By Anthony Nwachukwu On 14/04/2016 06:45:27 AM
Of recent, the spate of piracy on and off the Nigerian coastal waters has been on the increase and should worry the Nigerian Navy, which is saddled with protecting the nation’s territorial waters, and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), which has responsibility for safety of life at sea, among others.
Coming at a time the nation’s maritime economy is taking a huge hit following the deliberate government policies at growing local production by stemming importation of items said to have close substitutes while also saving foreign exchange for other needs, the Federal Government must be mindful of the consequences of foot-dragging in tackling this menace.
With no fewer than 10 cases of attacks, including ship boarding, armed robbery and kidnapping for ransom on vessels operating in Nigeria’s territorial waters in the first quarter of 2016 alone, some stakeholders are worried that the prevalence has already exceeded the record for the entire 2014.
These include the four crew members – three Greek and a Filipino – kidnapped from a Panama-flagged chemical tanker off the coast of Nigeria on March 5.
According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre, the unidentified tanker was attacked by a group of 10 armed pirates approximately 32 nautical miles southwest of Bonny Island.
During the attack, which lasted for about an hour, the pirates chased and fired on the tanker, and eventually boarded the vessel using a grappling hook and ladder. Earlier this month, a group of armed pirates was reported to have failed in the bid to board a vessel some 80 nautical miles off the coast of Brass.
The incident was the second recorded unsuccessful attempts at hijacking tanker vessels in a week, according to IMB.
In the attack, seven pirates armed with automatic weapons were said to have approached the drifting tanker in a wooden speedboat as it waited for cargo loading instructions last Thursday.
Their efforts to board the tanker using an aluminum ladder failed due to the high freeboard, while the tanker immediately proceeded towards the terminal and was escorted by the terminal’s security boat, the ICC IMB reported.
There had been another unsuccessful attack on a chemical tanker about 41 nautical miles off Brass on April 1, in which nine pirates armed with AK47s were reported to have opened fire and attempted severally to board the tanker using ladders and grappling hook.
Just this week, pirates were reported to have attacked a chemical-laden Malta-flagged cargo ship, MT Puli, belonging to Kaptanogul Shipping, and taking hostage no fewer than six crew members, according to a Turkish maritime news agency, Deniz News Agency.
The hostages from the attack, about 118 nautical miles off Port Harcourt, Rivers State, were said to include the captain, mechanical engineer, electrician, navigator and two others. The incident was one of the reported abductions for ransom targeting vessels in the Gulf of Guinea.
Another was the Liberia-flagged chemical tanker, MT Sampatiki, which five crew members were kidnapped during an attack on March 26. NIMASA said it sought the assistance of Interpol Regional Bureau and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) towards their rescue, adding that the vessel was diverted to Togo, where maritime authorities in Lome had already boarded it to speak with the remaining crew.
Interestingly, while piracy is on the rise within the Gulf of Guinea, it has significantly reduced in the past three years off the coast of Somalia in East Africa, which was once a global hub for such criminal activities due to patrols by international warships and armed guards aboard commercial vessels.
The increase in piracy along the Nigerian maritime domain has coincided with the nation’s declining economy following the slide in international crude oil price. Some stakeholders, speaking on grounds of anonymity, have ostensibly blamed the attacks on Niger Delta militants just as they attributed them to a number of recent political developments.
According to them, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government embarked on dismantling every avenue the youths of the area had to boost their economy. These include terminating the pipeline protection contract with the people in favour of the military.
The other, they said, was the wholesale destruction of their local petroleum refining businesses on the ground that they were illegal, without providing them alternative sources of genuine business.
More centred on security, though, is the belief among stakeholders that present government’s open condemnation and subtle termination of NIMASA’s contract with Global West Vessel Specialist Limited through non-payment of fees since July 2015 may have created opportunities for miscreants who had been held out all along.
Global West, allegedly owned by Niger Delta ex-militant, Mr. Government Ekpemupolo (alias Tompolo), had acquired 20 de-commissioned patrol vessels for NIMASA on purchase, operate and transfer basis, which terms still subsist, though government is alleged to have aborted its commitment to it.
While stakeholders do not necessarily seek the upholding of the contract, they are asking that the need for efficient and effective policing of the nation’s territorial waters should not be limited to external aggression but also adequate protection of life at safe for commercial vessels.
This, they said, is critical to the maritime economy which the present government is hugely leaning on. According to former Managing Director of the defunct National Maritime Authority (NMA, now NIMASA) Mr. John Patrick Egesi, “NIMASA’s mandates, among others, include the promotion of Nigerian shipping – locally and internationally.
“This is to ensure, in line with the IMO conventions, the safety of life at sea and prevent maritime pollution in our waters. The American Coast Guard is more like what NIMASA should be if fully developed. When it struck a working arrangement with the Nigerian Navy, it was mainly to assist it carry out its functions where force may be required.
“I sincerely do not understand why it should ever need a private contractor’s assistance when it can call on the navy. The appointment of a security contractor was wrong and could have more to do with corruption than assisting NIMASA.”
This should interest the new head of NIMASA, Dr. Dakuku Peterside, who recently dismissed insinuations that the agency does not have competent manpower to do the job.
Likewise, maritime expert and Chairman of Port Consultative Council (PCC), Mr. Kunle Folarin, said there should be joint coastal patrol among the countries in the Gulf of Guinea, as any further private security engagement by NIMASA would only be “naive, mischievous and lacking in knowledge.”
He told an online maritime platform, Shipping Position Daily, that “the sea lane is open to everybody and within the Gulf of Guinea, there is dual compatibility and responsibility – the Benin Republic has a dual responsibility, Togo is on the Atlantic and Nigeria is also on the Atlantic hence these incidences cannot be isolated to Nigeria or for one of its agencies to handle in conjunction with some private firms.”
According to him, “there is no correlation between the issue of piracy and what should be done in the Gulf of Guinea. There should be a joint effort among all the parties that have responsibility and risk in the region. If the identified risk is piracy or armed robbery, there must be a joint patrol of all the countries along the coast.”
A similar arrangement is being spearheaded by the United Kingdom (UK) which, prompted by the increasing threats of piracy and terrorism to maritime activities, is leading the 31-nation Combined Task Force One Five Zero (CTF150) to patrol and defend the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman from this month.
The area -covering two million square miles – is said to be a vital artery of world trade, and the operation, alongside denying terrorist groups, including Daesh, a risk-free method of conducting attacks or moving personnel, weapons or income generating narcotics, will also assist mariners in distress and undertake humanitarian work as required.
In view of the foregoing and towards a safer maritime activities within the nation’s territorial waters, Peterside has called for collaboration among stakeholders for a speedy passage of the Anti-Piracy and other related Crimes at Sea Bill.
The bill, initiated by NIMASA, seeks “to incorporate the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the Suppression of Unlawful Acts at Sea (SUA) conventions of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) into a comprehensive legislation” to deal with piracy in the Nigerian maritime domain and “provide the requisite framework for the fight, prosecution and punishment for piracy and related maritime crimes in Nigeria.”
It then behooves the National Assembly and other relevant institutions, like the ministries of transportation and justice to ensure the necessary input that will facilitate the passage of the bill, and the country would take it up from there.