Chiemelie Ezeobi writes on the recent daring operation of the Nigerian Navy that broke the back of one of the most notorious piracy syndicates, which had unleashed a reign of terror on maritime vessels in Nigeria waters

From all indications, it was a well oiled-operation given the successes they had recorded in the past before they met their waterloo recently in the hands of the Nigerian Navy (NN). Call them professional pirates and you would not be far from the truth. These groups of pirates had already gained a name for themselves based on their notoriety.

Made up of Nigerians and Ghanaians, the union of both countries saw to many successful heists and hijacks at sea and the sale of the ill-gotten petroleum products to willing customers.

Often armed with highly sophisticated weaponry including grenades, the eight-man syndicate was made up of marine and ship engineers, captains, armourers, trackers, who help in piloting any stolen vessel, especially their targets of oil tankers.

Their modus operandi is to monitor a vessel they want and they target it until it’s sailing alone and then they swoop in like vultures. They overpower the crew and then lock them up and sail with them till they sight another vessel they want.

In this particular incident, the pirates had already hijacked an oil boat named Dejikun, at the Lagos Port, sacked its crew members before using it for their illicit operation. The stolen vessel was said to belong to a popular oil boat operator simply identified as Charles, who resides at the Lekki area of Lagos.

Upon hijacking the vessels, the pirates always keep the crew members as hostages until they sell off the stolen products and abandon the vessel for parts unknown to recoup their supplies before they strike again. Also, to evade arrest, the gang often deletes the real name of the stolen vessel and imprints their own names and they also disconnect the radar which disseminates information on a ship’s location to other ships. With that practice, they have continued to evade arrest until now.

The Hijack 

In this particular incident, it was on February 11, 2016, that the pirates struck again off the coast of Abidjan, Ivory Coast and hijacked an oil tanker, the Panama-flagged Maximus, owned by Emirati company, which had a crew of 18 from India, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Sudan and Ghana and was carrying 4,700 tons of diesel fuel.

The pirates, identified as Captain Mike Ogboroma, Ayo Joshua, Marcus Adesoji, Adeyemi Paul, Oluwafemi Samuel and Collins Friday, had renamed the stolen vessel as MT ELVIS-5.

After the hijack, the pirates were also said to have disconnected the radar which disseminates information on a ship location to other ships, in order to evade arrest, after which two of the pirates escaped from the stolen vessel by using two crew members, a Pakistani and an Indian, as hostage bait.

After the vessel was hijacked, the 18-man crew members were locked up in a citadel for eight days, with torture and pain being the order of the day. They were also denied access to their belongings and phones.

The Rescue Mission 

Although an American vessel had witnessed the hijack, their initial attempt to chase the ship proved abortive as it turned and fled South-west towards Togo. Unable to continue the chase of the vessel which has left its route completely, the American ship was said to have radioed Togolese Navy to take over.

The Togolese Navy was said to have however notified the Nigerian Navy, which deployed three naval ships, NNS OKPABANA, NNS CENTENARY and NNS SAGBAMA to the rescue. While OKPABANA and SAGBAMA were deployed from Lagos, CENTENARY was deployed from the Central Naval Command, thereby smoking the hijackers at a corner on international waters, off SAO Tome.

Upon sighting the naval ships, the hijackers who allegedly refused to surrender, shut down the oil tanker and opened fire on the navy. However, the naval personnel braved the odds and forcibly boarded the vessel and rescued the crew members, but not before one of pirates were gunned down.

The six men who were paraded at the naval dockyard also had in their possession, 11 phones including a satellite phone, nine SIM cards, different currencies including Ghana cedis, dollars, pounds, naira and euro. They also had charms and two AK47 guns and a double barrel gun. Also recovered were magazine ammunition and expelled pellets.

So, in line with the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok Ette-Ibas zero tolerance to illegalities in the maritime domain, operatives of the NN arrested the six suspected pirates on Saturday, February 19, after the vessel was recaptured at about 310 miles from Lagos and was on escorted Monday into Lagos harbor.

Recounting the daring move by the naval personnel, the Commanding Officer, NNS OKPABANA, Captain Olusegun Ferreira,  who led the team said, “They delivered a rain of fire and we released some warning shots at the superstructure of the vessel at intervals of 20 minutes. Thereafter, we decided to board the vessel forcefully. It was a decision I had to take at the last minute and I must confess a very tough decision because pushing my men out into harm’s way is not an easy decision to be taken but we had to take it because something needed to be done.

“We boarded the vessel in a swift and professional manner and we had to take over the bridge immediately and in the process, one of the hijackers was sighted and had to be engaged immediately in order to pose no harm to my men. We had one hijacker down and the captain was able to quickly rush out and when we secured the captain and three others and thereafter I ordered that we should continue negotiation because they were still onboard.

“We tried to lure them out that we meant no harm, rather we were being objective to secure the crew and vessel safely. They refused to listen and answer us but we knew they were still down there. Luckily, the crew were able to come out and we took them back to my ship (NNS OKPABANA). It was there we started to strategise on how to take on the hijackers.

“We started negotiating with them again until about 9pm when the first came out arms raised without any arms. He was taken into custody and we continued negotiating and a little bit of fire fight in the area they were located and little before 5am, five of them emerged and we arrested them and took them onboard our ship and returned the crew back to their ship with some of our men.

