Chiemelie Ezeobi writes on the ordeal of some Nigerians including children, who were illegally brought back by a Gabonese passenger vessel alongside deportees from other African countries
When Mrs. Esther Ike’s husband bought valid tickets to board his wife and four kids on a Gabonese passenger/cargo vessel, MV CHIMBA EXPRESS, he had no inkling the fate that would befall them. Instead of being treated like paying passengers, they were lumped up with deportees from different countries, whom the vessel was chartered to illegally dump in Nigeria.
So, for six long days, Ike and her four children were subjected to the worse treatment ever imagined onboard the vessel. Unlike when they left Nigeria to seek for greener pastures in Gabon, they returned with bitter tales.
Meanwhile, the returnees have decried the ill treatment that was meted out to them by the government of Gabon throughout their stay in the West African country.
Among the returnees were 40 Nigerian women and 10 children, who said they actually bought their valid ticket at Libreville, Gabon, with the intention of coming back home to visit their families and friends only to be lumped up with criminals who were being deported to their different countries for offense ranging from falsification of documents to robbery and drug trafficking.
Narrating her ordeal, Esther Ike, who lamented being subjected to harsh treatment through the six days journey said, “I travelled to Gabon in 2008 to join my husband along with my eldest daughter, Chisom. We reside in Libreville and my husband is a businessman.
“He owns a shop in Libreville and deals in foot wears. I had my three other children in Gabon. The reason why my husband decided that we should come back home was that there is no good English school in Gabon.
“Aside, the ones available do not write WAEC. Aside, the Gabonese immigration is not friendly with foreigners, particularly when it has to do with a Nigerian. I have seen cases where they would corner a foreign national, beat him up and dump him or her inside their cell, which can be described as a rat hole, before sending them back to their country in the most dehumanising nature.
“This and other reasons were why we decided to relocate back to Nigeria. My husband bought us valid ticket to travel back to Nigeria. Each ticket cost 180,000 CEFA, about N100,000 and my husband bought three tickets. We were told that the ship will take us to Calabar from where we will join bus to my home town in Imo State, only for me to realise later that we were going to be dumped along some deportees without food nor water.”
Like Ike, like Joseph Emakpo, who hails from Warri, Delta State. Having lived in Gabon for 16 years, he decided to come back home because of the unfriendly conditions meted out to them by the Gabonese security agencies.
He alleged that the security agents, particularly the Gabonese Immigration officers see Nigerians as hustlers who came to snatch the little business opportunities open to them.
He said: “I lost all I earned the 16 years I stayed in Libreville. I am a stylist and I owned a flourishing salon. Most high profile persons in town of Libreville come to my salon to make their hair. I lost it in one day when the Gabonese immigration came to raid my shop under the guise that they were looking for something they carted away with my properties and threw me behind bars for days.
“When they could not find anything to hold me down with they set me free. When I came back my shop was gone with all my belongings. Yet not worried, I started off again by working as a stylist in a shop owned by a Gabonese. I decided to come back home when I suddenly discovered that the place holds no future for me.
“I got the greatest shock of my life, when after buying my ticket when I discovered that the Gabonese immigration had forced the ship crew that the only reason they would allow them go was force them to carry about 18 deportees. You can imagine a situation where children would be kept alongside criminals.”
Tales of woe of deportees
While admitting that they were actually deported from Gabon, some of the deportees however rejected the criminal tag labeled them. According to them, most of them were arrested because their documents had expired and not because of any crime, like the Gabonese authorities would want people to believe.
One of the deportees, 29-year-old Adehun Sunday said he was arrested because his document had expired. Sunday, who said he hails from Igbokoda in Ondo State, said his document expired in 2013 and that since then he had been trying to renew his document without any success.
He said: “The Nigerian Embassy in Gabon do not help matters also. They extort money from you any time you go to the embassy for renewal of international passport. I have lost everything I have worked for since I travelled to Gabon about 10 years ago. I will miss my children and my wife. They are not even aware that I have been deported.”
Another deportee, Andrew Sunday, who said he hails from Abia State, said he travelled to Gabon about 17 years ago, adding that he was not a criminal but a welder.
He said: “I am a welder and not a criminal like the Gabonese Government would like to portray me. My international passport expired in January this year. I was arrested and kept behind bars for days before they finally decided to deport me.”
