Ships, aircraft, drones and hundreds of personnel are ready to back Deep Blue Project

On 19 May, five armed pirates boarded a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Guinea, south of the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

The assailants, according to security sources, took the boat 185 km (115 miles) out to sea before ­taking hostage five crew members — three Chinese nationals, one South Korean and a Russian — for whom they could demand up to $50,000 each in ransoms.

This is the type of transnational crime — increasingly high-profile, violent and sophisticated — that Nigeria believes it can combat with its $195m anti-piracy Deep Blue Project to be launched this month.

 

“The strategy that [Nigeria] is putting in place, which is bound to change the security narrative in not just Nigeria’s maritime ­environment, but also the entire Gulf of Guinea, is anchored on the Deep Blue Project,” Nigerian Mari­time Administration & Safety Agency director-general Bashir Jamoh wrote in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper.

Jamoh’s agency will run the operation in the gulf, identified by some as the world’s most dangerous waters.

But will it work?

The Deep Blue Project will reportedly be manned by ­hundreds of specially trained personnel and have at its disposal what Jamoh describes as two ­special mission vessels that can spend more than a month at sea, 17 fast-response vessels capable of speeds of 50 knots, five aircraft and four drones that can provide “round-the-clock” surveillance.

The operation will be run out of a command and control centre, equipped with a satellite system said to allow Nigeria to oversee its territorial waters and exclusive ­economic zone in real time. Officials have also made overtures to neighbours to share information.

Meanwhile, 175 seafarers have been kidnapped from ships since the beginning of 2020, according to the International Maritime Bureau, with indications that incidents are becoming more violent and frequent.

In January, pirates shot and killed Azerbaijani seafarer Farman Ismayilov in the process of taking 15 of his shipmates hostage from the 2,824-teu containership Mozart (built 2007).

A few weeks later, 15 seafarers were kidnapped from the 19,800-dwt tanker Davide B (built 2016) in waters very close to, but not in, the Nigerian exclusive economic zone, and beyond the reach of Nigerian authorities.

Casper Goldman, analyst at maritime security consultancy Dryad Global, said the location of the Davide B attack suggested increasing sophistication from raiders, while the Ghana fishing boat incident indicated greater capabilities, given the distance from Nigeria.

“What we’re basically seeing is that the concentration of piracy incidents are moving further out into different domains. This is really a reflection of the impunity with which pirates operate,” he said. “It also shows that the resource investments are very important. Nigeria deserves praise for conducting such a big project.”

Goldman described the investment as “substantial”, but said there is more to combating pir­acy than what happens in Nigerian waters.

Only Nigeria has a legal framework for prosecuting piracy, thanks to the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act. But although passed in 2019, it appears as though only a handful of pirates have been prosecuted.

In some instances, pirates have taken to working the creeks of the Niger River delta, which can be ­difficult to police, Goldman said.

Onshore investment is necessary, too, he added, given the ­violence in Nigeria’s coastal communities, where separatist groups exist amid political unrest, although sources do not know if they and the pirates are linked.

“Offshore maritime crime and piracy are always rooted in onshore insecurity,” Goldman said. “As a result of that insecurity, it is conducive for criminal groups to emerge.”

Jamoh said previous attempts to secure Nigeria’s waters suffered as various stakeholders failed to work together.

“They all invested in similar infrastructure and platforms for the same purpose, but worked independently of one another,” he said, leading to the “wrongful designation” of the Gulf of Guinea as especially dangerous.

This time his agency will lead the way with the support of the Ministry of Transportation, the Ministry of Defence and the police.