Uche Usim, Abuja
Pirates and other sea criminals have unleashed phenomenal havoc on Nigeria’s territorial waters and the Gulf of Guinea (GoG), targeting vessels and kidnapping crew members for ransom.
But as much as the security forces of the Gulf of Guinea nations have tried to clean the criminal footprints on their economies, the perpetrators have remained undaunted in their illegal trade.
It was perhaps in an effort to address this scourge that President Muhammadu Buhari recently in Malabo, reiterated Nigeria’s commitment in securing the Gulf of Guinea and curbing criminal activities in the area.
Buhari assured that neighbours and leaders of proximate countries in the region would work together to provide all necessary assistance to secure the Gulf of Guinea.
The President’s spokesman, Malam Garba Shehu, said in a statement that Buhari gave the assurance at a bilateral meeting with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, on the sideline of the 2019 Gas Summit.
Buhari expressed concerns over the rate of piracy, kidnapping and smuggling in the Gulf of Guinea and called for concerted efforts to end the tide of illegality.
“Our neighbourhood is very strong. Our Navy is doing a good job. We are going to give them equipment and make them more competent. We share the oil fields and so much in common.
“We will secure the Gulf absolutely,” the president said.
In agreement with Nguema, who hosted the summit, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea will provide joint patrols as he believes it would be “more cost effective when we work together. We have to jointly protect ourselves.”
However, in Nigeria, Secure Anchorage Area initiative which is fast being accepted as a solution to Nigeria’s maritime security challenge on Lagos waters comes under an unpopular resistance from Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA).
With Lagos ports serving as port of entry for over eighty percent of imported cargoes into Nigeria, losses incurred due to attacks on vessels, crew members and cargoes in the area poses great danger to national economy.
The World Shipping Council (WSC) for instance, describes sea attacks as one of the greatest security threats to the maritime industry globally for which Nigeria is not having an impressive record.
This has drastically increased the cost of shipping as some companies are forced to unlawfully engage mercenary guards onboard their vessels to prevent or fight against pirate attacks.
Buttressing the danger of the issue, Oceans Beyond Piracy, a firm dedicated to the fight against piracy, recently disclosed that the shipping industry spends around $1 billion a year on private security.
Similarly, in 2012, ABC News, the American News media reported that about 50 per cent of ships in the Indian Ocean (an area high in pirate incidents) had armed guards.
They also reported that a lot of former United States (U.S.) military personnel were joining companies or creating companies to provide security for ships navigating these dangerous areas which has helped secure the ships passage
By implication, the concept of involving the private sector in tackling this menace is fast becoming a global phenomenon.
This trend poses a great risk to Nigeria being the number one crude oil exporter in West and Central Africa and the highest consumer of imported cargoes in the region.
There are evidence that around 2007 piracy in the country peaked, the result was a drastic reduction in the country’s crude production. Consequently, some of the multinational companies operating in the sector were on the verge of pulling out of the country.
Similarly, platforms, vessels and ships were almost avoiding Nigerian ports because of the activities of these criminals.
Findings revealed that at the height of these critical challenges of piracy, armed robbery at sea and proliferation of illegal arms importation at the Gulf of Guinea, the need for a local solution to the situation has become imperative.
The Nigerian Navy which is charged with the statutory responsibility of protecting the nation’s maritime territory in collaborations with the IOCs set up a steering committee involving stakeholders in the maritime industry, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Nigerian Port Authority (NPA) to proffer lasting solutions to the security within the Lagos Harbour Approach. This led to an indigenous company, Ocean Marine Services, (OMS), offering some solution after various stakeholders in the oil and maritime sectors had agreed on seeking alternative to existing initiatives in the sector.
The main decision reached by the committee was for the creation of fresh demarcations for better governance of the sea area. These demarcations include, Traffic Separations Scheme (TSS), Ship-To-Ship transfer operations, (STS) Area and the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA).
Authorities like NIMASA and NPA have also gone ahead to publish the steering committee’s resolutions in some national dailies as Marine Notice.
According to a recent publication signed by the chairman of OMS, Capt. Idahosa Wells Okunbo, it was based on the public advertisement that his company was encouraged to participate in the venture of providing security for the Lagos Harbour Approach, using the SAA model.
Further findings revealed that for purpose of clarity, the designated place for SAA operation was defined as 10 nautical miles outwards of the Fairway Buoy. And by implication the specified area is outside the NPA jurisdictional purview, which informed sourced described as beginning from the Fairway Buoy, inwards.
With the defined areas of operations of the SAA, OMS according to its chairman was encouraged to procure platforms to be utilised within the SAA and to further develop and submit a business plan of 20 years for return on investment to the Nigerian Navy.
