The Threat of Piracy in Nigerian Waters: Assessing Risk Factors for Ships and Crews


The Gulf of Guinea has emerged as a global epicenter for piracy, surpassing the waters off Somalia in terms of the frequency and severity of attacks on commercial vessels. Nigerian waters, in particular, have experienced a surge in maritime crime, posing grave risks to ships transiting the region as well as the crews operating them. This research essay aims to develop comprehensive risk profiles by examining the factors that render certain vessels and seafarers more vulnerable to piracy in this volatile maritime domain.

Background: Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

The waters of the Gulf of Guinea, stretching from Senegal to Angola, have long grappled with piracy and armed robbery at sea. However, the threat has escalated dramatically in recent years, especially in the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones of coastal nations like Nigeria, Benin, and Togo (Otto, 2020). In 2022, the region accounted for nearly all kidnappings of crew members globally and over 50% of maritime security incidents (Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia, 2023).

Nigeria’s strategic location along the Bight of Biafra, coupled with its offshore oil and gas infrastructure, have made its waters particularly enticing for pirate gangs. These criminal organizations, often comprising former militants from the Niger Delta region, have capitalized on gaps in maritime security enforcement and porous coastal borders (Bridger, 2018). Their modus operandi ranges from opportunistic robberies and hijackings to sophisticated, pre-planned attacks aimed at taking crews hostage for ransom.

Ship Vulnerability Factors

Certain categories of ships operating in Nigerian waters face elevated risks due to their characteristics and functions. One of the primary risk factors is a vessel’s speed and maneuverability. Slow moving ships like oil tankers, bulk carriers, and offshore support vessels make attractive targets, as their limited ability to outmaneuver pirate skiffs reduces chances of evading or outrunning attacks (Jacobsen & Frederiksen, 2022). Similarly, ships with low freeboards that sit closer to the waterline are more vulnerable to pirate boardings.

The nature of a ship’s cargo and perceived monetary value also influences risk exposure. Tankers carrying crude oil or refined petroleum products are frequently targeted by pirate gangs seeking to siphon and sell valuable energy cargoes on black markets (Otto, 2020). Likewise, vessels servicing Nigeria’s offshore oil and gas installations face heightened threats, as pirates view them as avenues for equipment theft or taking rig workers hostage for ransom payments.

Another key vulnerability stems from the predictability of a vessel’s operations. Ships adhering to regular schedules or transit routes through well-known corridors offer pirate groups opportunities to study patterns and plan coordinated attacks accordingly (Bridger, 2018). Vessels calling on Nigeria’s major ports like Lagos or Bonny Island’s offshore terminals are thus placed at higher risk due to the foreseeability of their movements.

Finally, the presence and capabilities of onboard security teams shape a ship’s vulnerability profile. While an increasing number of commercial vessels now employ armed maritime security contractors, others remain reluctant due to legal ambiguities surrounding armed guards or the added operational costs involved (Osinowo, 2015). Ships sailing with inadequate security detachments present more enticing targets for pirate groups.

Crew Risk Factors

In addition to vessel characteristics, certain crew profiles elevate vulnerability to piracy in Nigerian waters. One such factor involves the nationalities represented among a ship’s complement of seafarers. Vessels crewed primarily by Asian or Eastern European mariners may face greater targeting, as criminal gangs perceive hostages from those regions will yield higher ransom payments from employers or governments (Otto, 2020).

The experience levels of a vessel’s crew also shape risk exposure during potential piracy situations. Ships manned by less experienced or junior mariners are disadvantaged compared to those with veteran crews well-versed in maritime security protocols and drills (Jacobsen & Frederiksen, 2022). Coordinating an effective response becomes more challenging when blending seasoned maritime professionals with private security contractors during contingencies.

Furthermore, the phenomena of overwork and crew fatigue present vulnerabilities that pirates can exploit. Despite industry efforts to address this endemic issue, the effects of exhaustion—diminished vigilance, slowed response times, poor decision-making—remain detrimental when facing the sudden crisis of a pirate attack (Osinowo, 2015). Overworked or fatigued crews become lesser deterrents to increasingly emboldened pirate gangs.

The convergence of these factors—insecurity in Nigerian waters, lucrative maritime trade plagued by criminality, and the targeting of vulnerable ships/crews—creates a perfect storm of piracy risk. Developing granular risk profiles which integrate both vessel characteristics and human elements is vital for effective mitigation.

Potential Mitigation Strategies

While the piracy situation in the Gulf of Guinea remains dire, best practices and risk mitigation measures can help harden ships against attack when operating in Nigerian waters:

Physical Security Enhancements
Investing in improved physical security aboard vessels offers a layer of protection. Such measures include fortifying all access points, installing alerting systems and closed-circuit cameras, and providing reinforced “citadel” areas where crews can safely muster if boarders gain access (Jacobsen & Frederiksen, 2022).

Employment of Armed Security Teams

Contracting professional armed maritime security teams provides a robust deterrent and response capability against piracy threats. However, significant legal and financial hurdles persist regarding rules on the use of force, liabilities, and differing coastal state policies (Otto, 2020).

Transit Route Adjustments
When operationally feasible, adjusting routes to avoid higher risk areas like the shipping lanes off Nigeria’s Bayelsa State or the busy anchorages near Lagos can limit potential exposure to pirate activity (Bridger, 2018).

Adherence to Best Management Practices (BMPs)
Following established industry BMPs is crucial, including conducting comprehensive risk-based voyage planning, maintaining heightened watchkeeping procedures, regular security drills, and timely incident reporting (Jacobsen & Frederiksen, 2022).

Regional Capacity Building Initiatives

Supporting efforts to enhance regional maritime domain awareness, coordination between agencies, and naval capacities among Gulf of Guinea coastal states presents opportunities to address insecurity (Otto, 2020). Public-private cooperation is key.


The territorial and offshore waters of Nigeria have emerged as a contemporary nexus for piracy and maritime crime on a global scale. Developing granular risk profiles which account for the multitude of factors rendering certain ships and crews more vulnerable to attack is crucial. Vessels like tankers, bulkers, and offshore supply ships face increased threats, as do those following predictable routings or lacking robust security teams. Similarly, a ship’s crew composition—nationality makeups, experience levels, fatigue—impacts vulnerability. Only through comprehensive assessments which integrate both equipment and human dimensions can the maritime industry effectively mitigate the scourge of piracy plaguing the Gulf of Guinea.


Bridger, J. (2018, June 28). The New Piracy Capital of the World. Foreign Policy.

Jacobsen, C. E., & Frederiksen, C. S. (2022). Maritime Piracy: Perception and Reality (1st ed.). Routledge.

Otto, L. (2020, January). Piracy at Sea: Addressing Maritime Violence With the Rule of Law. Foreign Affairs, 99(1).

Osinowo, A. A. (2015). Combating Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. African Research Centre, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (Annual Report 2022). (2023). Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

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