The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) in collaboration with the Joint Task Force (JTF) have been on the offensive to curtail the activities of sea pirates and other criminals in Nigeria's territorial waters, write Chinazor Megbolu and Chukwuka Onwubu
The Joint Task Force (JTF) attached to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) has gone on the offensive against pirates and vessel hijackers that have turned the nation's high seas to a nightmare for oil vessels.
It was gathered that the taskforce attached to the agency have recorded several arrests of suspected pirates.
In a space of one month the NIMASA Joint Task force has not only made a haul of arrests, it has also unravelled the mystery surrounding the operations of the daredevil pirates and hijackers that have turned the Gulf of Guinea of the West Coast of Africa to a nightmare for oil vessels in recent times.
The JTF, comprising a combined team of the Nigerian Navy (NN), Nigerian Army (NA), officials of NIMASA and Global West Vessel Specialist Limited (GWVSL), a privately owned firm, arrested some suspects said to have masterminded the attack and seizure of MT Energy Centurion, a Greek operated oil tanker on August 28, 2012, 17 miles off the shoreline of the Togolese capital, Lome, where it had anchored.
The pirates were said to have stolen about 3,000 of 56,000 tonnes of gas oil carried by the vessel and robbed the crew of 23 Russians of their jewelry and money.
As reports of the attack and hijack filtered in, NIMASA Head of Public Relations, Hajia Lami Tumaka, said the agency informed the Nigeria Navy. According to Tumaka, who is a Deputy Director, the JTF, backed by the Air Force, swiftly moved in to rescue the vessel after about six hours of fierce chase after the pirates.
The task force consequently launched frantic investigation into the incident, spreading its drag net across the country. The outcome of the investigation was revealing. With ease, many of them, including leading leaders of the sea bandits and oil vessel hijackers, were arrested. These include Mr. Numbers Blessing, who described himself as Commander of ship hijackers in Nigeria.
Like many of the others now in detention undergoing further interrogation, Blessing, an indigene of Gbaramatu, Delta State, was arrested in a Lagos hotel in company of some of his other gang members planning another attack on a vessel in Cotonou, Benin Republic. The mafia leader who has admitted in a confessional statement to JTF that he led the attack on MT Energy Centurion, also revealed in an exclusive interview with THISDAY at his detention camp in Lagos that he got a share of N10 million from the operation.
The hijack and theft of the vessel's oil cargo like others in the past, he said, was sponsored by some powerful Nigerians he declined to name, stating that their sponsors were in the business for financial gains. He described the business of ship hijacking as highly lucrative, explaining that there were about 1, 250 trained pirates in the country today.
Mode of Operations
He similarly put the arms, which he described as high-calibre military weapons of various degrees available to them across the country, at about 3, 000.
On their operational modalities, Blessing, who claimed to have been born in 1985, said: "Once there is a ship to be hijacked, our sponsors get across to us through their point men. We then move to get the details about the vessel from the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, NNPC and then seek support from relevant security agencies. We operate on an agreed fee and between 70 and 80 percent of the fee is paid before we embark on the operation and the balance is paid immediately after the operation.
"Once we complete the assignment, we inform the point men, who immediately get in touch with another group also working for the sponsors to take charge of the hijacked vessel, get the oil off loaded into another vessel to deposit it in various oil storage facilities for distribution and sale to oil marketers and merchants. We do not engage in the sale of oil products. However, we assist at times to monitor it through arms support.
"I can't remember the number of killings we have done since we have been in this business. It is always like we are at war when we are in operation. I am not rich but I am comfortable. Those who are rich and are really making money from the business are the sponsors. They are the beneficiaries and they are highly placed. To successfully fight oil theft in Nigeria, you have to start from the topmost government level, the NNPC, SSS, the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and other top players in the oil industry. There can be no successful vessel hijacking in West Africa or Africa as a whole without inputs from Nigeria oil mafia, including top government functionaries.
"For any successful major sea crime, Lagos plays a major role. Build up meetings to the operations are held in Lagos, lodgments of huge sums for operations are made here. It serves as hide-outs for criminal elements. It is used as a launch pad for operations and for movement of arms, being encircled by water. Money from oil theft and hijacking go far and round. We have our pallies in the top echelon of relevant security organisations.
"For every impending operation, huge sums are set aside for relevant security services. That is why you hardly see any meaningful thing coming out of the fight against pirates and vessel hijacking. Once you arrest and hand over to security agents, it ends there. We were planning another one on a vessel in Cotonou when we were arrested in a Lagos hotel. One of the top players in the oil industry contacted us for that job, we agreed to execute that job for N16 million."
Blessing's identification and consequent arrest was aided by the security camera on board MT Centunium, and calls made by the bandits while the operation lasted on board the vessel were comprehensively recorded. They had been sent to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Malaysia, which mailed them to the JTF to aid investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack.
