In January this year when Nigeria was rated number one in pirates attack in the Gulf of Guinea by the International Maritime bureau (IMB), Nigeria stepped up its fight against pirates, a move that yielding the desired results, albeit temporarily.
A few weeks after the report, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) handed over 10 pirates arrested by the Nigerian Navy for prosecution.
The 10 pirates had on May 15 attacked and boarded a Chinese vessel, MV HAILUFANG II, off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire and directed it towards Nigerian waters. They were arrested by the Nigerian Navy, which dispatched a ship to intercept the vessel after it got an alert.
The prosecution of the pirates would be the first trial of bandits arrested in international waters under the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act signed into law in June last year by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The law made Nigeria the first in West and Central Africa to have a distinct antipiracy legislation.
Speaking at the occasion, the Director-General of NIMASA, Dr. Bashir Jamoh, attributed the successful operation that led to the arrest of the pirates and rescue of the ship and its crew to collaboration between NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy.
He said the agency would continue to work with relevant security agencies in order to achieve its goal of eradicating piracy and all forms of illegality on the Nigerian waters.
“We have just witnessed the hand-over of pirates. This is as a result of the robust collaboration between NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy. There has been a lot of synergy between NIMASA and the Navy with regard to the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act.
“I also want to seize the opportunity to thank Mr. President for signing the anti-piracy law, which would facilitate sufficient prosecution of these pirates.”
Jamoh, who was represented by the agency’s Head of Legal Services, Mr. Victor Egejuru, assured stakeholders that with the anti-piracy law, there was ample legal framework to prosecute pirates and other perpetrators of maritime offences in the country to bring the menace to the barest minimum.
Commander of Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Beecroft, Commodore Ibrahim Shettima, who gave details of the naval operation, said the vessel had 18 crewmembers comprising Chinese, Ghanaians, and Ivorians.
Shettima said: “On interception of the vessel about 140nm south of Lagos Fairway Buoy, the pirates had refused to comply with the orders of the Navy ship, hence the Nigerian Navy had to conduct an opposed boarding of the vessel. All ship crew were safely rescued, while the 10 pirates were also arrested.”
He stressed the need for increased regional cooperation and information sharing, disclosing that the arrest of the pirates was due to a tip-off by the Beninoise Navy. Shettima warned criminal elements to stay away from Nigerian waters and the Gulf of Guinea, saying the Navy has the capability to deal with such threats.
Jamoh has said the current management of NIMASA will focus on three main areas, namely, Maritime Security, Safety, and Shipping Development, in pursuit of a robust maritime domain for the country.
Pirates attack increase
However, despite the relentless war against piracy and maritime crimes by Nigeria and countries in the Gulf of Guinea, last week’s report by the IMB has revealed a 40 per cent increase in the number of kidnappings reported in the Gulf of Guinea in the first nine months of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
Three weeks ago, Jamoh had disclosed that the agency’s investigation had revealed that Somali pirates were now active in Nigerian waters and the Gulf of Guinea.
The latest report by the IMB showed that the pirates armed with guns and knives had abducted bigger groups of seafarers off the West African coast.
The IMB said there have been 132 attacks reported since the beginning of 2020, up from 119 incidents in the same period last year.
It added: “Of the 85 seafarers kidnapped from their vessels and held for ransom, 80 were taken in the Gulf of Guinea, in 14 attacks reported off Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Ghana. By the end of the third quarter (Q3), seafarers reported 134 cases of assault, injury, and threats, including 85 crewmembers being kidnapped, and 31 held hostage onboard their ships. A total of 112 vessels were boarded, and six were fired upon, while 12 reported attempted attacks.”
IMB warned that pirate gangs in the area are well organised and targeting all vessel types over a wide range.
It added that the furthest attack from shore also involved the most crew kidnapped from a single vessel in 2020.
“On 17 July 2020, eight pirates armed with machine guns boarded a product tanker underway around 196 nautical miles southwest of Bayelsa, Nigeria. They held all 19 crewmembers hostage, stole the ship’s documents and valuable items, and escaped with 13-kidnapped crew. The tanker was left drifting with limited and unqualified navigational and engine crew onboard. A nearby merchant vessel later helped the tanker to sail to a safe port. The 13 kidnapped crew members were released safely one month after, “IMB said.
Meanwhile, the NIMASA boss had expressed worry over the activities of the Somali pirates on Nigerian waters, while reiterating the determination to curb criminal attacks in the nation’s waters and the Gulf of Guinea.
He said the pirates often navigated through Nigeria’s maritime boundaries, and sometimes came through the land borders, adding that the recently-established, Maritime Intelligence Unit, to help nip sea crimes in the bud through the identification of early warning signs, had revealed a relationship between crimes in the Nigerian maritime domain and the Somali pirates.
He said: “We discovered a correlation between crimes in our waters and the activities of the Somali pirates. They have a means of navigating from the coast of Somalia to Nigeria, through the waters of our West African neighbours. In some cases, they enter through the land borders and commission boats to carry out their activities.”
He said Nigeria had developed an action plan to monitor the progress of its National Maritime Security Strategy, saying, “Our goal is to achieve a sustainable end to criminal attacks in our territorial waters.”
Jamoh said the Nigerian government placed a high premium on the safety and security of shipping on its waters and the Gulf of Guinea.
To confront the menace of maritime criminality head-on, he said: “Nigeria has made huge investments in the establishment of a comprehensive maritime security infrastructure. The Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure also called the Deep Blue Project, is designed to secure our waters, up to the Gulf of Guinea.
“The project is nearing completion, with more than 80 per cent of the assets, comprising Special Mission Vessels, Fast Intervention Boats, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and Armoured Vehicles, already in the country.”
IMO commends Nigeria
Following the successful prosecution of the 10 pirates, the specialised shipping regulatory agency of the United Nations, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), had praised Nigeria’s effort to stem piracy in its waters and the Gulf of Guinea stressing that the country is sending a “strong and valuable message” to the global community.
The Secretary-General of the IMO, Kitack Lim, made this known in a letter addressed to Jamoh.
Lim said he was impressed by Nigeria’s efforts, “to address maritime security threats in the region,” adding that Jamoh’s “leadership and proactive response” to maritime security issues were laudable.
Jamoh had told the IMO Secretary-General at a previous virtual meeting following the arrest of some pirates by the Nigerian Navy, in partnership with NIMASA, that piracy in the region was being sustained by powerful foreign collaboration.
He appealed for support from the international community to complement the steps being taken by Nigeria towards ridding the country’s waters of maritime crimes.
“I would also like to reiterate my congratulations to the Nigerian Navy on the successful capture and arrest of pirates from the fishing trawler Hailufeng II, and more recently on the rescue of the crewmembers of the containership Tommi Ritscher, ”Lim stated in the letter.
“Those actions, together with all the other initiatives you highlighted in our meeting, including progress with the Deep Blue Project, send a strong and valuable message to the international community with respect to the considerable efforts your Government is making to curb piracy and armed robbery against ships in the Gulf of Guinea,” he added.
The IMO SG reiterated the organisation’s readiness to assist NIMASA in the training of personnel and technical assistance, and also declared his willingness to talk to other member countries to assist in that respect.
He said IMO would help to deal with the issue of synergy in laws regarding piracy with other neighbouring countries.