The House of Representatives Joint Committee on Maritime Safety and Administration, and the Navy, recently held a public hearing to amend the Maritime Operations Co-ordination Act. Damilola Oyedele, who monitored the exercise, writes that with the regular theft of crude oil put at an estimated $1.17bn in 2016 alone, the amendment which seeks to ensure better policing of Nigeriaâ€™s territorial waters was long overdue
Nigeriaâ€™s maritime sector plays a very crucial role in the development of its national economy, with three major industries: transportation, fishing, oil and gas, which contribute significantly to the nationâ€™s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The sector, however, is unable to attain its full potential as Nigeriaâ€™s waters are considered one of the most dangerous with rising insecurity.Â
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recently stated that the attacks by sea bandits off the Coast of West Africa are on the increase in Nigeria. This is as the United Nations Security Council also observed that Nigeria was losing about $1.5 billion on a monthly basis to piracy, armed robberies at sea, smuggling, and fuel supply fraud, which are on the increase in the Gulf of Guinea.
The Deputy Representative of the United States to the UN, Ambassador Michele Sison, listed ineffective governance structures, weak rule of law, precarious legal frameworks, inadequate naval coast guard and maritime law enforcement, as the root causes of piracy. She added that the absence of an effective maritime governance system hampers freedom of movement in the waters, disrupts trade and economic growth as well as facilitates environmental crimes. Â
In the first quarter of 2017 alone, at least 14 commercial vessels were reported to have been attacked with 23 crew members kidnapped for huge ransoms in six incidences. The attacks have continued to give countries in the Gulf of Guinea a bad reputation in the global maritime industry, with several implications for their economies and with Nigeria being at the centre.Â
Thus, the risks of voyaging through the region has led to higher costs of business as vessel owners and consignees are inclined to charge higher, than they would for other routes. Some vessels would also avoid the route altogether leading to a loss of potential revenue.
At the Public Hearing
The recent step by the House of Representatives to amend the bill regulating maritime operations in Nigeria has been largely described as both critical and commendable. The Joint committee on Maritime Safety and the Navy, last week, conducted a public hearing on a Bill for an Act to amend the Maritime Operations Coordinating Board Act, reconstituting the Maritime Operations Co-coordinating Board for effective control of all maritime operations in Nigeriaâ€™s territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone, create the Maritime Security Fund and establish anti-piracy offences.Â
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, who declared the hearing open lamented that the country loses an estimatedÂ N7 trillion to insecurity and revenue leakages in the waterways every year.Â
According to him, â€œBetween January and March 2016, several attacks were reported off Nigeriaâ€™s coast. This was said to involve pirates stealing cargoes of crude oil and petroleum products. Reports had it that, no fewer than 44 ship crew members were abducted. In the first half of this year, over 20 commercial vessels were attacked in the Nigerian waters. The increasing level of attacks and violence in the Gulf of Guinea have given Nigeria and other countries in the sub-region very damaging and negative image in addition to an estimated monthly loss of $1.5 billion to the country.Â
â€œAs I said recently, prevalence of insecurity in our waters resulted in the loss of $1.3billion annually to Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in West Africa alone yearly. We must tighten the legal and regulatory framework to stop these losses. The only way to promote intra-African trade in our water ways is to ensure safety and security of navigation in our waters.
