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Deep Blue Project: Amaechi’s attempt at solving Nigeria’s maritime security issues

The federal government became worried in 2015 over the rising piracy trends in the Gulf of Guinea and vowed not to allow maritime piracy in…

The federal government became worried in 2015 over the rising piracy trends in the Gulf of Guinea and vowed not to allow maritime piracy in the region to expand relatively unchecked on Nigerian waters.  

This inadvertently accounts for the reason which the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, rode on that he would crack down on piracy, suggesting that the ministry’s priorities would be shifting in the coming years. 

However, activities around the Gulf of Guinea in recent years show that fighting piracy would prove challenging. The rising piracy on the nation’s waters and extending to the Gulf of Guinea became a source of concern to countries in Europe and America, as Nigeria accounts for over 65 per cent of vessel traffic in the sub-region.

Nigeria, as an import dominating nation, freight insurance costs jacked up suddenly and the resultant effect is the rise in the prices of goods and services.

Furthermore, Nigeria’s main source of revenue, crude oil, which is exported, became threatened following the rise in piracy.

As such, the thought of helping the Nigerian Navy (NN) confront piracy was conceived by Amaechi. At the last World Maritime Day celebration held in Lagos, the minister said he conceived the idea of the Deep Blue Project all alone to tackle cases of sea robbery.

Amaechi said it would improve relations with nations in the sub-region, which was coming at a time Nigeria needs all the allies it can get in the area. 

But unfolding events have shown the underbelly of a proverbial rotten fish as stakeholders alleged that the entire process was replete with fraud.

 Gulf of Guinea 

The Gulf of Guinea is the North Easternmost part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean, from Cape Lopez in Gabon, North and West, to Cape Palmas in Liberia. 

The intersection of the Equator and Prime Meridian is in the gulf. Among the many rivers that drain into the Gulf of Guinea are the Niger, which flows through Nigeria, and the Volta. 

The countries around the Gulf of Guinea are Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon (Ambazonia), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.

The Gulf of Guinea derives its appellation from the former names of the coast of Africa. The South coast of West Africa, located North of the Gulf of Guinea, was historically called Upper Guinea. The West coast of Southern Africa located to the East was historically called Lower Guinea.

Gulf of Guinea piracy has evolved from near-shore robbery to open sea piracy and the violent kidnapping of crew members for ransom. In 2020, 136 seafarers were abducted at gunpoint, held for weeks and months, suffering serious injuries to their physical and mental wellbeing. Nigeria accounts for two-third of the entire Gulf of Guinea, with over 50 per cent of the attacks occurring on Nigerian waters.

How pirates attack, what motivates them

Many attacks on the nation’s territorial waters are linked to what occurred in the early 2000 in Somalia, where different groups of bandits held crewmen onboard merchant ships hostage and at times killed seafarers if they could not get what they want. 

The attacks are often targeted at oil vessels or container ships, and in some cases offshore platforms. Most of the attacks occur at night and the pirates operate in gangs of between 15 and 20, depending on the size of the ship to be attacked.

It was learnt that some of the pirates get information from commercial sex workers who go on board to satisfy the sexual needs of the crew men who can be at sea for an upward of three to six months.

Some old seafarers who confided in our correspondent said those who bought fish illegally from trawlers (yama-yama) provided pirates information about the movements of vessels around the country’s waters.

The attraction is the money which the crew gets from illegal sale of fish and stolen crude oil which buyers refer to as “ROB”.

The pirates often disguise their boats to appear as local fishermen or better still as law enforcement officers who are at sea to authenticate the genuineness of ships on the country’s waters. Some pirates also steal valuables onboard which they sell to dubious businessmen.

Daily Trust on Sunday also learnt while interacting with retired merchant naval personnel that during attacks, pirates avoid inflicting injuries on victims. The belief is that an injured victim would eventually become a burden to them.

Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transportation and Dr Bashir Jamoh, NIMASA DG


How gov’t is responding to rising cases of piracy 

In 2017, Mr Amaechi, during the World Maritime Day celebration in Lagos, disclosed that the federal government approved the award of a security contract valued at $195m (about N60b then) to an Israeli firm, HLSI Security Systems and Technologies, to procure security equipment and train Nigerian security personnel to tackle crime on the nation’s waterways.

