Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the inherent dangers the many shipwrecks that dot Nigeria’s maritime domain pose to mariners are not just limited to accidents, but have now become a security threat given its recent use by pirates and oil bunkerers as hideouts
For mariners who eke their living in the maritime domain and indeed security operatives that are tasked to protect the waterways, the dangers posed by the menace of shipwrecks have reached threatening proportions. In fact, acknowledging the inherent dangers, the Nigerian Navy (NN) authorities had recently raised alarm over the presence of such shipwrecks on the country’s waters and the security and safety risks they pose.
From Lagos to other states where seaports also operate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for ships to leave jetties. It is also not easy for maritime security operatives like the navy to respond to distress calls in good time without hitting these obstructions that ground vessels and endanger lives.
According to the United Nations (UN) estimates, there are more than three million shipwrecks on the ocean floor globally. Bringing it home, Lagos has been touted as one of the major cities with many shipwrecks on their seabed. In fact, statistics pegged the shipwrecks at over 200, with Lagos inheriting about half of that.
Not many would know that shipwrecks pose security threats to the maritime domain. How you would ask? As security agencies continue to evolve in tackling contemporary challenges, so do the criminals. In the maritime domain, especially at sea, these criminals have turned most of these shipwrecks as their strategic temporary hideout from where they carry out their operations on unsuspecting vessels.
A recent threat analysis had unearthed the fact that this shipwrecks have been turned to hibernating platforms from which pirates, oil bunkerers, sea robbers and even illegal fishermen monitor activities at sea before picking their unguarded prey. Instances abound where these criminal elements used these shipwrecks as anchor for their ships in order to buy time and carry out their criminal acts.
This modus operandi seems to be thriving because of the cloak of element of surprise it gives to the criminals, especially pirates. This is so because one wouldn’t ordinarily suspect that such shipwrecked vessel would harbour human life.
This security threat was brought to the front burner just recently, precisely on August 17, when a Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) laden tanker Navigator Capricorn was attacked by suspected pirates at position 03 33North 006 40East approximately 56nautical miles south of Bonny Island in Rivers State.
In this particular case, the pirates had monitored the vessel from a shipwreck along the Bonny creeks before she left harbour on a voyage to Lagos. In fact, they had pretended to be working onboard the shipwreck, before they launched the attack on the target vessel.
They would have succeeded in the attack safe for the prompt distress signal sent by the oil tanker to the Nigerian Navy (NN). With the immediate deployment of one of the NNS warships, the pirates fled.
Shipwrecks have been known to cause multiple accidents at sea. Several cases abound of passenger boats that capsized after ramming into the wrecks that dot the maritime domain, especially those that have sunk into the water and are undetected on the surface level.
The hazard associated with these wrecks is that most often, especially during high water, they are submerged and hardly visible to mariners, therefore posing great threats.
It’s on record that Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) CALABAR recently suffered great damage around the Kirikiri channel after ramming into a submerged shipwreck in an attempt to avoid a big vessel that was dodging another wreck inward harbour.
Also recently, a fire outbreak was recorded onboard an oil tanker, MT SEA VOYAGER, around the Lagos anchorage area. Despite the closeness of the vessel to harbour, the NN could not deploy any other warship to respond to the incident and rescue the 11 Pakistani crew members onboard because of the time that would have been lost avoiding the wrecks to navigate from Navy Town or Apapa jetty to the burning ship. Fortunately, NNS EKULU was closer and was able to rescue the crew from the inferno.
Degradation of Coastal Shorelines
Beyond accidents and other maritime threats posed by shipwrecks, another of its major aftermath is the environmental degradation of coastal shorelines.
Without doubt, the eroding shorelines in the coastal areas have raised concern for the citizenry especially in the light of the ocean surges that once wiped out the popular Alpha and Kuramo Beaches in Lagos.
Their fears are not unfounded. With each flood that often leads to a surge, it poses an inherent danger both for humans and aquatic life. While the blame for these surges has often been blamed on climate change, some beg to differ. They would rather blame the scores of abandoned shipwrecks on the waterways which they say obstruct the free flow of water.
To this end, environmental experts have continuously warned that except prompt actions are taken, it would trigger a huge devastating loss to the entire area. They noted that continuous degradation of the coastal areas which is caused by the numerous shipwrecks prevents the normal flow of water, thereby causing erosion instead of even distribution of sand along the shorelines.
Why are there wrecks at sea? Where do they come from? Firstly, most of these wrecks were formerly vessels that were operational. While most of them were arrested for various maritime crimes, others were faulty and left to go aground because of paucity of funds or lack of needed spares.
Now this raises the question of why they are still at sea. THISDAY checks revealed that most of the wrecks were caused by delay in prosecution of arrested vessels.
For instance in NNS DELTA, in the ongoing Operation Swamp Buggy, several persons have been arrested for various maritime offences and handed over to prosecutorial agencies, while the vessels were being kept in trust for the agencies in line with the Harmonised Standard Operation Procedure (HSOP). But that is where the problem lies; holding the vessels in trust for the prosecuting agencies is costing the NN so much money to maintain the vessels to avoid their going aground.
