Chiemelie Ezeobi spent one week on-board NNS THUNDER and writes on the measures adopted by the navy to tackle increasing incidents of crude oil theft and piracy in the Niger Delta region
Although the discovery of crude oil in the Niger Delta region has led to immense wealth creation for the natio, it has equally left the Niger-Delta region in the shackles of increasing criminalities ranging from crude oil theft, sea robbery, piracy and oil bunkering.
Without doubt, the Niger Delta region is touted to be the driver of the Nigerian economy as it contributes about 80 per cent of the nation's foreign exchange earnings with the millions of barrels of oil derived from its rich soil.
However, for a region that comprises of about 90 per cent of Nigeria's maritime environment, the area has been bedeviled with criminalities including crude oil theft, illegal bunkering, smuggling, pipeline vandalisation and piracy.
With the huge revenue derived from the region's rich crude oil, these criminalities no doubt portend grave dangers for the nation's economy. According to statistics, in 2000 alone, over 200, 000 to 300, 000 barrels of crude were stolen per day.
This statistics were further backed by a study from the International Centre of Reconciliation which puts the total value of stolen crude oil and disrupted oil production between 2003 and 2008 at approximately N14 trillion.
However, despite checks put in place, the trend seems to be on the increase as backed by further reports and statistics. In 2011, Nigerian recorded about $7billion loss to crude oil theft, a clear but whooping difference from the value of crude oil lost between 2003 and 2008.
Accordingly, the Nigerian Navy (NN), has declared war on oil bunkering, sea robbery, piracy and other criminal activities that take place within the maritime domain of the nation's waterways.
To tackle this menace headlong, Operation Farauta was born in line with the operational mandate from President Goodluck Jonathan to the echelons of the NN under the leadership of the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Dele Ezeoba.
Farauta which means hunting in Hausa was set up to tackle the malaise of crude oil theft, illegal bunkering, piracy and sea robbery especially in the Niger Delta region especially the Bonny-Akassa-Escravos axis, an area said to be notorious for crude oil theft.
While the main aim of the exercise was to intensify the ongoing naval operations in the Niger Delta region, it also served as an avenue for a major fleet evaluation of the naval platforms involved in the exercise.
Deployed for the seven days exercise were a total of eight ships, six gun boats and three helicopters including elements of the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Air Force's (NAFs) Maritime Patrol Aircraft (ATR4) with its surveillance radar which has the capacity of triple coverage of the entire exercise area within hours.
The ships involved in the exercise were Nigerian Naval Ships (NNS) Thunder, NNS Zaria, NNSAndoni, NNS Makurdi, NNSBurutu, NNS Obula, NNS Nwamba and NNS Kyanwa. Others are; Augusta Helicopter 07, Augusta Helicopter 08, Augusta Helicopter 09, one Nigerian Air Force Maritime Patrol Aircraft (ATR4).
While NNS Nwamba, NNS Andoni and NNS Makurdi sailed to the exercise area from Lagos under the command of the Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Western Naval Command (WNC), Rear Admiral AmeenIkioda.
NNS Thunder which was captained by its Commanding Officer, Captain AdeseyeAyobanjo, NNS Burutu and NNS Kyanwa cast off from Onne Port in Port Harcourt, while NNS Zaria and NNS Obula came in from Warri under the commands of the FOCs Eastern and Central Naval Command; Rear Admiral's Ogunjimi and Johnson Olutoyinrespectively, who also doubled as the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC).
Whilst the operation lasted, it would be safe to say that the echelons of the naval headquarters relocated to their natural habitat; the sea. Gone were the white and sparkling uniforms which were replaced with the operational blue uniform and the combat.
During the de-briefing, the Above Water Warfare Officer, Captain SID Jibril, noted that the exercise proper would begin at the Gulf of Guinea where all ships committed to the exercise would rendezvous at the exercise area acting as one tactical unit under the officer in charge.
At a point, the exercise fleet turned 270 degrees in line abreast of each other as a result of the directive to form a tactical manoeuver of the different platforms. Asides the tactical manoeuvering, the different platforms also carried out gunnery exercises as well as communication exchange.
With the deployment of the platforms and the air crafts, its aim was to demonstrate to maritime stakeholders as well as perpetuators of criminalities on the waterways that it is no longer business as usual.
During the course of the exercise, the joint patrol paid off with the several arrests made by the platforms of the NN. At the Alpha 3 port area of the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Brass, the NN flagship, NNS Thunder first arrested a Russian ship, Androussa.
