Original article in French, published on : 04/07/2021 – 13:29.
Of all the seas in the world, the Gulf of Guinea is the maritime area most exposed to piracy and banditry. It has become the most dangerous area in the world for the shipping industry.
Interview with Gilles Chehab, the commander of the MICA Centre, in charge of maritime security in this region.
Lieutenant-Commander Gilles Chehab, who has been the commander of the MICA Center (Maritime Information Cooperation & Awareness Center) for the past three years, housed at the Préfecture Maritime de l’Atlantique in Brest, has always had an operational background. He has commanded two units at sea and has had West African experience, having been posted to Senegal for two years and having been an officer in the training division of the Naval Action Force (FAN).
RFI: What is the mission of the MICA Center that you command? Why did the French Navy set up this service?
CC Gilles Chehab: The MICA Center is a fairly recent unit whose mission is to contribute to security at sea. If we go back in time, the French Navy has always had exchanges with the maritime industry and in particular with French ship owners. This has always existed: until 2019, this link within a regalian framework was called “voluntary naval control” and was the subject of an inter-ministerial instruction. The French Navy and ship owners met regularly, even if, until the end of the 20th century, few new resolutions had been taken because the feeling of security at sea had prevailed since the end of the Second World War and with the logic of the Cold War.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the balance of power has been profoundly reshuffled, and certain states, which were once supported by one side or another, and whose economies and governments were carried at arm’s length by the great powers, are now bankrupt or in great difficulty. As a result, maritime crime has emerged on a scale never before seen. It began in Malacca (Asia) and then in Somalia with the Gulf of Aden and the Somali basin.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of attacks has risen sharply. French shipowners have been very concerned, particularly following the “Ponant” affair, which left its mark on people’s minds: the “Ponant” was a large sailing ship belonging to the company of the same name, which was attacked off the coast of Somalia in 2008. The crew was kidnapped by pirates; an operation involving the marine commandos (Hubert commandos) led to their release. It was an operation that was mounted very quickly. The French Navy has the capacity to carry out this type of operation but believes that the risk should be tackled at its root rather than chasing after each ship to save its crew: the main objective is that civilian sailors should not be kidnapped and merchant ships should not be worried.
The shipping industry, which until then felt very protected, has become acutely aware that the seas may not be so safe anymore. It naturally approached the French Navy. From this observation, it was necessary to review how we could help the maritime industry and exchanges with shipowners increased. In 2008-2009, piracy developed in the Gulf of Guinea. To secure [its] waters, the riparian states met in Yaoundé in June 2013. This summit resulted in the definition of a global process to combat maritime insecurity in Africa (piracy and armed robbery).
In support of this process, and at the request of the maritime industry, the Royal Navy and the Navy created a virtual reporting mechanism called MDAT-GOG (Maritime Domain Awareness for Trade – Gulf of Guinea). In the same year, 2016, the merger of Voluntary Naval Control and MDAT-GOG gave birth to the MICA Center.
In concrete terms, what does the MICA Center do?
The objective of the MICA Center is to contribute to the prevention, knowledge and anticipation of what is happening on the oceans. The MICA Center collects information from the civilian world (companies, ships, media or other fusion centres, which are sometimes private) and recovers information of a state nature, thanks to the French Navy, but also via allied navies and cooperation with other countries. All this is integrated into a database run by powerful software that allows us to monitor in real time what is happening on the water, particularly for all the ships that adhere to our protocol.
To this end, the MICA Center offers French and foreign ships sailing in the Gulf of Guinea, but also elsewhere, the possibility of benefiting from a certain number of services: exchanging information with the MICA Center on a regular basis during the kinematic monitoring of the ship; receiving safety assessments and alerts in real time; receiving specific assessments; receiving the latest statistics to have an excellent knowledge of what is happening on the seas.
The MICA Center does not have the role of coordinating actions, but it is the one that receives the information, disseminates it and retransmits it to those who will coordinate the response.
For example, when a ship contacts our MDAT-GoG cell from the Gulf of Guinea because it has been attacked, we retrieve the information and distribute it to the maritime coordination centres in Yaoundé, which means that captains only have to call one number. For the ships, this is very important: they don’t have to wonder who to call, they have one number and it’s ours.
All ships that go to the Gulf of Guinea, which is a huge maritime area of 3,500,000 km2, are asked to register with MDAT-GoG, to inform us of what they are doing every day and can call us as soon as they have a problem. We coordinate by calling all the centres. We don’t have the means to call in a warship, but the relevant authorities are informed as soon as possible.
We talk about piracy, robbery… What are the different types of aggression that you observe?
The terms “piracy” and “brigandage” do not have the same meaning from a legal point of view. Piracy is beyond 12 nautical miles, on the high seas; brigandage is in territorial waters. If we look at the world as a whole, there is very little piracy or kidnapping, but there is a lot of banditry. When we talk about Malacca and Singapore, we are talking about theft in territorial waters, and therefore banditry. When we talk about piracy today, it is mainly in the Gulf of Guinea. There are two reasons for this: because in this area many acts are carried out beyond 12 nautical miles, in the open sea, so it becomes piracy, but also and above all because there are many sailors who are kidnapped. This act of kidnapping, whether it takes place in or outside territorial waters, is quite naturally assimilated, in everyday language, to an act of piracy and not robbery.
At the global level, there is not much change from one year to the next. The figures for 2019 and 2020 are very similar. Many thought that the pandemic would reduce the number of acts, but this has not been the case. In the first half of 2021, the number of acts in the Gulf of Guinea is lower than the previous year for the same period. In the Gulf of Aden, it is very calm, but the Mozambique Channel is seeing an increase in violent acts, particularly with the recording of terrorist actions in this area. Finally, in South America, there were a few fairly violent acts that remained similar to the previous year.
