Map close up of Gulf of Guinea

Nigerian piracy: A thing of the past?

Published: 14 December 2023

As 2023 draws to a close, it seems appropriate to take stock of the Nigerian piracy situation. In 2023 to date (14 December) three pirate attacks against seagoing ships have been recorded, and two of these attacks were successful. One of the successful attacks was related to cargo theft related, and one was related to kidnap for ransom.

These statistics are a striking contrast to the situation only a few years ago were Nigerian kidnap for ransom spread fear among seafarers off Nigeria and was regarded the number one security issue for the international shipping industry.

Has Nigerian piracy been effectively addressed following the successful recipe used off Somalia a decade ago? In the mid-2010s, Somali piracy was tackled by a combination of onboard security measures (incl. armed guards), international naval presence, effective regional legal processes, and not least tribal leadership opposition to the pirate gangs’ way of life and negative impact on local societies eventually brought the problem under control.

The answer to the question is “well, probably not quite yet”. Still, we are seeing progress in important areas and although there is a clear risk of setbacks there is also reason for optimism.

International naval presence still needed

International navies have been present in the Gulf of Guinea throughout modern times. They are typically on national tasking providing protection to national interests among, for example, the oil industry, fishing vessels and merchant ships. They are, however, more often limited in their mandate and are normally not allowed to offer general protection to the international merchant fleet operating in the area. Furthermore, they generally do not seem to have a preventive effect towards attacks against ships of other nationalities. In the past we have witnessed attacks against merchant ships despite being in the immediate vicinity of naval vessels, and often, the naval vessels have not had the national mandate to intervene. The notable exception has been the deployment by the Danish Navy in 2021/2022 and the deployments in the past couple of years by the Italian Navy. These two navies have actively interrupted several attacks, and the Danish Navy even went all the way and apprehended a group of Nigerian pirates following a gunfight which resulted in the unfortunate death of five Nigerian pirates. A significant drop in pirate activity coincided with the deployment and proactive antipiracy efforts by the Danes and the Italians and since the interventions in 2021 and 2022, attack numbers have been significantly lower than preceding years.

The gunfight between the Nigerian pirate group and the Danish Navy demonstrated the determination and capability of the Nigerian pirate groups to go up against attempts to arrest them. It became clear that any attempt to arrest a Nigerian pirate group at sea will have to include highly trained special operators directly supported by an armed helicopter. Anything less will undermine the odds of success and entail an unacceptable risk to law enforcement forces. This is probably also the reason we have not seen arrests at sea by regional law enforcement forces in recent years. They simply do not have the necessary capabilities. Furthermore, they are unlikely to get them in near future, and for the same reason, non-regional naval forces will continue to constitute an important contribution to the continued suppression of Nigerian piracy.

Nigerian domestic politics a key factor

While international naval presence has positively contributed to the suppression of piracy, most analysts single out one additional factor as the primary reason for the drop in piracy, and that is the change of focus of the former rebel leader turned strong-man, Tompolo. Tompolo is widely believed to be in control of Nigeria’s strongest militia/criminal network responsible for a majority of the pirate activity in the Gulf of Guinea. In 2022, following a period of unprecedented pirate activity and industrial scale theft from oil pipelines, the Nigerian government awarded a pipeline security contract worth an estimated 200 million dollars per year to Tompolo. The associated change of focus of Tompolo and his men are believed to be the main reason for the continued low piracy numbers.

For obvious reasons this is a delicate situation. Politics in Nigeria can change quickly and in 2023 a new president took office. The impact of this change of administration – if any – remains to be seen. For the same reason it is important that the shipping industry maintain a clear profile in the question of Nigerian piracy as exemplified with the Gulf of Guinea Declaration on Suppression of Piracy. Launched in June 2021, the Declaration quickly gathered momentum and was signed by over 500 companies and government agencies from around the World, including the World’s three largest ship registries (Panama, Liberia, Marshall Islands). Based on the highly effective and corruption-resistant antipiracy concepts developed during the Somali piracy era, the Declaration remains the single most important political signal to Nigeria about the importance of upholding maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. A link to the signature page can be found at the bottom of this article.

Regional improvements

Throughout recent years, the regional States in the Gulf of Guinea have taken several steps in the right direction to strengthen efforts to improve the maritime security situation. The countries in the region do all they can with the means they have at their disposal and deserve praise for their efforts. However, in many countries progress is slow, uneven and fragile, and it will most likely be several years before a majority of countries in the region can consistently muster the high-level military capabilities needed for effectively and safely arresting Nigerian pirate action groups.
The state of regional navies has allowed for a protection industry to crop up, and as of today there are more than 150 Nigeria-based, commercially owned and operated Security Escort Vessels (SEV) in service, mainly off Nigeria. The commercial set-up involves personnel from the Nigerian Navy at the tactical level as well as on Board level. Each year, protection money in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars are paid by ship operators, and while using an SEV is an effective means of risk management for the individual merchant ship, from an overall perspective the SEV concept entails significant risk of corruption of law enforcement. BIMCO believes that the institutionalised involvement of law enforcement agencies or officials (including recently retired senior officials) in commercial protection business can lead to a conflict of interest between business and law enforcement efforts and should thus be avoided.

For 2024, BIMCO will continue to work with partner states and other stakeholders for sustainable improvements in the maritime security situation in the Gulf of Guinea.

Become a signatory to the Gulf of Guinea Declaration on Suppression of Piracy

Jakob Paaske Larsen


Jakob Paaske Larsen

Head of Maritime Safety & Security

Copenhagen, Denmark