAO and CRESMAC), regional institutions (i.e., ICC) and the shipping industry. Yet, the threat has enlarged both in-depth and across the region. The year 2021 continues to present challenges to the global community and indeed, incidents in the first few months of the year point to greater piracy threat and activities. With 23 incidents recorded so far from Ghana to Gabon, including 2 hijackings, 2 cases of mass kidnapping and 7 cases taking place beyond 150nm from the coastline, the identified threat profile of 2020 is set to advance into 2021.

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