One arms cache too many, a need for thorough investigation
The recent seizure of a Russian vessel allegedly conveying illegal weapons to Lagos ports, which was intercepted in South Africa, brings to five this year, the number of times items relating to arms, ammunition and other security-related shipment are illegally imported smuggled into Nigeria through various channels.
Recall that the South African Government had also in 2014, intercepted an aircraft conveying $9.3million in cash from Abuja, allegedly earmarked for arms purchase. The jet was allegedly owned by a former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), but managed by Eagle Air Company, which in turn, leased the jet to a third party, identified as, Green Coast Produce Limited.
However, intrigues surrounding the forthcoming elections have triggered concerns about issues relating to security, particularly with the rise in arms proliferation and smuggling in recent times.
The vessel, which was detained in Port of Ngqura, off the coast of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, was allegedly carrying explosives reportedly valued at about R50million, and allegedly bound for Lagos, but was discovered following a tip-off, after the ship had offloaded 14 containers at the port.
The tip-off had alerted the authorities to discover 20 more hidden containers after the 14 were reportedly dispatched by a company named, Solar Indian.
Meanwhile, Nigeria is currently in talks with the South African Government for amicable resolution, stakeholders enjoin the government to unmask the importer, and ensure the outcome of the investigation is made public.
Reports showed that the matter, which involves the two sovereign states, is being handled at the highest level of government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because of its sensitive nature, just as all necessary agencies of government have been placed on the alert following the seizure.
To this end, stakeholders have called for a thorough investigation into the incidence of arms smuggling, while urging that findings must be made public and not restricted to government circles alone.
The President, International Freight Forwarding Association (IFFA), Dr. Sam Onyemelukwe, decried the poor handling of such critical matters in Nigeria, while urging government to partner with the South African authorities to unmask those behind the importation.
He told The Guardian: “We should not rush into matters; we should always go deep into the matter and unravel the secrets behind it. I think we had similar incidents in the past when some people close to government were accused of carrying cash in an aircraft. We did not know the outcome of the investigation.
“We need to closely monitoring the matter. We should allow the necessary authorities carry out their investigations, and they should also be bold to see the matter to a logical conclusion, and make the outcome known to the people,” he said.
Authorities of the Nigerian Navy and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), who spoke on the interception of the ship loaded with arm, confirmed the determination of the relevant authorities to get to the roots of the matter.
Spokesman for the Nigerian Navy, Commodore Ayo Olugbode, revealed that contact had been established with the Nigerian mission in South Africa, and investigations are already ongoing.
“Very clearly, a vessel was detained in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, but because of investigations, we cannot really start talking now. A lot of investigations are going on, and we wouldn’t want to predicate the investigation by saying anything now. I have some facts, but they are not for the public domain; and they are facts that were gathered not just today,” he said.
He argued that the incidence “is not a Navy issue, but a government to government issue. This goes beyond the Navy. There has been intervention on the issue at the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; so it is not a Navy issue. The crime was intercepted at a port, not at sea.”
“If it was intercepted at sea, then it would have fallen under the Navy jurisdiction; but it occurred at the ports, so it’s a government to government discussion,” he further explained.
Also, Spokesman for the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Joseph Attah, said the Service cannot do much on the case since the vessel had not reached Nigeria.
“The duty of the Nigeria Customs Service is to prevent any harmful commodity from entering Nigeria. Until the said ship gets here, we cannot say anything about it because we do not have that information,” he said.
Attah however assured that the Customs are well positioned at the seaports to nip in the bud any effort to bring in dangerous shipments into the country.
“Our job is to ensure that any shipment that will harm Nigerians is not allowed into the country. This, we have been doing by the number of arms and ammunition seizure that we have intercepted in the past. Anything that is harmful that arrives our shores, we will make sure we seize it,” he said.
Back in South Africa, the Transnet National Port Authority (TNPA), had confirmed that 14 containers were offloaded safely from the Russian vessel, which were offloaded in the Port of Ngqura in the Eastern Cape.
Manager, Port of Ngqura, Tandi Lebakeng, said: “The 14 containers were declared to TNPA and offloaded safely on August 25, after which they left the port immediately on the same day. The South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa), also confirmed that all the dangerous goods on the vessel were stored correctly in terms of international law.
“We are only aware of the class of the containers in terms of the international maritime dangerous goods regulation. The Transnet National Ports Authority’s role is to co-operate with the authorities in terms of the National Ports Act by monitoring the position of the vessel and alerting other stakeholders if necessary.
“The TNPA gave permission for the vessel to be detained outside the port – although still within port limits – and we will continue monitoring the vessel,” Lebakeng said.
Cumulatively, reports indicated that a total of 21,548,608 arms and ammunition were illegally shipped into Nigeria between 2010 and 2017.
These items contravene Schedule 4 of the Absolute Import Prohibition List item 17 of the Common External Tariffs, and Section 46 of the Customs and Excise Management Act Cap C45 LFN 2004.
Recall that the Tin Can Island Customs Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), had in July, had intercepted a cache of ammunition at two terminals.
The Customs Area Controller of the Command, Musa Abdullahi, had said in Lagos that about 150 rounds of live ammunition were intercepted at Terminal ‘C’ (Ports& Cargo), while 28 pieces of various sizes of jack knives were found in a 1 x 40ft container No. TGHU 60143419.
Last year, on January 30, about 661 Pump Action guns were intercepted along the Mile 2 axis of the Apapa-Oshodi Express Road, while on February 10, another 150 Live Round of 9mm bullets were seized at the Lagos Airport.
Also in May, some 440 Pump Action guns were seized at Tin-Can ports; and in September, another haul of 1,100 pump action guns were seized at the same Tin-Can ports.
Earlier on December16, 2016, about 7,504 Premier Hollow Air Gun Pallets/Tactical Rifles were seized also at the Tin-Can Port in Lagos.
The spate of arms smuggling and importation into Nigeria, analysts say, calls for the deployment of higher strategies and intelligence gathering to forestall a breakdown of law and order, given the spate of restiveness and militant activities among various ethnic and religious groups.