At global level, there were 375 acts of piracy and banditry in 2020. That’s about one a day. If we take the Gulf of Guinea alone, there were 114 acts over the year and 142 sailors were kidnapped. The Gulf of Guinea remains the area that worries the maritime industry the most.
Many countries are taking measures to make the seas safer. Operation Atalanta, for example, in the Gulf of Aden, has brought attacks down to a very low level. In the Gulf of Guinea, there is strong coordination between all the riparian countries under the 2013 Yaoundé Code of Conduct, which is a process of commitment by all the countries in the Gulf of Guinea to achieve better security on the water. This year, European aid was added with the setting up of the CMP (Coordinated Maritime Presence). The aim of this project is to ensure continuity, complementarity and synergy between the actions of the EU Member States in support of the States in the region.
What is happening in the Gulf of Guinea that makes this maritime area the most dangerous in the world today?
What we observe on the water is that in certain areas, robbery attacks are often linked to young people who have lost their jobs, often fishermen who can no longer make a living from fishing and who turn to robbery to get by at the end of the month. Robbery is quite common in the Gulf of Guinea. It extends from Conakry in Guinea to Angola. These are generally people who avoid contact with the crew: they come on board and steal whatever they can and jump into the water if they are spotted by the crew.
The other category is pirates. It has been said for several years that the pirates are Nigerians from the Niger Delta. They are organised groups that come from the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta and attack large commercial ships to kidnap sailors and obtain ransoms. These pirates are relatively well organised: they set off in skiffs, small boats that can hold a dozen people with two large outboard motors at the back. They may leave in two skiffs, one for the attack and the other loaded with fuel drums, as they are often called upon to travel very long distances. Their objective is to go far enough offshore to attack ships that are less vigilant, because when you’re 150 or 200 nautical miles away, i.e. 300 or 400 km from the coast, you think you’re not risking much. But today, we find pirates who go to these distances to attack in a very coordinated way: there are those who are responsible for the ladder, which is nearly 10 metres long, and who have to hook it onto the ship despite the movement of the waves in the open sea. Then there are others who board the ship, rush to the bridge, cut off all means of communication and immediately try to kidnap sailors.
When the ship’s staff are attacked, they take refuge in a citadel, an armoured room and call for help. But when sailors are kidnapped, they are then taken on board the skiffs that reach the coast where the hostages will be kept in camps while the pirates negotiate ransoms with the ship owners.
The objective for the pirates is not to kill but to kidnap because what they want is a ransom. But they are determined and can sometimes be violent. They have weapons of war. At the beginning of the year, unfortunately, a sailor was killed in one of these attacks. The crew had taken refuge in the citadel. But the pirates managed to break into the citadel after six hours. This led to aggressive exchanges and they killed a sailor.
How often do these attacks occur?
In the Gulf of Guinea last year, the MICA Centre recorded an average of one incident every three days. Kidnappings are less frequent and depend on the season. In this area, between October and March, it is what is known as the dry season: a season when the weather is rather nice, the air is rather dry and the winds are sometimes nil, so the sea is rather calm. For pirates, it’s the ideal time, so you have more piracy. At the moment, we see fewer acts because it’s raining, the sea is a bit rougher, so it’s much more complicated to board a ship.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been 45 incidents. And so far there have only been five successful attacks in which 50 seafarers were kidnapped, which is a lot but below the figures recorded in 2020.
How are we organised to deal with these threats in the Gulf of Guinea?
Improving the security of merchant shipping depends largely on exchanges between states (coastal states, partners), their navies and the maritime industry. But for this to happen, several specific factors must be taken into account, such as the immensity of the Gulf of Guinea (from Senegal to Angola, it is practically the size of Europe). If we take only the area where the attacks are concentrated off the Niger Delta, it is at least as big as Spain, so one warship in this area cannot be enough. It’s like putting a police car in the middle of Spain. Moreover, the Gulf of Guinea is not a strait, there is no convoying possible with an entry and exit zone as it can be in the Gulf of Aden.
In the Gulf of Guinea, ships come from the south, the west, the north and go to different ports. That’s where five of the main ports on the continent are, so there’s a lot of density and traffic, and you can’t create a safe convoy. In the Gulf of Guinea, there is no failed state like in the Gulf of Aden, but 19 countries that communicate and improve the security work with our support.
The Gulf countries that receive these ships refuse to allow private armed guards on ships entering their waters. So the ships cannot take armed men on board to protect themselves as is the case for those passing off Somalia. They can only seek assistance from local authorities and then only in territorial waters. This is also one of the reasons why pirates attack ships beyond territorial waters.
Maritime associations are helping to anticipate and answer questions from crews. In particular, certain measures have been taken, such as the publication of the BMP WA (Best Management Practices West Africa), a document published last year which is a collection of instructions for merchant ships sailing in the Gulf of Guinea (putting up barbed wire, practising taking refuge in a citadel, planning to set up fire hoses, etc.).
In addition, warships from various European countries were organised to be present in the Gulf. The French Navy has been deployed in the framework of Operation Corymbe for the past thirty years and ensures a French presence in the Gulf. Currently there is an Italian frigate, a Spanish patrol boat and by the end of the year a Danish frigate. The British are also due to arrive: all the navies are coordinating their efforts to improve their presence in the area, especially in the most sensitive zone where the kidnappings take place.