Chiemelie Ezeobi and Mary Ovie write that the recently held Operation Junction Rain, hosted by the Nigerian Navy, its US counterpart, Interpol, other security agencies, recorded many successes including the arrest of three Greeks, an American and five Nigerians for maritime illegalities
On a certain Wednesday, the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) CENTENARY made a consequential inroad in the fight against maritime illegalities on the nation’s waterways. It effected the arrest of Sea Angel 3, a vessel painted in the ash colour, which is the exclusive preserve of the Nigerian Navy (NN). It was therefore not surprising when the navy interrogated the vessel upon sighting it at Latitude 06, Degree 03.324’N and Longitude 003, Degree 41.310’N.
As is standard operating procedure in such situations, they were interrogated and questions like name of vessel, their call ensign, port of registration, last port of call, destination, number and nationality of crew, any animal on board, cargo type, cargo quantity, bunkering permit, availability of fishing license and expiring date for fishing vessel at designated point, were asked.
Asides the blunder of the colour of the vessel, the captain of the vessel gave false replies during interrogation as regarding the number of persons on board, prompting the Special Boat Services (SBS) onboard NNS CENTENARY to board for a search. The search unearthed nine persons; three Greeks, one American and five Nigerians. Further search revealed they had four M-1 rifles, 1000 ammunition, one ballistic helmet, seven magazines and other military gadgets.
Meanwhile, a discharge document was also recovered on-board the boat having the name, signature and details of Michael-Anderson but with another picture. Immediately, arrest was made close to Anchorage. The vessel was arrested for illegal possession of firearms and suspected crude oil theft.
The Greeks were identified as 54-year-old Angelopolous Spyridon, 57-year-old Kappis Christos, and 34-year-old Petropoulos Stylianos, 34, while the American was identified as 50-year-old Zanski Michael-Anderson.
Operation Junction Rain
From Lagos waters to the Bight of Benin and back, 10 Nigerian Navy (NN) ships, one US Coast Guard THETIS, two helicopters and two NIMASA boats sailed for eight days. The result was the arrest of the aforementioned vessel, it’s crew and the illegal ammunition. Tagged Operation Junction Rain, it was a join operation between the NN, it’s US counterparts, other security agencies and ministries. Some of the NN platforms that participated were NNS THUNDER, NNS SAGBAMA, NNS KARADUWA, NNS CENTENARY, NNS EKULU, and NNS NGURU.
From all indications, Operation Junction Rain was a practical demonstration of the bilateral military agreement between the US and Nigerian navies. The joint operation was targeted at enforcing maritime laws and checkmating illegalities on the maritime domain within the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) in general and the Nigerian waters in particular.
Not to be ignored in this operation was the power of synergy. From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was Mr Raymond Osuji, from the Nigerian Drug and Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) was Mr. Wilson Atu, from the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) was Mr. Ogodo Solomon. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) was represented by Mr. Bode Ogunbiyi, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) had Mr. Olumide Ajayi, while the Nigerian Customs Services (NCS) was represented by Mr. Nyior Emmanuel and Mr. Patrick Daniel stood in the stead for the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS).
Its essence was to bring all maritime law enforcement agencies together to foster synergy, cooperation and to expedite action on prosecution of arrested ships and crew. Although this operation was not the first time the navy was collaborating with other security agencies, this one was quite different as the gamut of all angles was considered. This time around, so many things were taken into cognisance; the legal aspect as regarding prosecution after arrests have been made at sea. That was what informed the basis of the interagency cooperation between the navy and other maritime law enforcement agencies, for effective evidence handling and prosecution.
The presence of all these security agencies and ministry was a testament of the advantages of working together for a common goal. They also had their work cut out for them. While the NDLEA were brought in for their expertise in tackling illegal drug smuggling, NIS handled documentation of immigration status, NAPTIP’s expertise was in handling cases of human trafficking; NCS on the other hand took care of border patrols to ensure the protection of the nation’s borders.
Therefore, the operation explored the beauty of the Immigration, customs and NAPTIP laws, as well as the Presidential Committee on some Arms and Light Weapons, NDLEA (Nacrotic Laws) and other laws on infringement that have been committed within the GoG maritime domain and in particular the Nigeria waters.
THISDAY checks revealed that one of the major reasons why these security agencies are involved is to facilitate prosecution of arrested suspects at sea. Exploring this synergy means that if a ship is suspected to be trafficking humans, NAPTIP’s expertise is needed in collecting the evidence and preserving them while investigation will take place immediately before the foreign affairs officials will file charges.
