In a bid to curtail the activities of sea piracy and robbery in Nigeria waterways, a bill to domesticate international laws, guidelines, and conventions on the matter is underway in the National Assembly.
The global maritime watchdog, International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has several treaties, guidelines, and conventions to tackle the menace of sea piracy, robbery in the waterways and sundry matters.
However, such treaties, guidelines, and conventions cannot be applied in member countries until they are domesticated.
Nigeria is presently in Category C, in the Governing Council of IMO, and she would be seeking for a re-election into the prestigious body during its General Assembly at its Headquarters in London, United Kingdom, next month.
To ensure that the bill does not encounter any hitch at the National Assembly, a Lagos base lawyer, Mr. Mike Igbokwe (SAN), has been given a mandate to ensure that the bill has all the provisions to enable Nigeria successfully prosecute waterways robbers and sea pirates.
Igbokwe, who dropped the hint in Lagos in a chat with reporters, said as the consultant to the government for the preparation of the bill, its successful passage into law in the National Assembly would help Nigeria to domesticate all international conventions relating to suppression of unlawful acts against safety of marine navigation and those that are related to piracy at sea as enacted by the United Nations (UN).
He contended that Nigeria was in urgent need of a legal framework against the pirates and robbers whose activities had been on the increase in recent times.
He lamented that with the upsurge of criminal activities on the Nigerian waters, the country was now being rated as Somalia in the incidence of pirates and sea robbers.
"There has been a report of hijacking of vessels, cargo theft with violent on crews by robbers within the Nigerian territorial waters and off Nigerian waters. Some of the characteristics of these actions have been theft of crude oil. Recently, 23 sailors in Cyprus flagged ship were hijacked 63 nautical miles off Cotonou.
"Nigeria is now being categorised the same as Somalia as a result of these incidents. But the incident in Nigeria, even in the Gulf of Guinea, is not as high as that of Somalia where vessels are being hijacked for ransom. The Nigerian maritime stakeholders are worried at the increasing trend, as businesses are being interrupted especially fishing trawlers," he said.
Listing the negative effects of the criminal activities on the Nigerian waters, Igbokwe said lives and property were being lost on the daily basis, just as businesses were being truncated with delayed navigation of vessels as a result of the menace.
He said insurance premium and freight on Nigeria bound cargoes had gone up because of the risk of navigation into Nigeria. This has pushed up the country's inflation level as all these have combined to increase the cost of consumable items in the Nigerian open markets.
The country, he said, was being criticised internationally for failing to suppress the robbers and to ensure safety of navigation at sea. "The risk is enough to discourage investors which will on the long-run affect direct foreign investment and capital flow in Nigeria," he said.
He said although the Nigerian maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Navy, have put in their best to control the menace, the enabling law for prosecution of offenders was not effective, as Nigeria's Criminal Code was inadequate to effect full-blown prosecution of offenders, when caught.
"The Navy is training officers and men to acquire skills needed for quick and effective response. The joint patrol of Nigeria/Benin waters to curb pirate activities is commendable. It is a bilateral co-operation. It is the first of its kind in line with MOWCA function.
"The NIMASA, the agency statutorily charged with responsibility to prevent and check robbery and piracy, has provided the needed platforms for such joint patrol, and the agency MoU with Nigeria Navy to fight the menace are all a steps in the right direction.
"However, I am of the view that all these efforts already made by NIMASA and Nigeria Navy to prevent this menace, though highly commendable, are not enough. I want to suggest some of the ways we can take further steps in order to achieve desired result," Igbokwe said.
He said two years ago when Nigeria, in collaboration with IMO organised a workshop on piracy and armed robbery at sea, one of the recommendations that emanated from the workshop was the establishment of a legal framework to domesticate international treaties on piracy and robbery at sea.
According to him, Nigeria though party to these treaties has hitherto not made them parts of its municipal laws.
The treaties, he said, included the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea relating to piracy, Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Act against Safety of Maritime Navigation of 1988 and their protocols, especially 1988 protocol on the suppression of unlawful Act against the safety of fixed platform on the continental shelf.
The Lagos lawyer, also an author, said Nigeria was in the process of domesticating these treaties and protocols as a bill has been drafted by NIMASA, using a consultant working with IMO consultant.
The draft bill has been handed over to NIMASA, which has in turn dispatched it to all stakeholders for comments, before sending it to National Assembly for passage into law.
"Two years ago, Nigeria took a major step to domesticate these conventions and protocols by appointing a consultant and IMO consultant with a view to reviewing all Nigerian laws vis-à-vis the recommendations at the workshop to come out with a legal frame work in Nigeria against piracy and robbery at sea.
"At the end, a bill was produced, which was given to NIMASA. The Authority has also put into motion a measure to dispatch the bill to maritime stakeholders for studies and they will come up soon to a forum for their comment before sending it to the National Assembly for passage", he added.
