The ruthlessness and audacity of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, in Nigeria’s north has received a lot of recent press coverage. Attacks by the group, until recently focused in Nigeria’s north-east, have expanded to neighbouring Cameroon and Chad. Further south, however, in Nigeria’s coastal waters, two developing trends will be of greater concern to the shipping community.

Late last year, The Economist magazine, in an article titled “The Ungoverned Seas” discussing the nature and threat of piracy off Nigeria and in the Gulf of Guinea, referred to the view held by analysts who study the region that pirate activity tends to spike just before national elections. The suspicion is that some local politicians may be financing their campaigns with the proceeds of piracy. The Nigerian national elections, originally scheduled for 14 February 2015, have been postponed until 28 March 2015 in order, the Government says, to secure voters in the north against the threat of Boko Haram. If the analysis is correct that ransoms and stolen cargo are used to fund elections, then the postponement of the elections is a cause for concern for vessels operating within the Gulf of Guinea.

TradeWinds has already reported a spate of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in February, including one that left a Greek officer dead with three crew members abducted and another, a successful hijack of the fishing vessel, LU RONG.

Given the level of pirate activity and the potential for a spike, the warning, this month, by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) that it will not hesitate to detain vessels entering the country’s territorial and coastal waters with security escorts on board, whether armed or unarmed, muddies already murky waters and does little to calm the nerves of those operating in the Gulf of Guinea. NIMASA issued this warning shortly after the detention of three vessels for sailing into Nigeria with individuals linked to private security companies (PMSCs) on board. PMSCs operating in Nigeria generally agree Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with the Nigerian authorities. However, NIMASA, following the detention of the three vessels, called into question the legality of some MoUs, commenting that “Private registered security firms in collusion with unscrupulous officials have embarked on unconstitutional MoUs and partnerships that threaten our national security”.

Clarification is needed from the authorities on the status of MOUs and the precise activities thereby authorised. NIMASA further needs to clarify the position of unarmed security personnel and other guards provided by the authorities (both police and navy) including jurisdictional issues which have sometimes arisen between the Navy and Marine Police. Absent such clarification, further detentions in the immediate future are not unlikely.

Offshore operators, particularly vulnerable to pirate attacks, including low freeboard supply vessels, have complained about the lack of security when operating in this region. They now face potential detention by the authorities due to steps taken, in their view legitimately, to protect vessels and crew with the attendant cost and expense.

While the safety of human life must remain paramount, offshore operators would be well advised to ensure that contracts signed with guard companies spell out which party is responsible for the time and expense arising following detentions, as well as for fines imposed by authorities which may be excluded from standard P&I Club war risk cover.