â€œWhat is disturbing is that pirate attacks in West Africa are said to be occurring in our territorial waters, terminals and harbors and not in the high seas which effectively stopped intervention by international naval forces,â€ Dogara said.Â
The Speaker however explained that while the onus was on the Navy to stem the tide, and secure the waters, the outfit was limited by inadequate funding of its operations. He added that there was also need for the formulation of stiffer penalties for maritime crimes.Â
Chairman of the Committee on Maritime Safety and Administration, Hon. Mohammed Umaru Bago, said the bill seeks to reconstitute the maritime operations coordinating board for effective control of all maritime operations in Nigeriaâ€™s territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone.Â
The bill, he said, also creates the maritime security fund, establishes anti-piracy offenses and other related matters.Â
â€œI wish to reiterate the importance of giving adequate attention to maritime security â€“ both territorial and merchant marine security. There is no gainsaying as per the imperatives of getting it right,â€ he said.Â
But the Chairman of the Committee on Navy, Hon. Abdussamad Dasuki, in his address, said all stakeholders have a shared responsibility to ensure that the maritime environment was secure and safe enough to ensure sustained economic activities.Â
â€œIt is also on record that Nigeria loses significant amount of income due to persistent oil theft, reports and interactions with stakeholders in the maritime sector indicates that there are significant challenges to safeguarding our coastline of about 420 nautical miles and an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles,â€ citing the challenges as ranging from regulatory provisions, in-effective collaboration among stakeholders and inadequate capacity for enforcement of protection laws.
Now, the Proposed Amendments
Having identified several loopholes in the current bill, the new bill seeks to bring about effective security and coordination of all maritime operations in Nigeriaâ€™s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. It is also intended to strengthen the legal structure for punishing all acts of piracy and waterway criminality. A major highlight is the proposed establishment of a Maritime Security Fund to enhance capacity to enforce protection laws of Nigeriaâ€™s maritime environment.Â
It seeks to amend the current law, to ensure that the Chief of Naval Staff, who is constitutionally charged with the security of the nationâ€™s coastline, will be the Chairman of the Maritime Operations Coordinating Board, while its membership would be drawn from the Ministries of Defence, Transport, Finance, Agriculture, from the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) among others.Â
Section 6 (1) of the bill stipulates stiffer sanctions for the offence of piracy, with prison term of between five to ten years, and imposition of fine to the amount of the value of the ship in respect of which the offence is committed.Â
Section 6 (2) of the bill provides for stiffer penalties for any person who unlawfully transports, traffics, or aids the unlawful movement of persons, weapons, petroleum and any of its derivatives or goods of any kind in a vessel. Such person would be liable to between three to 21 years imprisonment and or payment of fine equal to the value of the property.Â
Section 6 (3) stipulates up to seven years imprisonment for anyone, who dishonestly takes or appropriates any property from any ship by means of theft, force, intimidation, deception, fraud or other similar means.
Another major amendment is the provision that empowers the court to order forfeiture of any ship or property that is used illegally in Nigerian waters.Â
A Proposal for Maritime Security Fund
Section 4 of the bill provides for the establishment of the Maritime Security Fund, which would defray all expenses incurred by the maritime coordinating board. It is expected to be funded by monies provided by the federal government from time to time, funds specifically appropriated to the board by the National Assembly, and one per cent of funds derived by and accruing to NIMASA pursuant to the Cabotage Act or any other enabling law.Â
The security fund is also expected to be funded by proceeds of sales by auction, forfeited vessels or goods subject to provisions of the Act, to ensure transparency and accountability in its management. The fund would however be totally separated from Nigeriaâ€™s Navyâ€™s statutory allocation at all times.Â
NIMASA, in its submission made by its Director of Procurement, Mr. Sani Muhammed, noted that there was no corresponding provision in its enabling Act to give effect to the provision that NIMASA would remit one per cent surcharge on maritime contracts and annual regulatory fees, or one per cent of the funds derived from Cabotage, to the proposed Maritime Security Fund.
He clarified that the Cabotage Act 2003 provides for the promotion of indigenous tonnage, and to establish a Cabotage Vessel Financing fund, which would be used for the purpose of promoting the development of indigenous ship acquisition capacity by providing assistance to the Nigerian operators in the domestic coastal shipping.Â
â€œThe functions of the Maritime Operations Coordinating Board do not fall within the purpose for which the Cabotage fund was created,â€ he added. But it would be necessary for these contradictions to be sorted out, particularly with specific legislation.Â