Others arrested over the same operation with Blessing were Sola Sama also known as Michael Babalola or Père John, from Sagbama Local Government Area of Bayelsa State and Captain Mike. Still at large are Ateke, Jonathan, Tari, Ebere, Solo, Ogene and Abedi.
Sama, 27, who told security agents that he was recruited to become a pirate by Blessing, Ateke Bright, Ogene and Abedi, further told the operatives that Ateke from Balabri in Bayelsa State, Blessing and Ogene had always provided them with arms for operations. Abedi, who from time to time lead the gang along with Blessing, also said, he arranges buyers for stolen oil products after operations.
Sama also claimed to be an engineer by profession and holds a masters degree in transport management after a stint at the Maritime Academy, Accra, Ghana and the Nigeria Institute of Oceanography, Lagos. He stated that he was invited to Lagos by Captain Mike, who had already concluded arrangement for their next operation before he was arrested at a hotel he put up in FESTAC in company of prostitutes.
He identified MV Ejenavi currently being detained at the RMRCC jetty in Apapa, Lagos and confirmed that they had used it severally to carry out attacks on oil tankers offshore. According to him, it took them three days to arrive the position of MT Energy Centunium to hijack her and got the products pumped into the buyer's vessel at gun point. Sama similarly gave the indication that he had had several meetings in the past at two Lagos hotels in FESTAC with some alleged chief sponsors of pirate attacks on vessels, including Captain Mike, Nicholas Okotie, Tari, Jonathan, Abedi, Segun and Solo.
He explained that Jonathan provides them with money to buy food stuffs during operations; Captain Mike provides vessels for operations, Tari, guns and ammunition while Ebere and Solo buy the stolen products from hijacked vessels, describing them along with Blessing and Ateke as the main actors in the nefarious field.
Sama said he got N2.7 million from the attack on MT Energy Centunium and was still owed N500,000.00 to balance his total share. After his arrest, he had lured Captain Mike on phone to the waiting hands of security operatives for arrest. The confessions of Mike on the other hand have so far led to the apprehension of two other actors in the organised crime of sea banditry.
No fewer than 36 foreign vessels have so far fallen victims of the daredevil pirates this year alone. There is no doubt that the fight against pirates on Nigerian waters has assumed an alarming proportion and inflicted a lot of damage on the citizenry and the economy in particular.
The first major breakthrough for the JTF and the agency came recently after the hijacking and diversion of MT Anuket Emerald and the draining of her cargo. A vessel named MV Ejenavi owned by Eagle Maritime, which has Captain Nicholas Okotie as Managing Director with a crew of about 16 armed pirates, had carried out the attack on the foreign ship.
It was learnt that the pirates allegedly drained the vessel of its oil cargo into another vessel, MT Grace reportedly belonging to Akoto Ventures. MT Grace consequently moved to Lagos to deposit the stolen oil in some tank farms in Apapa for distribution and sale. MT Grace is presently in the custody of security operatives.
A report of the incident by International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Piracy Reporting Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, had revealed the incident to have happened to the oil/chemical tanker carrying a Panama flag and laden with a total cargo of 3'450.443 metric tonnes on August 18, 2012 close to the port of Lome, Togo. The pirates, who spoke French but were recognised to be Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Togolese nationals, were said to have repeatedly attacked the ship for five days.
The pirates, who carried the attack with sophisticated weapons including 16-20 sub machines, machine guns and AK47 rifles, caused extensive damage to the ship. This made it possible for the pirates to board the ship with an extended ladder. However, the 17 crew members, including one technician of the hijacked vessel were not injured. Nevertheless, the crew comprising three Russians, 12 Filippinos, one Ukrainian, one Latvian and a Lithuanian were traumatised by the incident.
Investigations later led security agents to the sleepy coastal town of Igbokoda, Ondo State. This led to the arrest of some of the notorious pirates allegedly involved in the MT Emerald hijack. The town was also found to accommodate a training camp for pirate recruits.
A notorious leader of the sea robbers, who gave his name as Wazobia, was arrested in the area during the raid. From his confessions, he turned out to be one of the kingpins of Nigeria's sea hijacking syndicate, only junior perhaps to Blessing and Ateke. His arrest, security sources said, was made after about 35 minutes of a heated gun duel between security operatives and the highly armed men of the syndicate.
The Igbokoda pirates training camp was found to have a provision for shooting range where recruits were trained in martial arts and shooting. No fewer than 13 suspects were apprehended in the camp after some stiff resistance., THISDAY learnt
Recovered from them were 16 sophisticated weapons, comprising a small machine gun, three ML rifles, one axe, 10 AK magazines, three ML magazines, 574 rounds of 7.62mm, 44 live cartridges, three walkie-talkies, three AK-47 riffles, explosive devices, long range high caliber weapons, about 10,000 pieces of ammunition of all sorts, some other dangerous weapons and an operational map. The map gave the indication that the pirates were set for another assault on a vessel on the high seas before they were apprehended by security operatives.