According to him, the document was described by the Nigerian Navy as a laudable initiative and was highly commended as a positive contribution of the private sector in support of government efforts to make Lagos waters safe and secure for legitimate business to strive.
Elaborating on how the initiative was consolidated, Capt. Okunbo stated that upon submission of the business plan, “The Nigerian Navy, subsequently, informed the NPA of its collaboration with OMS on the SAA project and stated that the project compliments the Navy’s efforts to secure our maritime space and gives added comfort to operations in the region.”
Collaborating Capt. Okunbo’s narrative, an industry expert who was privy to the project concept said the SAA initiative was a strategic decision by the Nigerian Navy, the IOCs, and other stakeholders, including the NPA and NIMASA, to tackle the menace of sea robbery in order to provide a lifeline for Nigerian.
According to the source, OMS was invited to participate in the noble ideal because of its past records in securing crude oil pipelines in the Niger Delta.
Speaking of how it all started, he said, IOCs are favourably disposed to the funding of the Nigerian Navy, bearing in mind the fact that they are business entities that had other responsibilities. Stressing that in the face of the circumstances prevailing then where the IOCs were sufficiently threatened to consider exiting the country, all industry stakeholders approved of the SAA modus operandi.
He said “The Navy did not have adequate platforms or logistics to tackle the dangerous criminals. Kidnapping was soaring. Demand for ransom was getting out of hand. The nation’s image was at stake as relevant stakeholders were begging the IOCs not to leave Nigeria. And then, suddenly, out of the blues, some IOCs came up with the idea of an SAA. The only problem was where to find the private investors, who would be willing or adventurous enough to procure relevant vessels costing about $3million each, to hand them over to the Nigerian Navy, without any insurance cover.
“But, one company called OMS opted to take the risk. It was a stupid risk. To invest about US $3million in each vessel and leave it to operate uninsured. It looked stupid. But I guess it is now paying off. And that explains why Nigerians, in our characteristic greedy nature, want to either kill it now, or put sand into it”, he explained further.
“Individually, we hailed them and the idea of secure anchorage area. But I think it was the NIMASA that first hailed the idea as a corporate breakthrough”, our source noted further, explaining that “NIMASA also endorsed the emergence of the OMS–Navy accord, via an advert. He highlighted that the SAA would be a ‘spherically shaped‘ off-shore Lagos 5nm, located with a centre-point at Longitude 06° 17’ 30’’; and Latitude 003° 12’ 00”, located about 10 nautical miles southwest, before entering Nigeria, through the Fairway Buoy. The agency also, in the advert, emphatically acknowledged that the SAA exists to “serve as an additional security service for provision of dedicated 24/7 watch, to vessels seeking extra protection while at anchorage offshore Lagos”.
NPA recent move has been faulted by a lot of industry stakeholders as one removing an existing solution without proffering any
The NPA in October issued Marine Notice to maritime stakeholders on a proposal to discontinue OMS operation of SAA.
Some stakeholders have expressed surprise at the sudden change of position of NPA wondering if the decision is in the interest of the nation’s maritime industry.
Some officials of IOCs operating in the country said they could not understand why an issue which was generally agreed to, by both the NIMASA and the Nigerian Ports Authority, to ensure adequate security of the Lagos maritime so as to guarantee formidable protection for foreign vessels, at no cost to the government or any of its agencies, has suddenly become engulfed in controversy.
President, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, Increase Uche, has cautioned against the proposed sudden dismantling of the SAA. According to him, those calling for the scrapping of the SAA project must provide a superior alternative, stressing in the absence of such would lead to a resurgence of maritime crimes, attract higher insurance cost of vessels coming into Lagos, and further tarnish the good image of Nigeria.
He therefore warned that dismantling the SAA may result in a new era of spiraling inflation, or subsequent diversion of cargoes to ports of neighbouring countries, whenever government suspends the current land borders closure policy.
Uche said, “We have seen what the industry had passed through and we do not want to go back to the old order. We do not want our cargoes to be exposed to criminals. So, we are appealing to the Nigerian Ports Authority to rescind the decision to dismantle the SAA.
On allegations that OMS was using NPA’s three vessels to make money for itself, OMS General Manager, Business Development and Government Relations, Commodore Chuma Adogu (rted), who debunked the claim described it as a deliberate attempt to misinform the public.
He stated that although NPA provided three vessels for the Nigerian Navy, none of the vessels is in the secure anchorage area.
“All the vessels that are used in the secure anchorage are owned by the OMS, donated to the Navy. Like I told you, the relationship we started in 2007 made us to acquire vessels that are domiciled with the Navy, painted in Navy colours; an outsider may not know the difference, but we know, the Navy knows. It is not true that we are using government asset to make money and the money is being directed to private pocket…”