THISDAY had once reported that some of the vessels have been in the jetty for up to seven years, while the then recovered 185 outboard engines, hoses and other equipments recovered from the suspects or sites littered the base.
In NNS PATHFINDER, it was no different. The base also battles with prolonged stay of arrested vessels in its jetty, which poses threat to mariners along that channel. In fact, it might even be worse off there because the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) had been contacted to evacuate products from some of the vessels arrested since 2015 to no avail, which poses a greater threat to the environment.
This means that these wrecks will continue to litter
Nigeria’s coastal waterways and they can’t be removed at whim because of legal bottlenecks.
Championing the cause for a maritime domain that is free of wrecks, the NN has reiterated its commitment. According to the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Western Naval Command (WNC), Rear Admiral Oladele, some of the wrecks showed part of the hull or superstructure at the level of the chart datum; in others only the masts were visible while there are those not submerged whose depths were unknown.
He lamented that an NN warship NNS CALABAR recently suffered great damage around the Kirikiri channel after ramming into a submerged shipwreck in an attempt to avoid a big vessel that was dodging another wreck inward harbour. As a result of the accident, NNS CALABAR’s base was serially perforated causing damage to its keel.
“The hazard associated with submerged wrecks in our water is huge. These wrecks are littered along the waterways and constitute navigational hazards as well as endanger safety of shipping. Similarly, in times of distress calls, it becomes increasingly difficult for agencies responsible for such rescue to quickly react especially at night or in poor and restricted visibility.
“The navy was able to swiftly react to the fire incident on MT SEA VOYAGER because NNS EKULU was on patrol at sea that night. As such, it was easy to vector her for the rescue operation. If the ship was to be deployed from its base in Navy Town, it would not have been that swift, considering the danger of maneuvering through these wrecks at that hour of the day.
“Fortunately, the hydrographic office of the Nigerian Navy in line with its mandate has identified and resurveyed these wrecks for ease of salvage. It will therefore be necessary for appropriate authorities to take urgent action in the removal of these wrecks in our waterways,” said Daji who led journalists on a tour of some affected areas along Lagos channel.
The Lagos Channel seems to have it bad. About 35 of such maritime wrecks were identified which were submerged along the very busy Lagos Channel, which provides a vital access into the Tincan Island Port.
According to Daji, the area that is most affected is the Tincan, Kirikiri and Navy Town and a bad portion of the Badagry Creek. “The hazards associated with these wrecks is that most often especially during high water, they are submerged and hardly visible to Mariners and therefore they post the greatest threats during this period of time.
“Apart from endangering shipping, most of the wrecks also constitutes, environmental pollution and hazards. I do not think it portrays us as a country with laws and regulations in good light especially to the global shipping community,” he added.
Still on the Lagos Channel, navigational aids also seems to be a thing of the past. Addressing this Daji said: “In addition, there are several navigational aid like the oils, markings, light houses that are not functional or missing or have shifted from their intended original positions.
“The absence of this navigational aids also constitutes risk to shipping, especially at night or during restricted visibilities. The replacement and servicing of bad navigational aids will equally add and assist to the safety of navigation as well as enhance the ability of responding agencies to quickly move and respond to emergencies in case of distress at sea”.
Survey of Waterways
This threat has spurred the Hydrography Department of the NN to kickstart plans to commence survey of the South-south waterways in order to locate these wrecks so that agencies responsible for clearing them would move in.
Already, the department had surveyed the Lagos Port and Badagry creek channels of the Western waters where 35 wrecks including masts, ships and obstructions constituting life threatening threats to mariners were discovered.
The FOC said the Hydrography office of the navy in line with its statutory responsibilities as identified has resurveyed these wrecks and these surveys had been shared to the relevant agencies of government.
“These surveys has been shared to these agencies and departments responsible for the removal of these wrecks in our waterways. It will therefore be necessary for such authorities to take objective actions and remove these wrecks in our waterways so that shipping, especially the safety of ships and seafarers would further be guaranteed,” he added.
He further reiterated that the Nigerian Navy in carrying out its statutory responsibilities would continue to collaborate to ensure and promote the safety and security of our waterways.
Laxity of Appropriate Agencies
Although the FOC declined to identify the agencies that were responsible for the clearing of wrecks on the country’s waterways, checks revealed that the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), are responsible for such.
But the spokesman for NPA, Adams Jato, made some clarifications. According to him, the agency was only responsible for clearance of wrecks within its channel- the port areas.
He said: “We remove wrecks from areas that are critical to our channel and we commission consultants to clear them. Anything out of our area of concern is cleared by other agencies.”
With three agencies charged with the responsibility, the menace of wrecks on the maritime domain, especially the Lagos Channel that is inundated with about 35 of such, needs to be urgently addressed.