Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the naval show of force from, Operations Awatse to Jagunlabi and the most recently Exercise River Sweep, is aimed at reinforcing the navy’s zero tolerance for criminality

It is no secret that the industrial scale at which Nigeria keeps losing its scarce oil resources to crude oil theft and pipeline vandalism is alarming. According to a past Chatham House report, an estimate of about 100,000 barrels per day, valued at N1.18 billion are stolen daily, which when translated amounts to N433.62 billion annually.

It is also pertinent to note that the statistics did not include the amount of oil suspected to have been stolen from export pipelines, cost of oil spill cleanup, loss of income to fishing communities and environmental degradation. The report blamed the alarming scale of oil theft to poor law enforcement presence in the waterways.

Also, another quoted report submitted by International Oil Companies (IOCs), showed that the country lost about 160 million barrels of crude oil valued at 13.7 billion dollars to theft from 2009 to 2012. The estimate was gotten from the records of three IOCs – Shell Producing Development Company (SPDC), Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) and Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL).

The report of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) monthly financial and operations report as far back as September 2015, was more damning. The report said that with an average price of 97.59 dollars per barrel in 2013, Nigeria lost 3.9 billion dollars (N858 billion) between January 2013 to April 2015 to the activities of pipeline vandals and crude oil theft. According to the report, between January and September of 2015, Nigeria lost about N48b to crude oil theft.

Thus, it is without gainsaying that only a sustained war against such maritime crimes can curb the menace. Buying into that ideology, the navy has launched several operations and exercises like the continuous Operation Awatse, the recently launched Operation Jagunlabi (both joint exercises of all arms of the armed forces) and the most recent Exercise River Sweep 11 (solely for the navy).

From Operation Awatse to Operation Jagunlabi to Exercise River Sweep 11, the sustained military presence at sea has already yielded commensurate successes as no fewer than 22 vessels involved in different criminalities were arrested by the command from June 2017 to date.

The defaulting vessels and their crews were arrested for offences ranging from piracy, crude oil theft, illegal and unregulated fishing, sea robbery amongst others. However, these arrests were made possible by the patrol efforts of the command at sea, complimented by the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) assets of the navy.

The arrested vessels include MT Wollorf, MT Vine, MT Glenstar, MT Sisi Comfort, MT DA Chris, MT Dove 1, Lurongyuanyu 215, Lurongyuanyu 216,

Lurongyuanyu 217, Lurongyuanyu 218, MT Matrix 1, Hai Long, Marion, Arc Charley, MT Thyword, MT Queen of Peace, MT United Venture, MT United Trador and MV Miracle.

Previous efforts of Operation Awatse

Recall that the operations of the militants, who were formerly pipeline vandals, at Ishawo were tackled intensively last year. Whilst their reign of terror lasted, scores of people were killed, pipelines were vandalised for the content and they were a law unto theirselves.

This brazen anomaly led to the deployment of a joint military taskforce in the area. The JTF comprises the elements of the navy, army and air force, as well as the Department of State Security Services (DSS), the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).

The aerial bombardment and subsequent invasion of the enclave by the JTF is part of the military’s operation tagged ‘Operation Awatse’, an Hausa word for ‘scatter’, which has the land, air and maritime components.

Intensive offensive air strikes were initiated to flush out the pipeline vandals turned militants operating at Ishawo and Igando areas of Ikorodu in Lagos State; then Arepo, Awawa, Elepete and Ibafo areas of Ogun State, given that the JTF was tasked with the responsibility of protecting the NNPC pipelines from Atlas Cove to Mosimi Depot

At the end, several arrests were made and their enclaves decimated by air strikes before the ground forces moved in to complete the operations. After the militants were disbanded, peace returned to Ishawo and its neighbouring communities surrounded by creeks for some time.

Operation Jagunlabi

Before Exercise River Sweep was launched in the Western Command, Operation Jagunlabi was kickstarted at the backwaters of the Ikorodu and its environs. While Exercise River Sweep was commenced solely by the navy, Operation Jagunlabi was that of a Joint Taskforce (JTF) comprising the Nigeria Navy, Nigerian Air Force and Nigerian Army.

Also launched as a show of force on the Lagos backwaters, Operation Jagunlabi was tasked to combat the increasing menace of pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft and other maritime crimes. The exercise, which is an offshoot of the ongoing Operation Awatse (an Hausa word for scatter), was kicked off to further solidify the gains of the JTF in battling vandalism and crude oil theft in Lagos creeks and backwaters.

The exercise which was also kicked off by the Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command, Rear Admiral Slyvanus Abbah, at the naval outpost in Majidun area of Ikorodu, saw the JTF patrol both the waters and the land around that area.

Abbah was joined by the Air Officer Commanding, Logistics Command, Air Vice Marshal Ibrahim Yahaya; the General Officer Commanding, Major General Peter Dauke and the Commander, NNS Beecroft, Rear Admiral Maurice Eno.

The maritime operation kicked off from Majidun creek and saw the apenal gunboats patrol to Ebute waterside, Ibeshe ferry jetty and moved to Oworonsoki jetty before heading back to the base. For the patrol route for the show of force, the ground forces also took off from Majidun and stormed the Ikorodu garage roundabout, Ibeshe junction, Ibeshe Ilaje, Imota, Ishawo and rendezvoused back at the naval outpost.

Not ruling out aerial bombardment by the Air Force if need be, the FOC said the joint patrol means the three arms of services will pool resources and manpower together to tackle the menace of pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft. Harping on the importance of intelligence gathering, Abbah who addressed the troops before the exercise began said they are to mix up with civilians in order to get them to loosen up.

