The UN Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) has moved to rally multinational efforts to thwart Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea as West Africa loses $2.3 billion to maritime crime in three years.

Mr Sylvester Atere, Outreach and Communications Officer, UNODC Nigeria, made this known in a statement on Friday in Abuja.

According to Atere, reports reveal that the total economic cost of piracy in West Africa has been estimated at $777.1 million annually between 2015 and 2017.

He said that this was in addition to human costs as the Gulf of Guinea experienced an escalation of piracy, kidnapping and armed robbery at sea incidents in recent years.

“A 2018 report stated that attacks in the region more than doubled in 2018, accounting for all six hijackings worldwide, 13 of the 18 ships fired upon, 130 of the 141 hostages taken globally, and 78 of 83 seafarers kidnapped for ransom.

“According to the report, the economic effects on countries like Nigeria and its trading partners are especially burdensome and in the last three months of 2018, 41 kidnappings were recorded in waters off Nigeria alone.

“In October 2018, 11 crew members were kidnapped from a container vessel 70 nautical miles off Bonny Island, Nigeria.

“Two days later, pirates in a speedboat hijacked a tanker underway 100 nautical miles off Point Noire, Congo. Eight of the 18 crew members were kidnapped.

“These are just two recent examples of how armed criminals are reaching further out to sea and targeting a wider variety of ships: bulk carriers, container vessels and general cargo vessels.

“In addition to local attacks on tankers, oil industry support vessels and fishing vessels”, Atere said.

Atere said that worried by the trend of criminality within the West Africa sub-region, Nigeria participated actively in the 2019 Exercise Obangame Express, a multi-national maritime exercise sponsored by the United States Military Africa Command (AFRICOM).

He said that the exercise which was attended by 33 countries from West Africa, Europe and North America carried out weeks of maritime training to improve safety against pirates and to improve the monitoring of the coastline.

He said that in the course of training, 2,500 personnel, 95 ships and 12 aircraft were deployed with the aim of improving regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information-sharing practices and tactical interdiction expertise.

Atere explained that this was to enhance the collective capabilities of the Gulf of Guinea and West African nations to counter sea-based illicit activities.

He said that with a view to covering the legal aspects of this exercise at sea, UNODC developed simulated trials.

The communications officer said that the simulated trails were carried out in cooperation with Interpol, and with support of the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).

According to him, the Obangame maritime exercise was also used as a platform for training prosecutors and investigators in handling piracy and maritime crime scenarios played at sea and preparing all witnesses for cross examination.

Atere said that commenting on the simulated trial, Mr Yusuf Abdulkadir, Head, Maritime Crime Group in the Federal Department of Public Prosecution, stated that “the simulated trial has created an avenue for prosecutors and investigators to test-run the draft piracy bill.

“And see the possible challenges that could come up with operationalizing the bill when it is finally passed into law.”

Atere said that UNODC has been working with the Nigerian authorities and other international partners since 2015 to stave off the threat of piracy and maritime crime in Nigeria.

He said that UNODC has carried out interventions through capacity building, fostering inter agency cooperation and strengthening the legal and policy framework.

He explained that efforts to strengthen Nigeria’s response to piracy and maritime crime are bound to remain ineffective without a strong legal framework.

Atere said that since 2015, UNODC through its Global Maritime Crime Programme has been supporting the Federal Ministry of Justice to prepare the ‘Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Bills 2017.

He disclosed that the bills were currently before the National Assembly.

Edited by Wale Ojetimi