Of Piracy and Nigeria’s Deep Blue Project

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Eromosele Abiodun writes that the International Maritime Bureau report describing Nigeria as most volatile in the Gulf of Guinea, accounting for half of the 38 piracy incidences seems to have made a mockery of the $195 million Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure, also called the Deep Blue Project

Last week, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) once again described Nigerian waters as most volatile in the Gulf of Guinea, accounting for half of the 38 piracy incidences reported in first quarter (Q1) of 2021 in the Gulf of Guinea.

The bureau made this known in its Q1 2021 report for the period between January and March. It said pirates had often raided ships in Nigeria to kidnap crews for ransom around the water regions.

IMB urged vessels to take additional security measures, adding that several attacks have gone unreported.
According to the IMB, “Nigeria (Lagos-Apapa, Off Bayelsa-Brass, and Bonny Island-Port Harcourt): Pirates/robbers are often well armed and violent and have attacked, hijacked, robbed ships and kidnapped crews along far from the coast rivers, anchorages ports, and surrounding waters.

“Incidents have also been reported up to about 200 nautical miles from the coast. Generally, all waters in or off Nigeria remain highly risky. Vessels are advised to be vigilant as many incidents may also have gone unreported; kidnapping for ransom remains the biggest risk for crews. Vessels are advised to take additional measures in these high-risk waters. In the past, tankers were also hijacked and part cargo stolen (gas oil).”
IMB in the report added that 38 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships were reported between January and March. It noted that the Golf of Guinea suffered the highest attacks within the period under review.

Countries located around the Gulf of Guinea include: Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Togo, Sao Tome and Principe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola.

“The Gulf of Guinea accounted for nearly half (43 per cent) of all reported piracy incidents in Q1 of 2021.Thirty-eight incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships were reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in the period of 2021, compared with 47 incidents in Q1 2020.

“The Q1 2021 figures are broken down as 33 vessels boarded, two attempted attacks, two vessels fired upon and one vessel hijacked.Violence against crews continues with 40 crew kidnapped, two each threatened and taken hostage and one killed.”

Also, in January last year Nigeria was rated number one in pirates attack in the Gulf of Guinea by the International Maritime bureau (IMB).
The 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.
The report showed that the pirates armed with guns and knives had abducted bigger groups of seafarers off the West African coast.

The IMB said there had been 132 attacks reported since the beginning of 2020, up from 119 incidents in the same period of the previous 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 are well organised and targeting all vessel types over a wide range.
It added that the furthest attack from shore also involved the most crew kidnapped from a single vessel in 2020.

“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 crewmembers 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,” IMB said.

Failed Project
It is sad to know that Nigeria has invested massively in maritime security assets to tackle the menace with any tangible result. At the height of piracy and criminality in Nigerian waters in 2017, the federal government embraced the Deep Blue project initiated by the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi.

Since then, the government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars supervised by the minister and the reward for the investment has been increased piracy and criminality.
To this day, the $195 million maritime security contract approved for the same purpose by the government in 2017 is yet to be executed by the same minister.

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 contract was in line with efforts to curb increasing criminal activities such as piracy, sea robbery, kidnapping, oil theft, illegal bunkering, smuggling and illegal trafficking in drugs and persons within the Gulf of Guinea, especially Nigeria.

Under the initiative, the government was supposed to have commenced the deployment of security assets first week of January 2019 to curb maritime criminality. Since then, several dates have been announced by Amaechi without anything to show for the federal government’s investment.

To the trepidation of all stakeholders and in a move that negates the anti-corruption posture of the president Muhammadu Buhari administration and waste of scare foreign exchange, Amaechi again last year wrote to the federal government seeking a whopping $22.99 million to hire fast intervention vessels to check insecurity in Nigeria’s waters. Pundits alleged that the Deep Blue Project has become a drain pipe calling on Predident Muhammadu Buhari to probe the project.

In a memo to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) dated July 22, 2020, Amaechi had asked for the government’s approval for the renewal of lease of fast intervention security vessels for a period of one year, claiming the $195 million already approved for the same purpose has been put on hold due to COVID-19.

The 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 six no. service provider: 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.”

But stakeholders in the maritime industry are querying the motive behind the latest development when the same minister told the world in February this year he has received some of the equipment for the Deep Blue Project and that 80 per cent of the equipment will arrive Nigeria few weeks after.

Stakeholders in the maritime sector are worried that the hundreds of millions of Dollars spent by the minister in hiring fast moving vessels over the years is enough to acquire better and sophisticated brand new vessels for the country.
Also, they are worried that despite the multi-million dollars spent in hiring vessels, insecurity in Nigeria’s waters is at all-time high.

Unhappy Security Agencies
THISDAY learnt that top brass at the Nigerian Navy are very unhappy with the development but are constrained to remain silent due to political pleasures.
Sources at the Navy, who pleaded anonymity said the vessels been hired by the minister are in deplorable state and not sea worthy.

Some stakeholders are of the opinion that the $195 million contract breached procurement process adding that there was no open tender before it was awarded.

“If so which other company bided with the Israeli firm? Did the minister just muscle his way through by bypassing lay down procedure? These are questions begging for answers, “said a top player in the industry.
Recently, the 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 at the government’s stance of contracting maritime security contract 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 and the country owe us as a constituent people 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 reasons to contract security of the nation’s waterway to a foreign security firm.

Admission of Failure
Meanwhile, in a startling revelation last year, the Director General of The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dr. Bashir Jamoh, expressed worry over the activities of the Somali pirates on Nigerian waters, while reiterating the determination to curb criminal attacks in the nation’s waters and the Gulf of Guinea.

He said the pirates often navigated through Nigeria’s maritime boundaries, and sometimes came through the land borders, adding that the recently-established, Maritime Intelligence Unit, to help nip sea crimes in the bud through the identification of early warning signs, had revealed a relationship between crimes in the Nigerian maritime domain and the Somali pirates.

He said: “We discovered a correlation between crimes in our waters and the activities of the Somali pirates. They have a means of navigating from the coast of Somalia to Nigeria, through the waters of our West African neighbors. In some cases, they enter through the land borders and commission boats to carry out their activities.”

He said Nigeria had developed an action plan to monitor the progress of its National Maritime Security Strategy, saying, “Our goal is to achieve a sustainable end to criminal attacks in our territorial waters.”
Jamoh said the Nigerian government placed a high premium on the safety and security of shipping on its waters and the Gulf of Guinea.

To confront the menace of maritime criminality head-on, he said: “Nigeria has made huge investments in the establishment of a comprehensive maritime security infrastructure. The Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure also called the Deep Blue Project, is designed to secure our waters, up to the Gulf of Guinea.

“The project is nearing completion, with more than 80 per cent of the assets, comprising Special Mission Vessels, Fast Intervention Boats, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and Armoured Vehicles, already in the country.”