Unlike before when the navy makes arrest, and when they get to court they will say the evidence has been tempered with by the navy and thus will hamper prosecution of the arrested crew members and also the ship.
The operation kicked off on April 9, 2019, with a pre-sailing conference between the navy and participants from relevant agencies and the US Navy, while patrol began on April, 11, 2019 with 10 Nigerian Navy ships, one US Coast Guard, two helicopters and NIMASA boats released for the operation. For NNS Thunder, it’s Commanding Officer was Captain S.M Ahmed and Captain Daihiru as the Naval Headquarters observer.
According to the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok Ete-Ibas, at the flag off, the operation was part of the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) programme of the US Navy/Coast Guard, which was hosted by the NN this year.
He said operations of this nature are critical towards protecting and sustaining the resources and huge potentials of the GoG in general and Nigeria’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in particular. Also, he said it enhanced the cross fertilisation of ideas and best practices across a broad spectrum of maritime operations including safety at sea, inspection and search procedures, amongst others.
Operations at Sea
The day 1, which happened to be on Thursday, the
participating ships were assigned to different areas within the Lagos water, with NNS Thunder patrolling area Foxtrot. That day, effective patrol was carried out in the area without interrogation. No arrest was made. The second day, the ships patrolled the same area but this time around, some ships were interrogated. They included : MV Lilly, MV SIRIAL Laurel, MT ASHAVI, MV Florida 1, but no acts of illegality was found on them.
On the third day, NNS Thunder increased patrol but this time extended it around area G. Another ship was interrogated and patrol intensified round Nigeria and Benin Republic waters. One of the challenges of the patrol around there was poor weather, occasioned by weak visibility. On Sunday, the patrol areas were J and Foxtrot. It was extended to the Bight of Benin and vessels at sea were interrogated with questions like name of vessel, their call ensign, port of registration, last port of call, destination, number and nationality of crew, any animal on board, cargo type, cargo quantity, bunkering permit, availability of fishing license and expiring date for fishing vessel at designated point.
On Monday, four vessels MV Grand Cotonou, MT Hanson, MV Milan Trader and MT Ortakoy were interrogated but no arrest was made. Then on Tuesday, vessels like MT Hugh Sea, MV KOTA SURIA, MV CMA CGM Jamaica, MT C- Horaison, MT Saint James , MT Marlin Acqua Marine, MT Central, MT Prince Joseph 1, MV Chang Hang Huai Hei and MV Zim- Rio- Grand were also interrogated without any arrest.
Handing Over of Suspects
As part of the crux of the interagency collaboration the operation was tailored after, the NN on Thursday handed over the nine suspected pirates, comprising three Greeks, an American and five Nigerians to the Interpol unit of the Nigeria Police, for alleged possession of firearms and suspected crude oil theft within the nation’s maritime domain.
The Officer in Tactical Command (OTC), Commodore Dickson Olisemenogor, handed over the suspects at the Nigeria Navy Ship (NNS) BEECROFT’s parade ground in Apapa, Lagos.
Addressing reporters at the handing over ceremony, the OTC said the objective of the operation was to carry out maritime law enforcement operations at sea.
Prior to the handing over he said: “Before now, we go out there to make arrest and we hand over to relevant agencies, but the activities of these criminals have continued unabated. So, this time around, we made a detailed search and interrogation of ships at sea. Within the period of the operation, we interrogated over 100 ships, we boarded over 40 of them and in the process of boarding these vessels, one was suspected to be carrying illegal activities on our waters.
“When we interrogated the captain and crew members of the ship, they made us believe that there were only five Nigerians on board. The boat was painted navy colour, and this aroused our suspicions more. They were also not shining their electronic gadget at sea, which will indicate their position as stipulated by the International Maritime Organisation, and this attracted our attention.
“We boarded and discovered that there were more than five persons on board. There were five Nigerians, three Greeks and an American. Further search on the boat reviewed that they had four MI Rifle that can do anything at sea and over 1000 rounds of ammunition with them and various military kits. What they are doing on our waters, we do not know. We are handing over the suspects, exhibits and the boats to the Nigerian Police. They will further investigation and prosecute.”
Earlier, Olisemenogor said the arrested suspects had switched off some of the equipment to make it difficult to detect them, unknown to them that the navy has equipment onboard to detect whoever is at sea.
He added, “what we saw at sea is encouraging. We had other merchant ships calling and congratulating us for keeping the waters safe for their operations. That goes to give credence to this operation. I can say it was a huge success because apart from keeping our sea lines open for normal commercial shipping to take place, we also used the opportunity to further train our men onboard, especially in seamanship area, communication, even our engineers had the opportunity of understanding our engines better and know how to solve certain problems that could jeopardise our operation at sea.
