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Concerns over insecurity, foreign military actions on Nigerian waters

By Sulaimon Salau
30 January 2022   |   4:10 am
The encroachment of foreign military forces on Nigerian waters has once again raised concerns about the nation’s capacity to protect its sovereignty and ensure seamless, safe seaborne trade, despite unveiling of $195 million deep blue project.

(Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

• Stakeholders Question Impact Of $195m Deep Blue ‘Security’ Project
• Nigeria Navy Identifies Crime-prone Areas, Assures Of Safety
• Maritime Law Association Tasks NIMASA On Suppressing Piracy
• Gulf Of Guinea Loses $1.94b Yearly To Piracy, Robbery, Says UN Official

The encroachment of foreign military forces on Nigerian waters has once again raised concerns about the nation’s capacity to protect its sovereignty and ensure seamless, safe seaborne trade, despite unveiling of $195 million deep blue project.

The basic aim of the Deep Blue Project is to protect Nigerian waters up to the Gulf of Guinea. However, stakeholders believe the impact of the project was yet to be felt.

Between October and November last year, three foreign navies had announced their presence on Nigerian waters, with two out of the three navies helping to thwart what would have been another major maritime threat on vessels operating on the nation’s waters.

One of the incidents was bloody, as a Danish warship, Esbern Snare killed four suspected pirates and left one injured.

“After the Danish frigate fired warning shots, the pirates opened fire on the Danish navy special forces, who in turn shot and killed four pirates and wounded one. The remaining four pirates were taken on board the frigate, and no Danish personnel was hurt in the incident. It was the first time the frigate had opened fire during its current mission in the Gulf of Guinea,” the Danish military had said in a statement.

On October 27, 2021, a Russian Naval Destroyer, manned by Vice-Admiral Kulakov, also foiled what would have been another maritime security threat on Nigerian waters when she helped scare away pirates who had already boarded a container vessel, MSC Lucia, at 86 nautical miles Southwest of offshore Agbami Oil Terminal.

The pirates fled the ship through the aid of a small speedboat when they saw a Kamov Ka-27PS helicopter, which had been dispatched by Vice-Admiral Kulakov, approaching with sea soldiers.

Also, on October 23, a British warship berthed at the Lagos ports enroute other locations along the Gulf of Guinea.

While the issue of insecurity in Nigeria’s waterways cannot be ignored, there are concerns about the presence of foreign military personnel on the waterways and its implication for Nigeria’s sovereignty.

Stakeholders who spoke with The Guardian believe that Nigeria needs to do more in protecting its territorial zone, urging the Federal Government to ensure optimal utilisation of the Deep Blue project and other facilities deployed to tackle maritime crimes.

President, Nigerian Association of Master Mariners, Captain Tajudeen Alao, in a chat with The Guardian said the foreign navies thought that Nigeria was not doing enough, hence their intervention. He stated that if Nigeria were to be doing the needful, we won’t get to this level.

Alao explained: “Territorial waters is 12-mile, contiguous zone is 24 miles, continental shelf could be as long as 50 miles. The exclusive economic zone is 200 miles, which is for mining underwater resources. But on the surface of the water, anything above 12 miles is international waters. So, every merchant ship has the right of innocent passage on international waters.

“If they want to come into our territorial waters, they must inform us. But because of the collaboration to tackle piracy within the Gulf of Guinea, at that level the countries must collaborate and share intelligence.

“It is because they think we are not doing enough, that was why they resorted to that action, because pirates strike 100 miles away.

“Any pirate caught 100 miles away can be tried in the Nigerian court under the SPOMO Act, that can be considered, but if a ship is arrested on international waters, which court are you taking them to? However, when there is collaboration, it is easier to hand them over to the coastal states.

“If we are doing the needful, we won’t get to this level. Note that last year, we launched the Deep Blue assets, I believe with time, they will see us as being serious. We can locate, detect, but can we intercept? We are already losing it on the land, we are losing it on the coast and we are now losing it at sea. Our body language must show that we are serious about this issue.