Wazobia later opened up and like Blessing, blamed his activities on top government officials, including NNPC top brass, oil marketers and three traditional rulers in the South West, who he claimed were the sponsors and beneficiaries of stolen oil from hijacked vessels. They specifically identified three major oil storage facilities, including the ones belonging to Integrated Oil and Gas Limited, Ibafo, Apapa, Lagos as part of those who allegedly received stolen oil from them for sale and distribution.
This prompted security agents to swoop on the facilities of the company, sealed and some of its directors and top management staff arrested for questioning. Others are now under intensive surveillance as most of their top management staff have either gone underground or fled the country. But Olugbemiga Moses Olagoke, Managing Director, PVR Ventures, an oil services and marketing firm, Aja, Lagos, was not so lucky.
Formerly known as Olugbemiga Moses Fabunmi until recently when he changed his name in a sworn affidavit, the 45-year old Oyo State-born now in detention after his arrest, was formerly declared wanted after several visits to his company and residence without his trace over the incident. He has since made useful statements to security agents, confirming that he bought the AGO stolen from the ship after he was allegedly contacted by a woman, Chinwe Agaga, Managing Director, AEGIS Energy Limited.
According to him, the woman had called him to say there was oil business involving about 3,000 metric tonnes. He said he later discussed the deal with Capital Oil and Gas Industries Limited, who expressed interest after arranging with Akoto Ventures to ship down the cargo. Upon the delivery of the cargo, Olagoke said payment was made in installments. He revealed that a down payment of N50 million was made as first installment.
He stated that the payments, which were made to a Zenith Bank Plc account by him were concluded within 24 hours in the sums of N150 million, N5 million, N20 million, N80 million, N120 million, N40 million, N40 million, N60 million and N6 million as the oil was being delivered. Akoto Ventures, he said, collected a demurrage of N33.5 million on the cargo.
One of the traditional rulers, who owned a huge oil storage facility and was fingered to be involved, reportedly relocated to a hideout in Abuja from where he tried desperately to get the attention of top government officials to prevail on NIMASA and security agents to halt action in the matter. Along with his son, who is also strongly believed to have fled the country to the Republic of Benin, the hijackers were allegedly supplying them with arms and receiving stolen oil from hijacked ships.
Specifically, the suspects claimed that the traditional ruler's oil facility served as a major depot where a lot of stolen oil are kept. The detainees also pointed out to the security agents investigating the matter that the traditional ruler's son did not only physically supervised the movement of the stolen oil to the depot but was directly involved in its sale and distribution.
According to the suspects, the prince sold and distributed about 7,500 metric tonnes of the stolen oil from the vessel shortly before their arrest.
It was gathered that NN has continued to give firm support to NIMASA in the current crusade. Director of Naval Information, Navy Commodore Kabir Aliyu who confirmed the arrest of the suspects said investigations on the matter is in top gear. Aliyu disclosed that a cache of arms and ammunition were recovered from the suspects, even as he assured that everything will be done to get to the root of it all and bring all those involved to book.
Power to Prosecute
In spite of all the successes recorded, members of the NIMASA JTF were said not to be pleased with the role being played by some of the security agencies. After arrests are made and preliminary investigations are concluded, the suspects are turned over to the SSS to wrap up the matter and hand them over to relevant agencies for prosecution. Nevertheless, it was learnt that in most cases, such suspects are said to be released under suspicious circumstances to leave investigation permanently stalled.
NIMASA and the JTF were said to have complained to the President. They alleged that as a result of the handing over these suspects to other security agencies for prosecution, most suspects are often left the hook. They specifically pointed out a particular suspect has been re-arrested thrice in the recent time after he was arrested and handed over to the SSS on each occasion. Following the complaint, President Jonathan is said to have demanded that a full list of all arrested suspects is compiled and forwarded to his office.
The JTF attached to NIMASA stressed the need for these suspects to be further investigated by the SSS and the anti-crime unit of the Police. It also expressed the need for the suspects to be prosecuted in a court of competent jurisdiction and convicted to serve as deterrence to others involved in sea piracy and crude oil stealing in Nigeria's territorial waters. It is not yet clear whether the Presidency which is already tinkering with the idea of giving NIMASA the power to prosecute anyone caught in connection with sea piracy and crude oil stealing in Nigeria's territorial waters may concretise the idea before the issue get out of hand.
This is not unconnected with the fact that the loss and the danger posed by sea pirates and oil thieves cannot be quantified in naira and kobo. To say the least, prompt prosecution of suspects, not mere arrests, is germane to the fight against piracy and crude oil stealing. It is the only way to show that the Federal Government is serious in the fight against corruption which has retarded Nigeria's sustainable development over the years.