Igbokwe enjoined members of the National Assembly to treat the proposed bill with a sense of urgency so that offenders could be prosecuted to serve as a deterrent to others before they finally destroy the image of the country.
He disclosed that if the bill is eventually passed into law when it gets to the National Assembly, offender could forfeit all his or her asset, locally and internationally if found guilty by a court.
"They will also not have a place to hide, as there is a clause that makes provision for extradition for offenders", he added.
Piracy: Nigeria, Benin, Others Unite against Common Evil
Nigeria, Republic of Benin and others have started an initiative that would curtail the activities of pirates in the West and Central Africa sub-regions, writes John Iwori, who has been following the development
Worried by the menace of sea piracy and robbery in Nigeria's territorial waters, the Federal Government has come up with a new initiative designed to tackle them headlong.
Industry watchers said the new initiative would curb piracy and other forms of violent attacks on ships and crew and provide an enduring sanity on the nation's waters. This is against the backdrop of increase cases of attacks in Nigeria's territorial waters and beyond in recent times.
Tackling a Common Problem
It was gathered that the idea to join forces to tackle the problem of piracy and robbery in the waterways emanated from the realisation that no single country can do it alone.
This is not unconnected with the fact that piracy and sea robbery have international implications as the maritime industry revolves around nationals of several countries.
According to those who know how pirates operate, one cannot effectively tame them without collaborating with other key critical stakeholders. Why will one fight a lone battle without tangible results when one can achieve more and win the battle decisively by joining forces with others who have similar set goals and objectives?
This was why the partnership with other countries was mooted and it was considered an idea worth implementing for the benefit of citizenry in the West and Central sub-regions and beyond.
Those who spoke to THISDAY said the initiative which would also bring significant improvement to the country's capabilities to effectively perform Search and Rescue (SAR) functions in Nigeria's territorial waters and beyond.
The move was anchored by Nigeria's apex maritime regulatory authority, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).
Key players in the maritime sector of the economy said this would involve a closer collaboration between the management of NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy on one hand, and the agency, the navy and other relevant neighbouring and foreign parties on the other hand.
They contended that the collaboration, which was designed to extensively enhance NIMASA's outreach so that Nigeria could easily mobilise and pursue criminals perpetuating violence against ships in Nigerian waters, as well as beyond it, in case fleeing pirates run into neighbouring territorial waters.
Already, the governments of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which was formally launched last month.
The joint patrol, to be led by Navy Commodore Muftau Bola Ajibade in the Seme and Cotonou territorial waters of Republic of Benin, was meant to curb the increasing activities of pirates and other sea criminals.
Impeccable sources told THISDAY that the development drew its strength from Presidents Boni Yayi and Goodluck Jonathan meeting in Abuja two months ago. Code named 'Operation Prosperity', the new initiative is expected to bring a new lease of life for ship owners, vessels, crew and others.
Director General of NIMASA, Mr. Ziakede Akpobolokemi, noted that the bilateral co-operation, which was the first of its kind in the West African sub-region, was totally in line with the Maritime Organisation of West and Central Africa (MOWCA)'s Coastguard Function Network Initiative (CFNI).
Akpobolokemi, who was represented at the occasion by the Executive Director, Maritime Services and Shipping Development, Dr. Ishaku Shekarau, expressed his belief that the task of "eliminating maritime threat is basically the duty of governments of the respective countries".
However, he said the most effective approach towards ensuring total security in the maritime industry would no doubt, be best achieved through genuine co-operation between private and public sectors working together to create an integrated strategy, especially a strategy which would also align regional co-operation among the nations in the sub-region.
The Charge d'Affaires of the Nigerian Embassy in Benin, Toyin Solaja, and the Defence Attache in the Nigerian Embassy, Cotonou, Colonel AMS Anyalechi, the Chief of Naval Staff of the Republic of Benin, Captain Hounsou Gbessmehlan commended Federal Government's determination and initiatives to fight piracy in Seme and Cotonou areas.
THISDAY checks revealed that the management of the agency embarked on the present frontal-attack measures, having realised that many of the pirates were no longer carrying the traditional long knives and small guns but had graduated to carrying rocket propelled grenades and other sophisticated weapons to ensure that they achieve their criminal intentions.
It was also revealing and scary that pirates in their latest mode of operation which aims at ship jacking now employs small but faster crafts to first hijack fishing vessels because it has fuel longer range, and subsequently deploy the fishing trawlers in the assault on mother ships.
A boat operator, who is privy to the modus operandi of the sea pirates, said: "They first use the fast moving small crafts to subdue a fishing vessel. Thereafter, they put their fast craft on the fishing boat, sail towards mother vessel that have come to lift crude, launch the small craft, attack the mother vessel, and tie up the crew.
