Apart from the Boko Haram insurgency in the northern part of the country, perhaps, the next major challenge facing Nigeria currently is the theft of crude in the Niger-Delta region.
The Nigerian Navy, in an attempt to address the menace of crude oil theft, illegal oil bunkering, piracy and other crimes in the region, launched a week-long tactical operation to send warning signals to perpetrators of these acts that it is no longer business as usual.
The Naval Headquarters was technically relocated to the Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) THUNDER, with the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Adm. Dele Ezeoba, and the top echelon of the navy aboard, for the sea exercise code-named Farauta.
The sea exercise took place in the Bight of Benin and the Gulf of Guinea from Nov. 11 to Nov. 17.
"The idea was to send a signal to crude oil thieves and pirates that it was no longer business as usual. With the massive deployment of eight ships, six gun boats, these criminals saw that they don't have any other choice than to leave our waters," Ezeoba said.
Gunshots were fired sporadically by the eight warships involved in the exercise to inform the sea criminals of the navy's presence.
Analysts note that the naval exercise in the Niger Delta region is apt, considering the fact that the area is the economic nerve centre of the nation.
This is because the area, which constitutes about 90 per cent of Nigeria's maritime environment, also generates about 80 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings, some of the analysts note.
Unfortunately, the region is home to illegal activities such as crude oil theft, illegal oil bunkering, piracy, smuggling and oil pipeline vandalism.
Therefore, there is no gainsaying the fact that these criminal activities within the coastal and offshore areas of the Niger Delta region have become a source of serious concern to the government.
Perceptive observers estimate that since 2000, there has been a daily theft of between 200,000 and 300,000 barrels of crude oil and a study commissioned by the International Centre of Reconciliation found that Nigeria lost about N14 trillion to crude oil theft and disruptions in oil production between 2003 and 2008.
Besides, a recent report by the International Energy Agency said that Nigeria was losing about seven billion U.S. dollars (about N1.05 trillion) to oil theft every year.
The report added that oil theft and sabotage often led to oil pipeline vandalism, causing oil firms to cut output.
Also, there is a growing concern about the emerging threat of transnational terrorism in the Niger Delta region and its possible impact on maritime economic activities.
Irked by these illegal activities, President Goodluck Jonathan, during the swearing in of new service chiefs on Oct. 8, directed the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Adm. Ezeoba, to ensure that the Nigerian Navy put an immediate stop to these illegalities.
"I will like to use this forum to specially charge you to erase the many security challenges confronting our nation today.
"More specifically, the Chief of Naval Staff, along with his officers and men, has the honorable responsibility of improving security in our territorial waters.
"The unacceptable rising incidents of crude theft must be tackled frontally because of the adverse implications of crude oil theft on our national economy.
"I expect the Chief of Naval Staff and other service chiefs to immediately go to work and urgently bring the issue of crude oil theft to an end," Jonathan stressed.
In line with the president's directive, Ezeoba swung into action by organising the week-long joint maritime exercise to evaluate the operational effectiveness of the navy's fleet.
Farauta was also aimed at intensifying ongoing naval operations against criminal activities in the Niger-Delta region with a particular emphasis on Bonny-Akassa-Escravos axis, the area notorious for crude oil theft.
Eight ships -- NNS Thunder, NNS Kyanwa, NNS Nwamba, NNS Obula, NNS Burutu, NNS Zaria, NNS Makurdi and NNS Andoni -- six gun boats and three helicopters, as well as units of the Nigerian Army and a maritime patrol aircraft of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) participated in the exercise.
At the beginning of the exercise, three ships, NNS Nwamba, NNS Andoni and NNS Makurdi, sailed from the Apapa Naval Base in Lagos, while NNS Thunder, NNS Kyanwa, NNS Burutu sailed from Onne, near Port Harcourt.
Two other ships, NNS Zaria and NNS Obula, sailed from Warri to join the fleet selected for the exercise.
The deployment of ships, gun boats, helicopters, army troops and the NAF's maritime patrol aircraft was particularly meant to send strong warning signals to the perpetrators of illegal activities in the nation's territorial waters.
During Farauta, 17 vessels were intercepted on suspicion of perpetrating illegal activities near Bonny and Bonga oil platforms in the Niger-Delta region.
Of the 17 vessels, two ships -- M.V. Androusa and M.V. Arcadia Hellas -- were found culpable because they were unable to give satisfactory explanations about their cargo.
One of the vessels had crude oil in excess of the authorised quantity, while the other ship did not have any documentation for its crude cargo at all.
Rear Adm. Emmanuel Ogbor, the Officer in Charge of the Exercise (OCE), said that the exercise was partly aimed at evaluating the navy's ships to gauge their combat readiness to safeguard the country's territorial waters.
Ogbor, who is also the Chief of Training and Operations at the Naval Headquarters, said that during the exercise, task unit commanders carried out maneuvres, intercepted, boarded and searched suspicious vessels.
He said that some army units were involved in Farauta, just in case an assault on a location became necessary, while the Air Force's maritime patrol capability was employed to report suspicious vessels to the navy.
"The aim was to carry out President Goodluck Jonathan's directive to ensure that the nation's waters were safe and protected from illegal activities such as crude oil theft, piracy, illegal oil bunkering.
"The Chief of Naval Staff has just assumed office and he wanted to see how the ships could perform; he also wanted to ensure that all navy personnel return to their natural habitat, which is the sea," he said.
Assessing the success of the exercise, Ezeoba, who took part in the exercise for four days on board NNS THUNDER, stressed that the navy had the capability of securing the country's territorial waters if adequately funded.
He said that the navy would like to remain at sea as much as possible, adding, however, that this would require a lot of logistics support.
Ezeoba said that the navy should remain at sea as far as possible to enable it to effectively accomplish Jonathan's directive to stamp out illegal maritime activities in the Niger Delta region,
"If we have to continue to remain at sea; then, we must be adequately funded to enable us to meet these obligations; that is the only way because you can't walk on water.
"And for us to be able to do what is important out at sea, we must have the requisite logistics to support the initiative; otherwise, we can't have remarkable progress.
"We are moving forward; we will get the support we need from government because we are ready, willing and able," he said.
The naval chief said that based on the pre-exercise estimates and what the navy had spent in real terms, putting eight ships at sea for the seven-day exercise was a capital intensive venture.
"The amount is huge but policing territorial waters is a capital intensive endeavour and we have the human resources required. A lot of people do not realise that the wealth of this nation, in all ramifications, depends on the sea.
"We must understand the importance of keeping this sea lane of commerce secure and open, as the totality of imports that comes into the country and the entire West African sub-region comes from the sea," Ezeoba said.
Commenting on Farauta, Rear Adm. Johnson Olutoyin, the Flag Officer Commanding Central Naval Command, said: "With our presence at sea in the last few days, the criminals have not been able to carry out their activities."
Observers note that the exercise has been able to convey the message that if the navy is adequately funded and given enough platforms to operate, it will be able to perform its constitutional duty of safeguarding the nation's territorial waters maximally.
They note that Exercise Farauta was, no doubt, an innovative and feasible strategy employed by the new naval chief to stamp out criminal activities, especially crude oil theft, from Nigerian waters.
"In a more pragmatic way, the navy is now playing its constitutional role in efforts to safeguard and bolster the country's economic growth," some of the observers add.