It has been more than two months since five suspected pirates were killed by crew of the “Esbern Snare” a Danish frigate in waters said at the time to be the highs seas off the coast of Nigeria. Most of the information and updates available have come from the Danish authorities, with the incident dominating public discussion in Denmark. The Nigerian authorities on their part have been dead silent – both the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Nigerian Navy.

Denmark initially remanded the surviving pirates following a hearing before a Danish judge. It is reported that Togo and Ghana were considered for likely trial. In the midst of these, one of the suspects had to be amputated. With four dead bodies (fifth went overboard) and four remaining suspects on their hands (one now disabled), options seemed to be running out for the Danes. On 7 January the Danish Navy decided to release the suspects “after it failed to find a country in the region to take them”. It simply put them on a dinghy with food and fuel, and hoped they float ashore. Case closed.

A tale of silence and lost opportunities

Yet there remain many unanswered questions. Were the suspected ‘pirates’ indeed pirates? Was the Danish frigate operating on the high seas as claimed or in Nigerian waters when this incident occurred? Why did neither NIMASA nor the Nigerian Navy issue an information update on this security incident? Why were the surviving suspects not handed over to the Nigerian government for debriefing and possible prosecution under the acclaimed Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act 2019?

I have ruminated on these issues and in the absence of any statement by the Nigerian government, can only harness some reasonable deductions, viz: (1) there has been a failure of bilateral engagement and diplomacy between Nigeria and Denmark on this incident; (2) Denmark lacks confidence in the Nigerian authorities to ensure proper handling of the matter and prosecution of the suspects; or (3) there was a breach of rules of engagement by the Danish frigate leading to the unlawful killing of innocent persons.

These deductions flow naturally from an objective review of the circumstances of the release of the surviving pirates. By the account of the Danish Armed Forces itself, there was no boarding, no attack, and no attempt at attack by the suspected pirates. The Esbern Snare’s crew seemed to open fire out of suspicion because they claimed to see “a number of tools associated with piracy, including ladders”. It is also befuddling that NIMASA has been very quiet, particularly failing to clarify the location of the Esbern Snare at the time of the incident. NIMASA’s Deep Blue Project surveillance equipment is believed to be able to identify precise locations for all vessels in and around Nigeria’s territorial waters, which should include the Esbern Snare. If the Esbern Snare’s operation was within Nigerian territorial waters, it would amount to breach of Nigerian sovereignty and international rules of engagement. Furthermore, failure of the Danish Navy to hand the surviving suspects over to the Nigerian Navy for debriefing and possible prosecution is indicative of either an effort to prevent detailed information on the incident being brought to light or absence of cooperation from the Nigerian authorities. Either is a cause for concern.

As it stands, numerous lessons and important potential guidance for both merchant vessels and regulatory authorities from the Esbern Snare incident seem to have gone to waste. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation in maritime security is the single most important strategy for combating piracy.

Both Denmark and Nigeria seem to have failed in this regard.