"Thereafter, they get smaller vessels to siphon the oil out of the mother vessel, and once they have exhausted the crude oil or product, they let go the crew go with the ship, and begin an effort towards finding buyers for the stolen cargoes", the operator added.
Partnership that Works
There is no doubt that the collaboration between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin has turned out to be a partnership that works. It was learnt that the working of the partnership was borne out of the fact that it started well in Nigeria when NIMASA gave the idea a trial early this year.
Captain Waredi Enisuoh, who confirmed the development, lauded the determination of Akpobolokemi to rise to the challenge of tackling the challenge of sea piracy and robbery in Nigeria waterways since his appointment as the helmsman of NIMASA late last year.
He maintained that the NIMASA Director General was leaving no stones unturned, in his bid to outwit the pirates and sea robbers in the manner they operate in Nigeria's territorial waters.
"It is true, and this is what we have started to do. We have improved on our partnership with the Navy, and this partnership is working very well. Even the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has commended Nigeria, for taking this approach.
"So, we now have patrols at sea, covering the sea with a private company which has provided very fast platforms. So, we intercept them, investigate them and take necessary actions. It is an ongoing thing and that is why the piracy rate in Lagos harbour has dropped drastically.
"This is because of the partnership we have in place which include the provision of fast craft, military and civilian partnership with NIMASA. It has worked effectively and the Kenyans are already thinking of replicating it in their own country. In fact, people are buying seriously into the idea. Besides, IMO is very proud of Nigeria's initiative in this regards.
"The agency has also come up with more ways of dealing with the problem. We recognise that every drop of crude oil that comes from any oil well has its own DNA. Therefore, the oil that comes from each oil well is different from the one that comes from another.
"We have also asked the US to help us to ensure that before they procure oil from any buyer, they should first confirm the DNA certificate of each oil supply from the suppliers. There is usually a certificate of signature which must tally with the Bill of Lading that the oil is from a genuine supplier.
"With time, and by the time this measure is fully keyed into, you may no longer be able sell oil anywhere outside the country or to sell any refined petroleum products in the country, without an authenticating paper. The idea here is to be able to also go after both the buyers and the suppliers too. We believe that the most effective way to curb the menace is to go after both the buyers and the suppliers", he added.
It would be recalled that before this present initiative, there has been no fewer than 124 reported incidents of distress alerts, some of which were false alerts in respect of piracy or armed robbery attacks against ships in Nigerian waters between March 1 and September 2011.
These ranged from the attacks on the Safina 11, some 16 nautical miles from the Fairway Buoy, and Tug Zarranda of March 4, to that of September 10 at Forcados, during which an ORC Fishing vessel was attacked.
Already, there were strong indications that government's efforts may have also begun to yield tangible fruits in the area of Search and Rescue (SAR) of vessels and crew in distressed conditions, especially with the most recent incident being the MT Jacksonville, which was engulfed by fire after an explosion from its engine room.
Available records showed that though five persons were reportedly lost, out of which four bodies were immediately recovered, the timely intervention of the country led to the successful rescuing of 10 helpless sea farers. They were taken to hospital for medical treatment.
In the same vein, two men who went to deliver consumables to a vessel, five nautical miles before the Fairway Buoy last month would have perished, but for the agency's intervention.
A freight forwarder however lamented that most Nigerians were ignorant of the right numbers to call for marine rescue in times of emergency. He stressed the need for every Nigerian to memorise the telephone numbers. These are 01-7306618, and 08030685167.
He noted that it was for this reason that a politician and chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Lagos State drowned in Lagos waters, near Marina recently.
Deputy Director and NIMASA Head of Public Relations, Hajia Lami Tumaka, maintained that issues of sufficient enlightenment and awareness among the citizenry were imperative so that they know what to do whenever there is distress in the waterways.
She explained that the moves by the management of the agency, which were ongoing, would be sustained so that the steps taken to tackle the menace of sea piracy and robbery at sea in the months ahead would achieve the desired results.
She called for the support and co-operation of all stakeholders to ensure the success of the initiative driven the present management of the agency.
Not a few have opined that the current efforts to curtail the activities of sea piracy and robbery in Nigeria's waterways would make more impact if all hands are on deck to tackle the menace.
Those who spoke to THISDAY contended that if Nigeria and the Republic of Benin make a success of the collaboration to tackle the challenges posed by the activities of sea pirates and robbery in the waterways, other countries in the West and Central Africa sub-regions would not hesitate to toe the same line.
According to them, the idea of sea pirates launching an attack in one country and escaping to a neighbouring country would be a thing of the past.
However, only time would tell if the initiative would be sustained in the years ahead, as vested political and economic interests may be allowed to dictate the action or inaction of the parties involved in the joint patrol against sea piracy and robbery at sea.