By Steve Agbota
As Nigeria gears up to deploy its maritime security architecture, Deep Blue Project, next month, there is need to extensively explore diplomatic approaches to tackle piracy and other crimes in the nation’s coastal waters.
Before now, a lot of piracy cases have been recorded in the nation’s waters up to the Gulf of Guinea, where ships were attacked and crewmembers kidnapped to unknown areas.
In order to curb insecurity on the nation’s waters, Nigeria has invested much of its maritime safety and security hopes in the Deep Blue Project. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), the apex agency spearheading the project, has taken delivery of all the assets needed for the project.
The Deep Blue Project aims to prevent illegal activities in the Nigerian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), enforce maritime regulations, enhance safety of lives at sea, and prevent illegal activities in inland waterways.
The security scheme, which is domiciled in NIMASA and executed in conjunction with the Nigerian armed forces and other security agencies, aims to check piracy and armed robbery in Nigeria’s waters up to the Gulf of Guinea.
The project is designed with three categories of platforms to tackle maritime security issues on land, sea and air. The land assets comprise the command, control, communication, computer, and intelligence centre (C4i) for intelligence-gathering and data collection, 16 armoured vehicles for coastal patrol and about 600 specially trained troops for interdiction, known as Maritime Security Unit.
On air, there are two special mission aircraft for surveillance of the EEZ, one of which was received May 12, with the second expected to arrive soon; three special mission helicopters for search and rescue; and four unmanned aerial vehicles.
The sea assets consist of two special mission vessels and 17 fast interceptor boats.
All the assets have been delivered, except one special mission aircraft.
The Deep Blue Project assets would be deployed to prevent pipeline vandalism, oil theft, illegal bunkering, arms smuggling, drug trafficking, human trafficking and illegal fishing. They would also be deployed for pollution prevention and control in the Nigerian maritime environment.
The project is in line with the country’s total spectrum maritime security strategy, anchored on four pillars, namely, situational awareness, response capability, law enforcement and local partnerships and regional cooperation.
The C4i centre, with the primary aim of providing maritime domain awareness intelligence for informed enforcement operations and maritime safety and security interventions, has been up and running since August 2019. As the nucleus of the scheme, the C4i centre would be integrated with all the air, sea, and land platforms of the Deep Blue Project.
While receiving the last batch of assets under director-general of NIMASA, Dr. Bashir Jamoh, said the assets would further improve security in Nigerian waters.
He revealed a drastic reduction in the rate of attacks in the country’s EEZ with the deployment of the Deep Blue Project assets, saying the goal was to eliminate entirely such incidents: “There has been a drastic decrease in the rate of security breaches in our waters in recent times. This is a clear indication that we are getting it right with the Deep Blue Project.
“The figures we are getting from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) are encouraging. We ultimately aim to completely eradicate security hindrances to shipping and business generally in the Nigerian maritime domain.”
IMB, a specialised division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), is the global focal point in the fight against maritime crimes and malpractices. The organisation has in recent months reported a consistent year-on-year drop in the number of attacks on ships in Nigerian waters.
The latest IMB quarterly report of piracy and armed robbery against ships recorded only two incidents in Nigerian waters between January and March this year, compared to 11 attacks within the same period last year.
“These figures are a proof that we can make our waters safe and secure, and we are determined to do so. Today, we are here to receive the final phase of assets under the Deep Blue Project to further boost our capacity to secure our waters up to the Gulf of Guinea,” he added.
However, IMB has urged Nigeria to extensively explore diplomatic approaches to tackle piracy.
Assistant director, Commercial Crime Services, ICC-IMB, Mr. Cyrus Mody, made this appeal while speaking at an online summit organised by the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping (NCS). He said fighting piracy in Nigeria and the entire Gulf of Guinea should be through consultation rather than confrontation and partnerships rather than unilateral decisions.