“The other areas I know that we have actually done something were in collaboration and interoperability. Now we can work as a team with all our MDAs. They understand us, so do we. Also, the area of communication and information sharing came to play because most of these information we got that led us into interrogating some vessels and boarding others came from our sister agencies through our Maritime Operation Center (MOCs) which shows synergy is already established and I just hope that we would sustain it.
“In my assessment, the operation is worth it and should be sustained. I can assure you that through the effort and support of the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, the navy is very ready. We want Nigerians to know that their navy is working and time is up for those criminals at sea. Some of the vessels we were monitoring fled to South Africa and some were even in Gabon.
“The fact that we denied them the use of the sea for these number of days goes to show that we can continue and it is no longer business as usual for them. We are using this opportunity to warn all criminals at sea that this operation has not ended, it is still ongoing. Anyone that feels he can come and disturb our waters let him think twice, because it is not going to be easy for him.”
After receiving the suspects, vessel and weaponry, Interpol Lagos boss, Tunji Akingbola, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, said investigation would commence immediately. Also on ground were personnel from the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), whose duty was to verify the immigration status of the four foreigners. Meanwhile, the Nigerian crew alleged that they were merely hired to provide their vessel, and as such had no idea the foreigners had illegal weapons.
When the participating vessels berthed on Thursday, the closing ceremony was preceded by the handing over of the suspects and crew to the Interpol. At the closing ceremony however, the CNS
said it was heartwarming to see the ripple effect of the talks between the two navies being transformed into real time maritime law enforcement operation.
He said although the US Africa Command and the US Naval Forces Africa have conducted Operation Junction Rain in eight other African partner nations since 2008 under the AMLEP, this 2019 operation was different in the sense that over 21 ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) participated.
He said: “The essence of hosting this operation primarily is that the current security breaches in the maritime space of the GoG is of serious concern to Nigeria and the US, as well as the larger global community. What is more worrisome is that much of the activities associated with the evolving threat scenario around the GoG maritime domain are directed at economic lifeline of both littoral and land-locked states. So this the operation involved exchange of boarding parties and real-time responses to deter and counter illicit transnational maritime threats.”
In his vote of thanks afterwards, the Chairman, Organising Committee, Rear Admiral IB Yusuf, said the MDAs had been working towards the operation in the last six months, thus it built mutual interagency cooperation. He also commended the ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Justice for drafting the bilateral law agreement that authorised the conduct of the operation.
Meanwhile, despite the visible successes recorded, the operation wasn’t without its fair share of challenges ranging from weather to absence of intelligence in some cases, as well as limitation of operation to Lagos waters. In instances of weather change, it was occasioned by poor visibility, thereby necessitating the use of standard fog signal and navigational light.
In the case of intelligence gathering, the observers had noted that there should have been more synergy in gathering intel from the Regional Maritime Awareness Centre (RMAC) / Falcon Eye from the navy, NPA’s Command Control and Information Centre, as well as that of NIMASSA.
While acknowledging the much that was done at sea, they however decried the inadequate platforms
needed to comb the vast maritime space.They also charged the navy to provide effective Wifi onboard the ships for communication and information gathering.
Positing the way forward for subsequent operations, the observers called for uninterrupted secured radio communication channel between harbour master and Nigerian Navy warships during such operation, adequate synergy with harbour master for background information gathering on the background checks on vessels on anchorage and random physical inspection of vessels at the anchorage.
In the area of interagency cooperation, they stressed the need for participating agencies to be properly briefed on their responsibilities before they embark on such operation, adding that every representative of such participating agencies should also be armed with the HSOP during such operation in order to review it to capture responsibilities of omitted participating agencies.
While reiterating the need to sustain this operation so as to deter activities of criminals in the maritime domain, they charged that patrols should be carried out more than once a year. In the same vein, they charged the Federal Government to provide more platforms for the navy to effectively patrol the vast waterways.
However, despite the inherent challenges faced, the general disposition of the observers was tilted towards commendation for the navy in taking this laudable initiative aimed at making the nation’s maritime domain and it’s area at the Gulf of Guinea safe for commerce.
According to them, the operation can be described as a huge success because it was able to keep criminals at bar, thereby making the corridor of the Nigeria water safe for passage, adding that it was also a plus that the incorporation of other maritime law enforcement agencies is witnessed for the first time in the history of Nigeria.