“We have over 650 kilometres of coastline, 200 nautical mile as an exclusive economic zone. There are a lot of things we can do to support our economy, but we are not committed to investing in order to get returns,” he stated.

The President, Nigerian Maritime Law Association (NMLA), Funke Agbor, had said the association supported all efforts to rid the Gulf of Guinea of piracy, maritime offences and all forms of criminality, but it is concerned about the sanctity of Nigeria’s sovereignty, application of the rule of law and respect for protocols of engagement with regard to the instant incident.

Agbor called on NIMASA to “immediately kick-start the formulation and implementation of a comprehensive maritime strategy as mandated by the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act 2019, incorporating strategic security synergy between all law enforcement and commercial shipping actors.”

Meanwhile, much has not been heard of Nigeria’s $195m Deep Blue project anchored by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) in the last few months, and the whereabouts of the assets are yet unknown.

When The Guardian sought clarification from NIMASA, its Assistant Director, Public Relations, Osagie Edward promised to provide answers to enquiries but had yet to respond as of press time.

However, Executive Director of the United Nation (UN) Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Ghada Fathi Waly, has said that the states in the Gulf of Guinea are losing $1.94 billion yearly to piracy and armed robbery.

She said the states on the GoG incur an additional $1.4 billion in port fees and tariffs.

Waly made these claims before the Security Council as the 15-member organ explored ways to address recent security challenges in West Africa and the Sahel.

“These billions represent lost potential. The funds could otherwise be invested in licit economies and in developing coastal communities – funds that are needed now more than ever in the containing COVID-19 crisis,” Waly said.

She noted that incidents in the Gulf of Guinea accounted for the majority of kidnappings of seafarers for ransom around the world.

The Gulf of Guinea comprises countries such as Nigeria, Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe as well as Togo.

Director of Information, Nigerian Navy, Commodore Suleman Dahun, told The Guardian that the navy is committed to protecting Nigerian waters against pirates and other maritime crimes.

He said the NN has deployed several sophisticated assets and personnel to combat illegalities on the waters, while prosecution of those arrested is also taken as priority.

Dahun said: “According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, warships have the right of innocent passage in the territorial waters of a nation. They can transverse the waters. For example, if they are going from Denmark to Cameroon, they can transverse through the waters to their destination.

“That same document provided that from 24 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles in the international waters, you could actually enforce laws. So, they are not operating in our waters,” he said.

On the Danish intervention, he said, “lessons have been learnt from that incident. Whatever right you have under the law of the sea, you need to cooperate with littoral states. NIMASA has entered into intense discussion between the Federal Government and Danish government and issues have been drawn.

“Although, a foreign warship can operate in international waters, that incident underscores the need for you to cooperate with the adjoining littoral states,” he explained.

Dahun continued: “We are enshrined to protect Nigerian waters through our “Trinity of Action” to combat piracy and other maritime illegalities on our waters. To this end, we have invested in surveillance.

“President Buhari recently commissioned some facilities, which is a sophisticated surveillance system. Additionally, the NN has also deployed what we called Regional Maritime Awareness Capability System (RMAC) on our coastline. So, for the first time we have an effective maritime domain awareness of activities on Nigerian waters.”

He stressed that the Falcon Eye and the RMAC have been very effective in their quest to combat piracy and maritime crimes, adding that operation Karetiku and operation Calm Waters are still ongoing to combat illegalities on Nigerian waters.

According to him, those facilities have yielded results as it recently arrested a MV CHAYANEE NAREE vessel laden with about N10 billion worth of cocaine and another Chinese fishing vessel, among others.

He said the Navy has identified areas that are prone to criminal activities on the coastlines. “We have embraced checkpoint regime and control operations. This operation involves deploying Naval personnel and assets to naval security stations, especially where major rivers wash into the Atlantic Ocean.

“We are also pursuing the enforcement of law in order to diligently prosecute those arrested criminals, so as to serve as deterrent to others,” he stated.