Daily Trust (Abuja)

25 November 2012

Nigeria: Suspect Narrates How Illegal Arm Shipment Thrives On Waterway

Lagos — A suspect in the custody of task force gave a vivid account of how he and other gang members had been terrorizing Nigerian waterways by hijacking vessels, stealing crude oil and also trading in illegal arms.

With mien and subdued tone, Samuel Michael, a suspected member of an arm syndicate, now in the custody of task force operatives, seamlessly gave a vivid account of how his renegade group operated on the nation's waterways for many years without being apprehended.

Operating with the code name, "Logistics Officer", Michael is one of the arrested suspects helping the task force to unravel how a syndicate that specializes in trafficking of arms and hijacking of Nigeria-bound cargoes through a hired vessel known as MV NAOMI CORLET operated.

The said vessel according to the suspect was often hired in Cameroon under the guise of wanting to use it for legitimate businesses. He noted that the rentage period last for six months so its usage could be maximized for piracy and other syndicate's escapades.

"I am not the one in charge of the vessel eventhough I know how we used to hire it in Cameroon. There is a guy we call Charles. He is the one in charge of vessel rentage. We know he is quite influential and we also know him to be well connected with politicians and lawyers. He is still on the run," Michael said.

Michael further narrated that the hired vessel often took off from Calabar where they normally converged and strategised before heading to Badagry where they had already put in place an illegal depot for weapon storage.

"It is through Badagry that illegal arms enter Nigeria. We off loaded our cache of arms at Badagry and returns to the waterway for further hijacking operations. There are other locations across the country where arms are kept. What I am saying in essence is that only about 20 percent of the illegal arms entering Nigeria through the waterways stay in Lagos. The rest are spread at other different locations in the country, especially, the Niger-Delta region," Michael said.

According to the suspect, "I haven't participated much in the hijacking operations except on four occasions with each of the operations fetching me good sums of money. We were on our way to yet another operation in Cotonou, Benin Republic on October 13 2012 when we were arrested. We wanted to hijack a vessel carrying AGO on the high seas before we were intercepted by operatives of the task force and that was how three of us were arrested."

A highly-placed source in the task force who confirmed the development said Michael and two other gang members were arrested when MV NAOMI CORLET which was being used for the illegal operation developed mechanical faults on the waterway and was forced to a halt. In a desperate attempt to free themselves from the problem, the gang members were said to have contacted a man who could help them rectify the fault and make the vessel functional again.

But when the supposed engineer came and along the line discovered certain incriminating substances in the vessel, he tactically beat a retreat and excused himself to go and get required tools that could be used to repair the ship. And it was after his escape he was said to have contacted operatives of the task force.

"They had actually contacted someone to fix the vessel problem for them. It was learnt that when the person saw traces of hard drug in the vessel, he became suspicious given the fact that the gang was at first reluctant in allowing him into the vessel. They must have allowed him because they badly needed his service at the time. Having seen traces of cocaine and other hard drug substances in the vessel, the engineer kept quiet and wanted to do his job and leave as fast as he could.

"He however became more apprehensive when he stumbled on some bullets and cartridges. His worry grew from the fact that if after he might have successfully repaired the vessel, the gangsters might kill him and throw his body in the sea. Thus, he pretended as if all is well and decided to play along," the source narrated.

The engineer was said to have tricked Michael and his colleagues that the vessel's problem has to do with some faulty bolts in the engine hence it couldn't function optimally. He suggested to them to let him make a quick visit to his shop in Apapa to bring in certain components that would be needed to repair the engine and replace the bolts.

That strategy seemed to have worked on the gang members as they had no option but to cave into the man's request. It was an acceptance that eventually became an albatross for them.

"The excuse he gave the gangsters worked like magic. It became an opportunity the man himself had been waiting for. And as a good citizen, he didn't keep the development to himself. By the time he got to Apapa he contacted somebody who subsequently gave us the tip-off," the source added.

Michael confirmed that it never dawned on them that the engineer tricked them until when they discovered through their monitor that the task force operatives were closing in on them. He said in an apparent attempt to make sure they cleans their mess before the law enforcement agents reached them; they resorted to throwing certain implicating goods from the vessel into the sea.

"It never dawned on us that the engineer was playing us when he asked to be allowed to go to Apapa to get instruments that will be used to repair the faulty engine. Though we observed that his return was taking longer than necessary, yet we were eagerly waiting for him. But suddenly from nowhere we discovered through our monitor that we were being enclosed by task force operatives. And because we were quite apprehensive, we had to start throwing into the sea some cache of arms and ammunitions. We knew we would be arrested but we just wanted to clear ourselves of any incriminating materials that could be used against us," Michael said.

The suspect said they were however unable to offload all the incriminating items before they were eventually rounded up as the operatives were still able to find some ammunitions and gallons of petrol aboard the vessel.

The task force confirmed to Sunday Trust that apart from the kingpin named Charles and one Ademola, other accomplices being looked out for include Ebere, I.K and Abedo, all of whom the suspects had claimed not to know their surnames.

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