He added that: “At the ICC-IMB piracy centre, we noticed different modus operandi in play, and it shows that since 2019 crime at sea has been commercial. Multiple crew kidnapping can’t be categorized as opportunistic because this is a highly organized crime. This menace we are trying to address isn’t only on the Gulf of Guinea but the entire world.”
“For Nigeria, the government has to address the issues which lead to restiveness and piracy. The approach should be consultations rather than confrontation, partnerships rather than unilateral decisions, engagements rather than forceful alternatives.”
Mody, however, noted that there has been a lull in attacks since mid-February this year, attributing this to the legal excercise of NIMASA and commended the agency for the development.
Earlier, the president of the NCS, Mr. Andy Isichei, said that pirate attacks on the Gulf of Guinea connote an economic loss to the region and a bane to the Nigerian economy.
He noted that maritime security was one of the cardinal issues NIMASA intended to focus on, and hoped that it would disclose efforts and additional steps taken to secure the Gulf of Guinea.
While delivering the lead paper, titled “Safe Waters: An Imperative for Economic Viability and Sustainability”, Mr. Emmanuel Maiguwa called for strict implementation of GMDSS and AIS systems, strategic segregation and regulations of the use of water.
He also harped on the need to have centralized intelligence and prompt access to information among security agencies in the GoG.
“When we have a situation where pirates use certain islands for their strategy, carryout the marine crimes in a different country and spend the proceeds in another nation; a centralized intelligence system among countries in the region could address this,” Maiguwa said.
Describing the SPOMO act as a welcome development, he stressed that the justice system has to be complete with the successful prosecution of pirates.
At the event, the coordinator of the Deep Blue Project, NIMASA, Mr. Anthony Ogadi, said that the maritime agencies shouldn’t stop at signing MoUs, but also bring solutions to the table.
“What can the Navy, Air Force, Department of State Security and other security agencies bring onboard to solve this menace of piracy? Deep Blue Project is ready for take off with the C4i, 2 special mission vessels, 17 interceptor boats, among other assets, but it is a complementary effort with the Navy and Airforce. NIMASA can’t do it alone. The project has taken into cognisance the fact that these crimes are planned on land, carried out on the sea and there is also air element,” he said.
Ogadi described the Nigerian Seafarers Development Programme as a programme to gainfully engage the youths in the riverine and coastal areas.
On his part, the representative of National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), Mr. Joseph Ororo, lamented that the cost of shipping has increased in Nigeria owing to the menace of piracy.
While commending NIMASA for its Deep Blue Project and its efforts in collaborating with the Navy and Airforce, the NIWA director posited that inland waterways play a crucial role in safety of the nation’s waters and the Deep Blue Project may not be successful without considering the crucial role of inland waterways.
“Most times, pirates use inland crafts making it difficult for commercial ships to recognize them until they are very close. Speedboats could go very fast and get real close to merchant vessels before they are spotted. If we must make headway securing the Gulf of Guinea, inland waterways must be safe, especially in the Niger-Delta area with huge network of waters,” the NIWA Director said.
He, however, noted that NIWA has banned night operations on the inland waterways because criminals love to move at night when they can’t be seen.
Meanwhile, the President of Ship Owners Association of Nigeria, Dr. Mkgeorge Onyung, assured that ship owners are willing and ready to support NIMASA and other security agencies in the fight against sea piracy.
Onyung revealed that his tanker vessels have been attacked twice in 2011 with three seafarers kidnapped and 2015 with five seafarers kidnapped.
“We place ships on the waters and employ seafarers who work onboard these ships. We take these seafarers as our children. As a ship owner, you can’t sleep when you ship has been hijacked or the crew kidnapped. On the two occasions my vessels were hijacked, we lost monies because the contracts were gone and tempers were high because of the seafarers,” Onyung said.
Arguing that shipping was bigger than the oil and gas sector in Nigeria, he urged the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to cooperate with ship owners to provide jobs that would enable them employ more people and curtail the economic hardships leading people into piracy.