Amaechi said the contract would commence in December, 2017, and run for three years after which the firm would hand over to Nigerian security personnel.

He said the agreement became imperative given the high charges shipping firms paid for security escort on Nigerian waterways. 

According to him, due to insecurity on the nation’s waterways, the maritime sector spends $18m on a yearly basis in addition to high war risk insurance payable by shippers to do business on the waters. 

According to Amaechi, “When you see the equipment on the waterways, people will know they are safe and secured. Mr President has kindly approved that, and that is being done through the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). In the three years, they will train our navy, our army and our police so that we can stop spending money escorting boats and vessels on our waterways.

“Currently, Maersk told me they spend between $15m and $18m annually on those escorting their vessels from one point to another on our waterways.” 

Two years later, precisely in 2019, the Senate expressed displeasure at the move by the federal government to contract the security of the nation’s water to a foreign firm.

At a joint investigative hearing of the Senate Committee on Marine, Navy and Finance, the Chairman of the committee, Senator George Sekibo, said the deal was meant to upstage an indigenous firm, Ocean Marine Safety Limited, which, according to him, had an existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Nigerian Navy for the security of vessels on Secured Anchorage Area. 

Why is there so much fuel theft in Nigeria? 

Nigeria’s fuel market has become a juicy target for both local and international thieves. It is the world’s second biggest, according to energy ministry data, featuring a total daily demand of nearly 173,300 barrels of crude as at May, 2019.

The previous state of insecurity in the Niger Delta and complicity on the part of villagers in riverine communities have allowed organised groups to open clandestine refineries with taps along major pipelines. An unconfirmed report also alleged internal complicity at refineries and terminals, with the reporters accusing the refineries of opening their doors for theft of crude oil.

Crude stolen from infrastructure belonging to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) ends in the hands of foreigners who ferry such stolen products to refineries abroad.

For years, four of Nigeria’s domestic oil refineries have operated well below their capacities due to a mix of underinvestment, deferred maintenance and frequent collapse of machines, including deadly explosions caused by militants.

Nigeria has grown increasingly dependent on fuel imports in recent years, with about two-third of total demand imported. Nigeria is a critical export market for foreign refiners and trading firms.

Enters Deep Blue Project

The Director General of NIMASA, Dr Bashir Jamoh, in July, said the agency would not rest on its oars until cases of piracy and sea robbery were reduced to a manageable level within the Gulf of Guinea. 

NIMASA was riding on the fact that the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) gave credence to Nigeria’s effort in combating piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and linking it to the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure, also called the Deep Blue Project of the federal government. 

However, some stakeholders have argued that it is wrong to ascribe the security gains achieved by the Nigerian Navy to a project which only took off in June, 2021. 

A maritime expert, Capt Waridi Enisuoh, told our correspondent on phone that the drop in piracy as recognised by IMB was linked to the presence of foreign navies around the Gulf of Guinea.

According to him, the presence of the foreign navies has to do with their economic interest in Nigeria and other West Africa countries.

Nigeria occupies two-third of the Gulf of Guinea, making it the country with the largest coastline in the sub-region.

But Dr Jamoh explained that IIMB in its recently released second quarter (Q2) 2021 report on the global reduction of piracy in 27 years in Nigeria, including the Gulf of Guinea, noted that: “The number of kidnapping in the Gulf of Guinea in the second quarter of 2021 is the lowest since Q2 of 2019.”

According to Jamoh, while 33 incidents of piracy were reported in the last quarter of 2020, only six cases were reported in the second quarter of 2021, adding that the IMB report also noted that the number of kidnapped crew in the region also declined from 50 in the last quarter of 2020 to 10 in the second quarter of 2021.

While IMB welcomes reduced piracy and armed robbery activities in the Gulf of Guinea, Michael Howlett, a Director at IMB, commended effort by the federal government to tackle the challenge of piracy in the region, adding that reporting all incidents to the regional authorities and IMB PRC would ensure seafarers maintained pressure against pirates. 

Meanwhile, Enisuoh noted that what NIMASA did was only to twist IMB observation to sooth the ego of the sponsors of the Deep Blue Project.

Experts’ views of Deep Blue Project

An Australia-trained maritime expert, Capt Enisuoh said the Deep Blue Project was a fraud perpetrated on Nigeria by its promoters. 

Capt Enisuoh was in the Australia search and rescue team. He is an aircraft pilot and captain of a vessel.

