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Article: Tackling piracy in Nigeria

News & Insights 27 August 2020

The threat of piracy and kidnap has been persistent in the Niger Delta region and wider Gulf of Guinea waters for some time. However, that threat has escalated in recent months.

The threat of piracy and kidnap has been persistent in the Niger Delta region and wider Gulf of Guinea waters for some time. However, that threat has escalated in recent months. During July 2020, pirates kidnapped 15 crew from a tanker vessel up to 244 nautical miles from shore. The pirates were apparently supported by a mother ship allowing them to perpetrate their attacks beyond state counter piracy efforts. The attack was one of the furthest attacks from shore ever reported. The prevalence of reported armed robbery, piracy and kidnapping cases comes despite various efforts to tackle these scourges both within Nigeria and on a regional West African level.

Nigeria leading the way

The Nigerian government has committed to a range of measures to try and wrest back control of Nigeria’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone within the Gulf of Guinea.

In early 2019, a new security programme called 'Deep Blue Project' was initiated where the government removed the previous secure anchorage arrangement and the Nigerian Navy is now responsible for maintaining safety and security in these waters.

In June 2019, a new act to tackle piracy received assent by President Muhammadu Buhari, the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Act 2019 (SPOMO). The new act was hailed as a success of initiatives such as the Yaoundé Code of Conduct with Nigeria becoming the first nation in the region to ratify a law to specifically combat piracy. 

The purpose of SPOMO is to prevent and curb piracy, armed robbery and other unlawful acts against a ship.  The act has widespread application whereby it applies to any person on board a ship or aircraft navigating in, on or above the territorial and internal waters of Nigeria or on above international waters. 

The act has been lauded for its definition of piracy that is in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 and the inclusion of specific maritime offences and unlawful acts at sea, which include armed robbery at sea and acts other than piracy committed within Nigerian waters.

However, the act has been criticised for being too standalone in that the act does not complement existing domestic laws on related issues such as money laundering and corruption. Whilst the act grants powers to seize vessels or aircraft used for maritime crimes, there is some uncertainty as who may be considered the relevant authority to carry out such actions. 

The effectiveness of the new act was recently tested when in August 2020, the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt convicted three of the nine accused of hijacking a passenger/ro-ro ship off the Equatorial Guinea coast in March. This was the first conviction under SPOMO with the judge ordering each of the convicted parties to pay quite significant fines.

It remains to be seen whether such measures introduced by the Nigerian government will be enough to deter would-be pirates. It has been argued that Nigeria must go beyond the current measures and address the sociological and environmental factors that drive piracy.

Industry action

Notwithstanding the continued maritime security threat, the West Africa region remains an important trading area for international shipping. Industry bodies have a key role to play in helping local governments tackle issues such as corruption that is one of the root causes of piracy. 

The Standard Club has since May 2020, been a member of the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN), an organisation that is dedicated to a goal of fair trade and a maritime industry that is free of corruption. MACN has been working to improve the operating environment in Nigerian ports and terminals including the implementation of a mechanism for escalation of disputes relating to corrupt demands. MACN recently launched an anonymous Impact Survey to assess the impact of their efforts and to better understand the evolving situation in Nigerian ports and terminals. The link to the Impact Survey can be found here.

Category: Maritime Security

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