Keeping pirates at bay: On board with the Canadian navy off the coast of Nigeria

The Gulf of Guinea in West Africa is currently the world’s piracy hotspot, and Canada is helping train the Nigerian navy to fend off maritime attackers, writes Anna Cunningham.

Experts say the Gulf of Guinea has become hotspot for maritime piracy

A member of the Nigerian navy ship Unity gives instructions to his boarding team during an anti-piracy training exercise aboard HMCS Kingston. (Sgt. Shilo Adamson, Canadian Forces Recruiting Group Headquarters, CFB Borden)

The warm waters of the Gulf of Guinea beyond the bustling navy dockyard in southern Lagos, Nigeria, can be deceptively calm.

But this stretch of the Atlantic Ocean has become the world's hotspot for attacks on commercial vessels by heavily armed pirates in speedboats.

And Canada is wading right in, docking in Nigeria for the first time in half a century to help the country's navy combat the threat.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which monitors pirate attacks and other incidents at sea, calls the Gulf of Guinea and the waters off Nigeria "a threat to seafarers."

Control Risks, a global risk consultancy, said it recorded 44 incidents of piracy here since the start of this year alone — double the number in the Caribbean and South America, and 10 times more than the previous hotspot, the Horn of Africa off Somalia.

"The Gulf of Guinea contains the highest risk waters in the world for piracy and armed robbery at sea," said Cormac McGarry, a maritime analyst at Control Risks.

"The threat is mainly from various pirate groups who conduct relatively low-impact thefts on ships, to those who conduct very high-impact armed robberies and kidnaps of crew or hijack tankers in order to steal their cargo."

Canadian warships HMCS Kingston and HMCS Summerside docked in Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city, earlier this month to train with the Nigerians before a bigger operation in the Gulf of Guinea to hone local navies' skills and improve coordination.

CBC joined the crew of HMCS Kingston to witness their training with the Nigerian Navy in a specific tactical move used to stop suspicious vessels.

Training for an attack

The Royal Canadian Navy's deployment here is its first visit to Nigeria since the country gained independence from Britain in 1960. 

For three days, the Canadians trained with the Nigerians ahead of joining 30 other countries elsewhere in the Gulf of Guinea for an eight-day exercise called Obangame Express, which is spearheaded by U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and targets piracy, illegal fishing, narcotics and human trafficking.

During Obangame Express, HMCS Summerside and HMCS Kingston are working alongside counterparts from African and European navies doing drills out at sea, including the kind of responses required in the event of a pirate attack.

In the separate training exercise with the Nigerians, HMCS Kingston played a suspect vessel operating illegally in Nigerian waters. To do so, they switched off all signals that might have identified them and waited for the Nigerian navy ship Unity to locate them.

"We haven't gone completely covert," said Lt.-Cmdr. Matt Woodburn, "but we've made it challenging for them to find our location… for this scenario we're a motor vessel out here, just operating like any other."

After several hours, a radio communication was received and Kingston was asked to switch off its engines. The Unity encircled them, and sent a smaller boat with an armed crew to board the ship.

The Nigerian ship Unity follows the HMCS Kingston, right, during the joint exercise. (Sgt. Shilo Adamson, Canadian Forces Recruiting Group Headquarters, CFB Borden)

Guided by a small team from the US Navy and British Royal Navy, the Nigerians boarded the Kingston.

"We are here to look for anything illegal," said a member of the Nigerian crew.

"There's nothing illegal on here," replied one of the Canadians.

As the exercise played out, the Nigerians demanded a more extensive search.

"My commanding officer is not satisfied," said the lead Nigerian crew member.

Eventually, the Nigerians found the fake packets of drugs, detained the Canadian crew and completed the exercise.

Promising outcomes

Lt.-Cmdr. Woodburn said he was satisfied with his first time working with the Nigerians.

"I came into it not knowing a whole lot of what to expect. We had a quick sync meeting ashore before sailing today. The exercise went fairly well."

Canada's highest-ranking naval officer, Commander of the RCN Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, said it was vital Canada play a role in combating the pirates by sharing its expertise. 

Members of the Canadian navy head back to the Nigerian naval dockyard in Lagos. (Anna Cunningham/CBC)

In recent years, the Royal Canadian Navy has specialized in dealing with pirates, illicit drug smugglers and terrorists at sea with its Maritime Tactical Operations Group (MTOG).

High-seas piracy is a daily risk for ships that come in and out of Lagos, which has West Africa's biggest seaport. On any given day, the horizon is lined with ships waiting to come into port with high-value cargo or steaming fully laden to their next destination. 

According to Control Risks data, container ships and supply vessels are most at risk of piracy, as are crude oil tankers and tugs that service Nigeria's oil industry in its southern delta region and offshore.

McGarry said fuel cargoes in particular have become a lucrative target recently.

"Hijacks exclusively target tankers to rob their fuel cargo, which can then be sold on the black market," he said. "But other incidents, such as kidnap-for-ransom attacks, target vessels of all types, while militant groups in the Niger Delta have targeted oil and gas assets and even military or police vessels."

Recent attacks have included one on a tanker loaded with 13,500 tonnes of fuel and a 22-strong Indian crew that went missing in February off the coast of Benin, which neighbours Nigeria to the west.

Members of the Nigerian navy approach HMCS Kingston. (Sgt. Shilo Adamson, Canadian Forces Recruiting Group Headquarters, CFB Borden)

Just before Christmas, pirates kidnapped 10 sailors from a merchant ship off the Niger Delta, while six crew members on a German-owned container ship were abducted near the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt.

Natasha Brown, from the IMO, said that kidnappings typically involve "four to six days of seizure before the eventual release of the ship and the crew."

Having now completed training with the Royal Canadian Navy, it's up to the Nigerian Navy and their West African neighbours to use what they've practised in real-life situations.


Anna Cunningham is a senior freelance multimedia journalist. She has reported for the CBC since 2009, based in Mumbai, Paris and Lagos, Nigeria. She is now London-based. Anna was previously staff at the BBC for 10 years. @journo_anna