Enisuoh who spoke to our correspondent on phone explained that Nigeria’s maritime domain was so vast such that two mission patrol aircraft could not account for the drop in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

He said the only reason why there was a remarkable drop in piracy was the presence of foreign navies in the area between July and November of 2021, and that they were on patrol of the waters because of their economic interest in the region.

“All the upstream facilities in the oil and gas sector are owned by foreign companies. They discovered that they would be the one to suffer the most if they allow piracy to thrive,” he added.

Speaking on the mission aircraft, he said to test the integrity or the capability of the aircraft, what the promoters of the Deep Blue Project ought to have done was to conduct a blind test of the aircraft since it they were for search and rescue.

“What that means is that they should shut down the aircraft system that identifies an object at sea. Fly it to about 100 nautical miles before dropping a floating object from the sky into the ocean and then come back and turn on the aircraft system and start a search of the object.

“By so doing you would have known how long it would take to identify a missing object or the presence of pirates at sea while conducting an aerial surveillance,” he explained.

Capt Enisuoh noted that the Aguster helicopter could only make 200 nautical miles to and fro, adding that it meant that it could make 100 to and 100 back to base, which according to him was a mere scratch on the surface considering the size of the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

“Two Aguster helicopters cannot perform such a miracle that would bring about reduction in sea robbery in just one month. Everything has to do with the quest by NIMASA to be elected into the C Category of the IMO seat,” he said. 

He said Nigeria needed over 100 of search and rescue aircraft if it was serious about fighting piracy.

Why it matters to NIMASA

NIMASA is keenly aware of events occurring in the Gulf of Guinea as evident in several trackable security alerts across several international maritime agencies such as IMB. It is also aware that piracy is likely to increase in the Gulf of Guinea as opportunities arise for criminal organisations and that this would affect its chances of being re-elected into Category C of IMO.

For over 10 years the agency has campaigned among member nations to be allowed into the IMO. Part of the claims they have is that over 65 per cent of vessels coming to West Africa end up in Nigeria.

But an expert who does not want his name mentioned said what NIMASA failed to realise was that oil theft was becoming a wave of the future if allowed to go unchecked and that the most to be affected were oil companies and foreign vessels.

While Nigeria exports more crude oil to Europe and America, it also depends on import from other countries.

He, therefore, advised that NIMASA should consider engaging with the Nigerian Navy to establish greater security measures for curbing piracy networks as “assisting the navy and the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) would improve the already tensed relationship that has grown between them because of the continuous claim by NIMASA to the achievement that brought about a drop in piracy in the area.”

What has the navy done?

The Nigerian Navy has said it recovered N75bn worth of stolen petroleum products in five years. The products recovered between 2015 and 2019 include crude oil, diesel and petrol.

The Director of information of the Nigerian Navy, Commodore Suleiman Dahun, told our correspondent that a total of 2,287 illegal refineries were discovered and destroyed within the same period and that the recoveries boosted the economy and denied criminal oil entrepreneurs of N75bn.

He added that the highest number of 1,218 refineries were destroyed in 2017, but decreased in 2018 and 2019 as a result of the swamp buggy operations in the Niger Delta which made it difficult to reactivate illegal refining sites.

He further said, “The Nigerian Navy also recorded successes in anti-crude oil theft operations and illegally sourced petroleum products which have reduced illegal oil dealings within the Nigerian maritime environment from 2017 to 2019.

“For instance, in 2017, the NN denied criminal oil entrepreneurs dealing on illegal oil about 218,057 barrels of crude oil valued at about N3,724,413,560 and 60,553,415 litres of Automotive Gas Oil (AGO) valued at N11,807,915,925.

“Similarly, in 2018, illegal oil dealings of about 295,028 barrels of crude oil valued at about N5,039,078,240 and 23,991,325 litres of AGO valued at N4,678,308,375 were denied the criminal oil entrepreneurs by the NN.

“In the same vein, in 2019, the NN denied criminal oil entrepreneurs dealing on illegal oil 296,192 barrels of crude oil valued at about N5,058,959,360 and 42,729,530 litres of AGO valued at N8,332,258,350.”

He added that it was evident that the number of barrels and litres of crude oil and AGO denied the criminal oil entrepreneurs by the navy decreased between 2017 and 2019.

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