“It was a daring mission but executed professionally and with no casualty on our side. It was 360 nautical miles away from the shores of this country and this shows the regional reach of the NN, not just as a national power but also as a regional power. In the morning of Friday, February 19, before we intercepted the vessel, we understood that they probably saw us shadowing the hijacked vessel and they escaped and took two hostages.”

Also, the Chief of Naval Training and Operations (CTOP), Rear Admiral Henry Babalola, said the naval team was highly professional and was cautious to avoid fire outbreak. Babalola, who visited the Naval Dockyard, Victoria Island, where the recovered vessel was berthed, was in the company of the Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Raphael Osondu; the Director Naval Information, Commodore Chris Ezekobe and the Commanding Officer, NNS Beecroft, Commodore Abraham Adaji.

Babalola, who disclosed that the operation was coordinated from the naval headquarters in Abuja, commended the cooperation of neighbouring navies. He also said the success of the operations was with the help of the FALCON EYE, a technology that increases the reach of the navy at sea.

He said, “It is normal that they change the name of the vessel and switch off the AIS System just to evade arrest but what we did was to dispatch NNS OKPABANA but because we weren’t sure the number of days we will spend at sea, we also dispatched NNS SAGBAMA and NNS CENTENARY from the Ventral Naval Command was on standby to relieve them.

“We gave pursuit and backed them to a corner but the first challenge we had was that the pirates said we cannot touch them because they were at international waters but we debunked it and told them that they were in the corridors of the Joint Development Zone.

“The team that went for the operation sighted a mother rogue vessel with the two pirates and two kidnapped crew members. The rogue vessel is not in Nigeria at the moment. It is somewhere around Equitorial Guinea and contacts have been established with the authorities there to ensure their release.”

The Indian defense attache, Captain Gautam Marwaha, who was also on ground to receive their nationals, said one hostage is an Indian national and the other is believed to be from Pakistan. He said they have received no ransom demand.

The Captain’s Tale

After they were rescued, the captain and its crew were treated and safely taken back to their vessel but this time, with naval personnel onboard to safeguard it until the mission is completed.

Speaking to THISDAY, the captain of the oil vessel, Pillai Krishna said the pirates were highly sophisticated as they came onboard with grenades and other weaponry, adding that they were beaten up severely.

He said, “It was a very bad experience. It was also unexpected and they were obviously prepared for the operation. This is my 10 years as a sea man and I haven’t experienced anything like this before. Look at our faces and see our experiences. They attacked from nowhere and bullets were passing over our heads. We were far off the shore when it happened and we are not trained to defend pirates so we were practically helpless.

“They hijacked our ship and took total control. They were prepared. They had marine and ship engineers who could control the ship. They locked us up in the citadel. We were there for days. They will cook chicken and pass by us eating it. It was until Saturday that rescue came in the form of the navy.

“The navy captain assured me of our safety. He told me that they will give their lives for us. I have never seen such thing in my life. However, I want to plead that our two colleagues, an Indian and a Pakistani, who were taken hostage to be rescued too.”

The Gains of RMAC and FALCON EYE  

It is without gainsaying that the recent successes was with the help of the Regional Maritime Awareness Capability Centre (RMAC) and the FALCON EYE, two surveillance infrastructures that aids the monitoring and tracking of vessels at sea.

Stressing that if the lanes are not safe, shipping will become more expensive and in the long run, the effect will be transferred to consumers, Rear Admiral Babalola said the surveillance structures were a great help in the mission.

Also giving credit to the enhanced platforms acquired by the navy, Babalola said another plus was based on cooperation and more scientific ways of monitoring the maritime environment.

Mentioning the FALCON EYE project, he said, “The falcon eye is a state of the art gadget that actually monitors the maritime environment from the safe confines of your home and office. It’s not enough to say that illegalities are happening. The question is what do you have to interdict when you get an information. For example, if you are attacking offshore Lagos and you don’t allow ships and boats to go there, the information is useless to you.

“But now in all the commands you have standby vessels that can prosecute these information. In the next seven months, we will launch the Falcon Eye properly at the Naval Headquarters but what would have even made it more better is that we are supposed to have radar sights in Ibeju Lekki, Lagos and Araromi in Ondo. But it’s been difficult and we have involved the presidency now and the National Security Adviser to advise the governors that it’s in their own interest to give them access to it and the radar will complement the Falcon Eye as it will increase our horizon well and far above 200 nautical miles.”

It was in a bid to tackle crude oil theft, piracy and other maritime illegalities that the NN acquired an Israeli-installed mass civil surveillance system known as the FALCON EYE, to enable it monitor and track suspected crude oil thieves and other sea criminals within the country’s territorial waters.

The system was designed to assist in monitoring, tracking and collating maritime activities to protect national interest, thus, it would enable the force monitor the movement of vessels within the country’s territorial water and the Gulf of Guinea and enable them also to track such vessels and ultimately arrest them.

The project also has the ability to analyze and share information with stakeholders to enable them have a better understanding of maritime security issues, thus providing a centre where the activities within the exclusive economic zone would be monitored.

While this recent mission by the navy was undoubtedly successful, the onus however lies on them to sustain the tempo in ensuring that the corridors of the nation’s maritime domain remain safe and secure.