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Maintaining Nigeria’s momentum in the fight against maritime criminality

By Musa Ilallah 2023 kicked off on a significant note for the Nigerian Navy, with the hosting by Nigeria of Exercise Obangame Express 2023, the…

By Musa Ilallah

2023 kicked off on a significant note for the Nigerian Navy, with the hosting by Nigeria of Exercise Obangame Express 2023, the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western and Central Africa, in collaboration with U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa. This year’s edition featured 32 countries from the Gulf of Guinea and beyond, coming together to “improve regional cooperation, information-sharing practices, and tactical interdiction expertise.”

At the beginning of March, barely a month after the end of Exercise Obangame Express 2023, Nigeria commemorated one year since the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) announced the country’s exit from the Global List of Piracy-prone countries. This feat came as a welcome follow-up to the IMB’s Global Piracy Report of July 2021 which indicated that Nigeria had recorded its lowest number of piracy and sea robbery against ships attacks in 27 years.

These remarkable milestones were the culmination of unprecedented naval and maritime security investments by the Buhari administration, through such initiatives as the Falcon Eye Maritime Domain Awareness System, commissioned by President Buhari in 2021, and the acquisition of several new platforms, including a brand-new Hydrographic Survey Ship, NNS LANA, as well as a new Warship, the Landing Ship Tank (LST) NNS KADA, whose inaugural operational assignment was a mission to Guinea Bissau to support the ECOWAS Stabilization Force there, in August 2022.

Two brand-new Seaward Defense Boats (SDBs) are currently under construction by the Naval Dockyard Limited in Lagos, while, in September 2022, the keel-laying Ceremony of two 76-metre Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) took place in Turkey.

Weeks after the March 2022 IMB announcement on Nigeria exiting the Piracy List, the Nigerian Navy launched one of its biggest operations in years, Operation Dakatar Da Barawo, aimed at curbing crude oil theft and vandalism in the creeks of the Niger Delta.

The Operation, launched in partnership with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Limited (NNPCL) has since began yielding fruit. So far, well over 80 Billion Naira worth of stolen petroleum products have been seized or recovered, with hundreds of arrests made.

Importantly, oil production, which had been declining since the start of 2022, reversed course and began climbing steadily from October, a feat that has been roundly commended by all stakeholders.

Speaking on this, the Honourable Minister of State for Petroleum, Timipre Sylva, said, “I am happy to announce that there is significant improvement in crude oil production, with both Nigerians and the international community acknowledging the improvement.”

The Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, has consistently stated his determination to achieve this goal, and has expressed gratitude to President Buhari for providing the wherewithal and the resources to record the significant progress being recorded in the fight against maritime piracy and criminality.

One of the high points of the fight against maritime criminality was the interception, in August 2022, of a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), the MT Heroic Idun, a timely action that helped abort unauthorized entry into a producing Nigerian oilfield.
Working with Nigeria’s regional partners, through the Yaoundé Architecture, a Gulf of Guinea maritime safety and security coordinating mechanism, covering 19 countries, the Nigerian Navy successfully alerted Equatorial Guinea to arrest the vessel, which had by then fled into the country’s waters.

Interestingly, the West Africa Regional Maritime Safety Centre (CRESMAO), based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and the ECOWAS Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre (MMCC) Zone E (covering Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Togo), two critical operations centers within the Yaounde Architecture, are currently headed by Nigerian Naval Officers.

Following the arrest, and investigations, by the Government of Equatorial Guinea, the Ship owners paid a substantial fine, after which it was handed over to the Nigerian Navy, and duly repatriated to Nigeria to face justice. The case is currently being tried by a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt.

MT Heroic Idun is the most high-profile of a number of rogue vessels arrested by the Nigerian Navy in 2022. According to the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Gambo, “The arrest of MT Heroic Idun will serve as a deterrent to those who are stealing our crude.”

But, of course, the arrest and trial has not come without resistance from the powerful owners and elements behind the VLCC. They have been waging a most vicious international propaganda campaign against the Nigerian Government and the Nigerian Navy. But the Chief of Naval Staff has made it very clear that he will not be deterred, and that justice will take its due and transparent course, through the Nigerian legal system.

Nigeria’s hosting of Obangame Express, to kick off 2023, is testament to the Nigerian Navy’s determined efforts at advancing regional and multinational cooperation, to achieve its objectives of securing, in a holistic and sustainable manner, Nigeria’s maritime environment, and the wider Gulf of Guinea.

It is this unwavering commitment to partnership that saw the CNS and Naval Headquarters host, at the Naval Headquarters in Abuja, delegations from the European Union, China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation, Defense Academy of UK, the African Union, International Seabed Authority (ISA), European Security Academy, Italian Defense firm, Leonardo; the United States Navy Office of Security Cooperation, among many others.

The CNS, also, in this spirit of partnership and engagement, attended Euro-Naval 2022, and the Sixth Symposium of Chiefs of Staff of Navies of the Gulf of Guinea in Paris, France; and the XIII Trans-Regional Sea-Power Symposium in Venice, Italy, among others.

In October 2022, President Buhari awarded him the National Honour of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), and a month later he was in Banjul, Gambia, to receive the Award of Most Outstanding Naval Chief in Africa, presented at the 17th Edition of the Africa Security Watch Awards and Conference (ASWAC).

In 2023, the partnerships are set to continue, and Obangame Express 2023 is just the beginning. Speaking at the closing ceremony on February 3, 2023, Vice Admiral Gambo noted, memorably, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”

Musa Ilallah writes from Abuja, Nigeria

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