In a move that has raised eyebrows in government circles, and among stakeholders, Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi is seeking a whopping $22.99 million from the federal government to hire fast intervention vessels to tackle insecurity in Nigerian waters, THISDAY has learnt. This comes hard on the heels of the $195 million maritime security contract approved for the same purpose by the federal government in 2017, which was also pushed through by Amaechi.
A source familiar with the matter said, “That contract is yet to be fully executed.”
The federal government had in 2017 approved a $195 million maritime security contract with an Israeli firm, HLS International Limited, under the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure, also called the Deep Blue Project. The company allegedly got the contract on the strength of its relationship with Amaechi, even though stakeholders alleged lack of transparency.
The contract was in line with efforts to curb increasing incidents of piracy, sea robbery, kidnapping, oil theft, illegal bunkering, smuggling, and illegal trafficking of drugs and persons within the Gulf of Guinea. Under the initiative, the government was supposed to have commenced the deployment of security assets in January this year.
But in a memo to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) dated July 22, 2020, Amaechi sought another FEC approval for the renewal of leases of fast intervention security vessels for a period of one year, aside the $195 million already approved for the same purpose from which $70 million was said to have been used to procure equipment.
However, sources within the Federal Ministry of Transportation alleged that the $195 million contract was yet to be fully executed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the timeline for manpower training and asset deployment.
Amaechi’s latest memo reads in part, “The purpose of this memorandum is to seek the consideration of the FEC for the extension of the contract for the lease of 6 no. units of fast intervention security vessels (FISV) on the same terms and conditions as earlier approved by the FEC in 2018 in favour of the following 6 no. service providers: Pearl HPW Limited, Thamson Energy Services Limited, Fairway Offshore Limited, Aquashiled Oil & Marine Services Limited, XPO Marine services Limited, and Peace Marine and Energy Limited.
“Council is invited to recall that at its EC(2018)40 meeting held on Wednesday, 5 December 2018, it considered and granted approval for the renewal of the contract for the lease of six (6) fast intervention security vessels for a period of one year, at the reviewed daily rate of $10,500 per vessel-making a total sum of $22.995, 000.00 on an annual basis which is equivalent to N7,013,475, 000.00, at the exchange rate of $1.00 to N305.00, inclusive of all taxes.”
THISDAY checks revealed that FEC could not agree on Amaechi’s memo after it was tabled, causing President Muhammadu Buhari to refer the memo to a committee to review and recommend action to guide FEC to a well-considered decision.
But stakeholders in the maritime industry are concerned about the latest development because the minister had told the world in February that he had received some of the equipment for the Deep Blue Project and that 70 per cent of the equipment would arrive Nigeria few weeks after. A presidency source told THISDAY, “Security contracts of doubtful benefit appear to have become another avenue of frittering away scarce national resources. We are disturbed that despite these multimillion-dollar security contracts, criminalities are still rampant on our waterways.”
Stakeholders in the maritime sector are also worried that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the minister in hiring fast moving vessels over the years are enough to acquire better and sophisticated brand new vessels for the country. They say despite the huge spending, Nigeria still ranks high on piracy, kidnaping, and other sea crimes.
“Why do we neglect our Navy and pay out huge sums to private firms? Why has this become so attractive to these people in government,” a security expert wondered.
Two weeks ago, a report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) revealed a 40 per cent increase in the number of kidnappings reported in the Gulf of Guinea in the first nine months of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. That was as Director-General, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Bashir Jamoh, disclosed recently that the agency’s investigation had revealed that Somali pirates were now active in Nigerian waters and the Gulf of Guinea.
The IMB said there were 132 attacks reported since the beginning of 2020, up from 119 incidents in the same period last year.
It added, “Of the 85 seafarers kidnapped from their vessels and held for ransom, 80 were taken in the Gulf of Guinea, in 14 attacks reported off Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Ghana. By the end of the third quarter (Q3), seafarers reported 134 cases of assault, injury, and threats, including 85 crewmembers being kidnapped, and 31 held hostage onboard their ships. A total of 112 vessels were boarded, and six were fired upon, while 12 reported attempted attacks.”
IMB warned that pirate gangs in the area were well organised and targeted all vessel types over a wide range.
The IMB report said, “On 17 July 2020, eight pirates armed with machine guns boarded a product tanker underway around 196 nautical miles southwest of Bayelsa, Nigeria. They held all 19 crew members hostage, stole the ship’s documents and valuable items, and escaped with 13-kidnapped crew. The tanker was left drifting with limited and unqualified navigational and engine crew onboard. A nearby merchant vessel later helped the tanker to sail to a safe port. The 13 kidnapped crewmembers were released safely one month after.”
Last week, a group of Nigerian stowaways who hijacked a UK-bound ship were arrested after a 10-hour standoff. The alleged Nigerian hijackers had threatened to kill the crew of the oil tanker – Nave Andromeda – bound for the UK. The Nave Andromeda departed Nigeria on October 6 bound for Southampton. UK authorities believed the stowaways had boarded in the port of Lagos through the vessel’s rudder trunk, an opening near the ship’s hull.
THISDAY learnt that the Navy top brass were unhappy with the latest developments.
Nigerian Navy sources, who pleaded anonymity, said the vessels being used by the firms hired by the minister were in deplorable state and largely not seaworthy. One of them revealed, “The vessels are in terrible state and unseaworthy but due to political pressure the high command is forced to go along. Everything has taken a disturbing turn with vested interests pursuing their own agendas.”
Some stakeholders are of the opinion that the $195 million contract breached procurement process because there was no open tender before it was awarded.
A top player in the industry, who did not want to be named, queried, “Which other company bided with the Israeli firm? Did the minister bypass lay down procedure? These are questions begging for answer.”
Recently, former Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Dele Ezeoba, said the $195 million maritime security contract entered into by the federal government and an Israeli firm, Messrs HLSI Security Systems and Technologies, would fail.
Ezeoba, who also frowned on the government’s decision to contract maritime security issues to a security firm, said the government should, instead, provide adequate funding for the Nigerian Navy.
He said, “I feel pained because having been an active participant in all these matters, it becomes disheartening to note that we are still in a country where people play to the gallery. We have a constitutional mandate that anything that has to do with maritime security is the sole responsibility of the Nigerian Navy. The country owes us a responsibility to fund the Nigerian Navy adequately to discharge its responsibilities. But, instead, they go through the backdoor to create some façade and instead of funding the lead agency that should create the initiative to do the needful, they do the more you look, the less we see.”
Ezeoba also stated that with Falcon Eye, there wouldn’t have been any reason to contract security of the country’s waterway to a foreign firm.