He said: “Operation Awatse has been an ongoing operation and if you are in Lagos, I think this is the most peaceful festive period you have ever had in Lagos. We have been working tirelessly before now. Before now, you know the criminals have been carrying out their nefarious act at the high sea; which is sea robbery.”

Abbah also said the components of Operation Awatse will partner Operation Delta Safe in the Niger Delta in order to tackle the issues of the influx of vandals and militants to Lagos waters from neighboring creeks. The FOC further said the partnership with Operation Delta Safe will see the military raid the creeks and backwaters of the Niger Delta region to arrest the rampaging militants.

He said: “Although Lagos by itself is a peaceful place but the criminals come from elsewhere. For instance, the last attack that happened on Lagos waters, we have arrested so many of them and all of them are not from Lagos. The five of them that are in our custody are not from Lagos but have their accomplice in Lagos who gives them information which we are working on to rid of all those things.

“Lagos is the hub of all activities. Anybody you kidnap in Lagos, you know that ransom can be handsomely paid so they plan their operation to operate in Lagos. However, we are not resting on our oars to tackle this. This period (ember period) you know nobody came around to kidnap this period and we have to commend the soldiers because they are working very hard to ensure everything is fine peacefully.”

On the operation he said, “This is an ongoing and continuous exercise. Our presence here today is just to meet and interact with the soldiers. We want them to share their problems and we will also address them. Before now you know Majidun is a no go area but as you can see everybody is feeling happy and operating freely and that is why we want to make all those non-penetrable areas to be safe now for everyone to carry out their businesses.

“There are certain things we don’t need to tell because if we tell you our strategies, definitely the enemies would re-strategise and strike. This is a military exercise and the essence of this is to make sure we operate peacefully. So Operation Jagunlabi is a show of force to tell those boys (the militants) wherever they are, we are here for them.

“This is a joint operation and you cannot do it alone, so that is why we need air support from the Air Force. Therefore, it’s a joint operation between the army, navy and Air Force and even elements of the police, Department of State Security and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps.”

Exercise River Sweep 11

Like the broom is used to sweep the floor, the word sweep was applied for the exercise given that the deployed vessels were expected to patrol the sea area within the Western Naval Command Areas of Responsibility (AOR) up to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The three-day exercise was aimed at consolidating the successes achieved by Exercise River Sweep 1 and 2 in the Central and Eastern Naval Commands, respectively.

The exercise was divided between the air, water and land components. While the land components took care of areas like Badagry, Epe, Igbokoda and Kirikiri and Ibeju- lekki with support from several Inshore Patrol Crafts (IPCs), the sea components patrolled off Badagry and Epe waters up to 100 nautical miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), while the naval air wing provided aerial support with two Augusta helicopters.

The exercise yielded immediate result as a ship that was hijacked off the coast of Cotonu, which went off radar for five days until the owners alerted the navy, was found. Using the Falcon Eye, the vessel was found where the hijackers had abandoned it after siphoning the products.

Deployed for the exercise were Nigerian Navy Ship OKPABANA, which sailed in from Port Harcourt, while other vessels like NNS KARADUWA and NNS PROSPERITY and several Inshore Patrol Crafts (IPCs) were also deployed to provide patrol support for the exercise. Not left out were the two Nigerian Navy Augusta helicopters, who provided aerial support and the men of the Special Boat Services (SBS), who patrolled the backwaters.

After the debriefing by the Officer in Tactical Command, Commodore Sunday Abiodun Odedoja, the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Western Naval Command (WNC), Rear Admiral Slyvanus Abbah, took to the podium to reiterate the need for the exercise and its set objectives.

After the briefing, the FOC was handed over the flag to wave for the flag off, signifying the kick off of the exercise proper. Thus, with the flag off executed, Exercise River Sweep 11 began in earnest. After being tugged out, the Nigerian Navy Ship UNITY commanded by the Commanding Officer, Captain Abolade Ogunleye, set sail at exactly 11a.m. with a Latitude of 06.17.346

and Longitude of 002.49.306.

Meanwhile at the pre-exercise briefing, Rear Admiral Abbah, who kicked off the exercise said, “Our maritime domain is beclouded with piracy, illegal fishing and other maritime crimes. In Lagos area, we have maintained sanity for free flow of traffic in our waters and we have already registered some gains. Last year, some criminals invaded our Area of Responsibility (AOR) from the South-south to kidnap four Chinese men.

“Our men in Igbokoda in Ondo State, swooped in on them and five of them were arrested. Also, during the operation, their leader was shot dead. The suspects arrested have been handed over to the Department of State Security (DSS).”

On the platforms deployed for the exercise, he said Nigerian Navy Ship OKPABANA sailed in from Port Harcourt, while other vessels like NNS KARADUWA and NNS PROSPERITY were also deployed to provide patrol support for the exercise.

He added, “For now, Lagos waters are very calm as we have the Maritime Domain Awareness Centre that we use to monitor the sea and deploy men if need be to quench any situation. It will be stating the obvious to note that the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok Ette-Ibas, has zero tolerance for maritime criminalities.

“Thus, in line with his body language, the command has arrested 22 vessels for illegal activities between July 2017 to date. Meanwhile, for this Exercise River Sweep, some successes have already been recorded as some arrests have been made on the kickoff of the exercise.”

At the end of the 24-hour patrol, the vessels sailed back to the jetty of the Naval Dockyard for the debriefing to take place. At the debriefing, the commanders of all the participating vessels rendered their reports while the officer-in-tactical command filed his observations.

Given the resources expended for the exercise, it’s therefore expected for the navy to build on becoming a stronger force capable of maintaining constant presence at sea and eliminating maritime illegalities to the barest minimum.