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Pirates’ conviction: Triumph of SPOMO Act

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Director-General, NIMASA, Bashir Jamoh

The 10 pirates, each jailed 10 years with a fine of N200,000 last week by a Federal High Court sitting in Ikoyi for hijacking a merchant vessel, FV Hailufeng II, on May 15, 2020, bring to 20 the number of pirates that have so far been convicted under the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act of 2019. They were convicted on a three-count charge that borders on piracy in contravention of the provisions of sections 3, 10, and 12 of the Act.

Ten pirates had earlier been convicted by Federal High Courts in Lagos and Port Harcourt. The convicted pirates are some of the 27 that were arrested within Nigeria’s territorial waters last year by the Nigerian Navy and the Marine Wing of the Nigeria Police.

The arrests and convictions are a testimony to success that can be achieved through collaboration and synergy among stakeholders in the maritime industry in the collective effort to keep Nigeria’s waterways safe and secure for economic and social activities to thrive. It is proof of the Federal Government’s determination to stamp out piracy and other forms of criminality in our maritime environment and for the purpose of restoring the country’s image in the international maritime community in particular and the world at large.

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Coming just about two years after President Muhammadu Buhari signed the SPOMO Act, the speedy trial and conviction of pirates, the first time in the history of Nigeria, gives hope that the renewed and re-invigorated fight against piracy in the country’s waterways will bring about a new narrative, as far as maritime security is concerned.

Before now, it was virtually impossible to prosecute maritime offenses in the court of law, due to the absence of an enabling law that could provide guidelines for the exercise. It was not possible to provide physical evidence in court for a crime that was committed on the high seas. For instance, if a vessel was hijacked by pirates at sea, how could the evidence be shown in court since a vessel could not possibly be produced as proof? And in the absence of proper guidelines to fill that gap, the war against piracy was doomed to fail.

This frustrated the work of the Navy and the Police whose duty is to make arrests, especially the latter that has the statutory responsibility to prosecute.

Today, the story has changed. The SPOMO Act provides the legal teeth for the war against piracy in the Nigerian maritime environment – a war that assumes new dimensions by the day, with increasing sophistication.

What we are witnessing today is a culmination of efforts that started with the previous administration at Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), when I was the Executive Director in charge of Finance and Administration. The efforts were aimed at producing a law that could stem the tide of piracy in our waterways and reverse the trend on the negative effects it was having on Nigeria’s economy.

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As the trial judge at the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Justice Ayokunle Faji, rightly noted, piracy is not only an embarrassment to Nigeria, it also impacts negatively on its economy, with all Nigerians bearing the brunt.

The high rate of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, of which Nigeria is not just an integral part but also the biggest member, is the reason the region is seen in the international shipping community as the most unsafe and least secure in the world. It is the reason offshore underwriters place the highest premium on Nigeria-bound cargoes. The consequence of this unpleasant situation is that Nigerians pay a higher price for imported goods and locally manufactured goods that use imported raw materials. It is also one of the reasons Nigeria-made products are not internationally competitive, which encourages smuggling that is hurtful to the economy. Nigerians often wonder why imported products are sometimes cheaper than their locally-manufactured counterparts, which allows smuggling to thrive. Piracy is one of the reasons.

The SPOMO Act is providing the legal teeth for the renewed fight against piracy and other maritime crimes, which is being executed with the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure, otherwise known as the Deep Blue Project. The project was rolled out in February this year, by NIMASA to act as a catalyst for the fight. It is the first leg – the security leg of Tripod S – which the current administration in NIMASA has put in place to make the Nigerian maritime environment secure and safe.

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The second leg of the tripod is safety. Not only do we need a secure maritime environment, but it also has to be safe. Our waterways must be free of relics and all forms of blockages that could impede navigation. Safety is part of NIMASA’s responsibility and is implied in the name of the agency. Ensuring free navigational waterways is part of safety, which is the business of the agency, in all its ramifications. For this reason, NIMASA operates six offices in all port zones in the country to ensure safety and security, whether in the blue or brown sea.

The third and last leg of the tripod is shipping development, which involves, among others, fleet expansion through ownership, which is going to be made possible with the instrumentality of the Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund.

• Dr. Jamoh is the Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency.

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