The attempted dumping of deportees from other African countries in Nigeria by the Gabonese vessels certainly boggled the mind of security operatives.
The 406 deportees onboard MV CHIMBA EXPRESS, were drawn from Mali, Niger, Benin, Nigeria and Togo.
Although 18 were actually Nigerian deportees, the others, who were deported from different countries, were accused of offenses ranging from falsification of documents to robbery and drug trafficking.
The intricacies of the mind boggling action by these Gabonese vessel was that the arrangement was to depart Gabon laden with cargo, regular and deportee passengers of Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Niger and Malian nationalities, and arrive Benin Republic to disembark both regular and deportee passengers from Benin, Togo, Mali and Niger, thereafter proceed to Calabar to disembark Nigerian deportees, regular passengers and their cargoes.
They however did not do this, rather, they brought all of them to Lagos bar and attempted to dump them there.
The Navy’s intervention
When the vessel was intercepted, those onboard were already hungry as they had no food and water onboard. It took the intervention of the navy, who supplied provisions, foodstuffs, drinks and water to restore their already flagging spirits.
The Commander, Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) BEECROFT, Commodore Okon Eyo, whose men intercepted the said vessel on Lagos waters, revealed that it departed Libreville, Gabon, on April 20, 2018.
He said, â€œMV CHIMBA EXPRESS is a cargo and passenger vessel that regularly traverses parts of West and Central Africa through countries such as Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Sao Tome and Principe among others.
â€œThe vessel departed Gabon laden with cargo, regular and deportee passengers of Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Niger and Malian nationalities.
â€œThe vessel was scheduled to arrive Benin to disembark both regular and deportee passengers from Benin, Togo, Mali and Niger, thereafter proceed to Calabar to disembark Nigerian deportees, regular passengers and their cargoes.
â€œHowever, in a twist of the event, the vessel arrived Lagos bar on April 25. The vessel had about 406 persons on-board from Togo, Benin, Niger, Mali and Nigeria. The total number of Nigerians on-board and whether or not the vessel did berth in Benin is yet to be confirmed, but will be determined shortly and among the Nigerians are 18 deported returnees.”
Eyo said the charterer of the vessel identified as Mubashiu Lawal from Republic of Benin and some other agents, claimed that they had made contact with port control to get permission to come in, but nothing to that effect was seen by the navy.
He added, â€œThis was yet to be granted as at the time of their arrest and it was also gathered that the international passports of the passengers were with the agents who claimed to be processing them.
â€œIt was also obvious that there was no formal contact at governmental levels for the delivery of the deportees or returnees. However, there is unconfirmed report that the Nigerian Embassy in Libreville was aware of the deportation.”
The commander said efforts were made to determine the history-trail of the vessel, using the Regional Maritime Awareness Capability (RMAC) which showed that it does not operate an active Automatic Identification System (AIS).
â€œAdditionally, the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) obtained from the ships documents indicates that the vessel has no MMSI. However, when searched with the International Maritime Organisation number, the vesselâ€™s identity was displayed as RAMADAN IV and classified as a passenger vessel registered in HONDURAS with a tonnage of about 677. This information about the class of the vessel and tonnage matched that of CHIMBA EXPRESS.”
Eyo who said that apart from the issue of unauthorised entry, which was the subject of investigation, the vessel was also in breach of absence of AIS.
â€œMV CHIMBA EXPRESSâ€™s gross tonnage is about 677 tonnes. The international law mandates vessel of more than 350 tonnages to install AIS on-board which shows it was operating in violation of the law. MV CHIMBA EXPRESS visual identity was also found to be mismatched with its registered name which was identified as RAMADAN IV.
â€œThe ship document also shows that the ship was flagged at Cameroon as against the electronic documentation of registration in HONDURAS which is contrary to the provision of the International Maritime Act,â€ he said.
Eyo said it would be plausible to conclude that the vesselâ€™s agenda was to dump the passengers in Nigeria, adding that it would have followed the original passage plan. He also said that relevant agencies were working together to unravel and deal with the issues.
â€œTo this end, the relevant agencies, Nigerian Navy, NIMASA, Immigration, Customs and DSS will be working together to unravel the motives behind the whole affair as well as deal with other associated issues.”
Eyo further aded that sufficient armed men were deployed onboard, not to shoot them (passengers), but to ensure their security and the ship itself, till investigation was over.