After an inflatable boat on board Thunder was sent to investigate the ship with about eight personnel of the NN onboard, the ship and its crew were arrested.The 27-inch Zodiac Hurricane Motor Whaler boat, was again deployed on the third day when another ship; the MT Arcadia Hellas, was sighted. The ships and its crews were arrested andtaken to the Forward Operation Base (FOB), Bonny, for further investigation.
According to the Director of Information, Navy Headquarters, Commodore KabirAliyu, the ship was arrested for improper documentation of the petroleum products that were on board.
While declaring that the era of sea blindness was over, the CNS, said about 85 per cent was recorded in the exercise. According to him, the interception of 17 ships and the arrest of two of such shipshave sent signals that it is no longer business as usual.
He said, "Some of the arrested ships had crude oil on board without relevant documentations which we need to verify the authenticity of products.Most of the ships did not comply with the rules and regulations guiding the way they should operate on our waters.
"Some of them carried crude oil well in excess of the approved amount by DPR while others were without documentation. We are still going to conduct a thorough investigation on the defaulters.
On the secondary aim of the exercise which is fleet evaluation, he said, the evaluation process would help measure the operational state of readiness with regards to fleet availability and operational capacity to do the needful which is important in these critical times to contain illegal bunkering, oil theft and piracy in our waters.
Ezeoba said the exercise area (Bonny-Akassa-Escravos), was chosen especially the region of Bonga which in itself is a core national asset because it produces about 200 barrels of crude oil per day, which translates to a huge sum of money in dollar terms.
To this end, he said if the platforms (SPSO) are not secured, it will be a serious threat to national security. He said, "By and large, being by the Bonga itself was a major deterrent to criminals and it emplaced a lot of confidence building measure for the personnel that operate on that platform, in addition to the major operators which of course is between Shell Nigeria and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
"It is important to reaffirm that the strong presence at the sea of the NN is germane to our operational efficacy. So we will continue to do the needful provided the government provides the enabler that would help us maintain the tempo at sea and which is what is important if we want to win the war against sea pirates, crude oil thieves and illegal bunker's and that is the focus of this watch."
Although he noted that it might be too early to put a figure on the cost implication of the exercise, he however said that based on the estimate and what was spent in real terms, about N600millionwas used to put the ship at sea for seven days and this includes personnel cost, petroleum products and lubricants (pol), spare parts and other logistics.
He added, "Its huge but if we want to continue to remain at sea, then we must be adequately funded to fulfill this obligation and that is the only way we can work on water and to do this, we must have the requisite logistics otherwise, we won't make remarkable progress."
On the measures put in place to sustain and consolidate the fight against illegalities, he said the navy will continue to take strategic actions that would sustain its presence at sea.
Currently, he said the navy has in the offing the acquisition of two new OPVs and would come into the country in the next 18 months, adding that although the time frame was far, some measure of effort to fill the gap is in place for possible off the shelf acquisitions that would help the navy meet its operational capabilities.
On what is to be expected as the aftermath of the exercise he said during the exercise it was discovered that there was a hitch in real time transfer of data from the ATR4 helicopter to the ships put at sea, efforts are now in gear to domesticate the capability of the ground support equipment on board the ship and ashore so that whatever data captured will be disseminated in real time.
He however took exception to claims that the military are involved in the crude oil theft. He said, "In every given environment, there are bad eggs, but it shouldn't be ascribed to the entire organisation.We must understand the enormity of the sacrifice the men of the armed forces have gone through, some have paid with their lives in the fight against illegalities."
Also, NN Chief of Training and Operation (CTOP), Naval Headquarters, Rear Admiral Emmanuel Ogbor, said the exercise was to enable the NN to assess its operational capability with a view to identifying gaps and taking necessary measures to fill such gaps for enhanced operational readiness.
He said, "The synergy of this effort will ensure full mission accomplishment across the threat spectrum with specific emphasis on immediately ending all criminal activities in the Niger Delta region."
Speaking on the role of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), Command Operations Officer, Mobility Command of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), Yenogoa, Bayelsa, Air Commodore Joseph Adeleke, said the responsibility of NAF was purely surveillance-inclined.
He said, "Our job was to carry out surveillance and give the navy feedback. We give them grid reference on the location of ships and then they will deploy their ships to that particular location."
Also speaking, Commander, 2 Brigade Port Harcourt and Commander Sector 2 of the Joint Task Force (JTF), Brig-Gen. TukurBuratai, said they were geared to assault any illegality.
He said, "We were on board the ship as standby troops in case of any emergency. Per adventure we were required to, we would have assaulted any illegal refinery or any criminal hideout discovered during the operation."