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MT PRAISEL Crude Theft: Nigerian Navy Loses Composure, Fights Dirty

BY EGUONO ODJEGBA

The Nigerian Navy (NN) which is currently battling one of its worst image crisis in decades, has continued to flip flop while falling from one error to the other, and from one unwarranted action to another in the bid to redeem an earlier mistake associated with its posturing on the theft charge linked to MT Praisel.

Perhaps, at no time in recent history has the Naval Authority been so lost, been so disheveled and disoriented, that within days it keeps falling from the deck, crashing through the engine rooms into the basement of unused rags and forgotten tools by its maintenance crew and ratings.

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Since the story of the MT PRAISEL alleged crude theft broke last week, signals from the Office of the Chief of Naval Staff has been anything but uncoordinated efforts to wriggle out of the tight corner it boxed itself, albeit via poor attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of Nigerians.

Sadly, the more the weak attacks on the otherwise true situation of things comes, the more the scheming to obviate the truth reverberates like the strong echo of a defiant storm.

The MT Praisel with 1,117 tons carrying capacity vessel was arrested last Wednesday, August 2, 2023 by operatives of Tantita Security Services Limited (TSSL), loaded with about 8,100 barrels of suspected stolen crude oil, with naval personnel providing the vessel and the suspicious cargo official escort and protection.

Prior the news break, there are indications that all critical stakeholders including the NN, TSSL, Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL), Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and the Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority (NMDPRA) have mobilized to the anchor to check out the facts of the crude cargo; including taking of samples for laboratory analysis to help with the investigation.

Fortunately and unfortunately, while this effort was ongoing, the development like many other similar incidents filtered out and hit the news wave, which apparently jolted the naval authority, ostensibly in view of its alleged involvement.

But rather than manage the crisis in-house amongst the critical partners and come out with a common position; the NN perhaps jittery, issued a press statement purportedly clarifying its involvement, also confirming that samples of the product has been taking for laboratory test by the concerned partners to correctly identify whether or not, what is onboard MT PRAISEL is crude or pour oil as claimed by the suspects; and the NN.

Ironically, the navy statement merely skirted around the allegation akin to someone blowing hot air in place of kinetic propulsion, and thus failed to address the critical nexus, inclusive of the outcome of the laboratory investigation which by its own admission was still ongoing.

The navy statement also failed to sufficiently address the matter of its involvement and or culpability, or otherwise.

The statement reads in part: “The attention of the Naval Headquarters has been drawn to publications and news reports in the media on the arrest of Motor Tanker (MT) PRAISEL by a private security outfit, Tantita Security Service Limited (TSSL) for suspected illegal oil Bunkering.

“To put the record straight and avoid the misrepresentation of facts to unsuspecting members of the public as portrayed, MT PRAISEL was duly approved by Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority (NMDPRA) to load 1,114,721 Litres of High Pour Fuel Oil (HPFO) from Greenmac Energy Storage/Tarus Jetty Koko from 26 July – 8 August 2023.

“This has been substantiated by NMDPRA. In line with Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and to ensure strict compliance with the NMDPRA approval, NN personnel were deployed onboard to monitor the discharge of the product by MT PRAISEL at a facility at Bonny.

“However, on 2 August 2023, TSSL claiming to act on intelligence alleged that the vessel was laden with stolen crude oil and thereafter approached an element of Operation DELTA SAFE to board the vessel in order to verify the alleged stolen product. Accordingly, the NN directed the vessel to Forward Operating Base ESCRAVOS anchorage for further investigation of the product onboard. The samples of the product onboard MT PRAISEL were collected on Thursday 3 August 2023 by 5 agencies including NNPCL, NMDPRA and also TSSL in line with laid procedures for laboratory test and verification of the claim.

“As the lead agency in the fight against maritime crimes, the NN has always been at the vanguard of supporting every single effort to halt economic saboteurs of our country. Therefore, while it is desirable for all hands to be on deck in the fight against crude oil theft, necessary precaution must be adhered to by all stakeholders to avoid unnecessary impediment to legitimate commercial activities and businesses in the maritime environment that have far reaching consequences for the nation’s economy.

“The NN therefore appeals to the general public to await the laboratory test esult of the product and in-depth investigations on allegation.”

The Naval Dimfo signed off with its trademark assurances of operational integrity by the CNS.

“The NN under the table leadership of Vice Admiral Emmanuel Ogalla is poised to ensure transparency and renewed effort towards interagency cooperation and synergy in the fight against illegalities and criminality in Nigeria’s Maritime Environment particularly oil theft.”

When contacted at the prior whiff of the information and the attendant news break, TSSL was reluctant to speak to on the matter, citing collaborative efforts by all relevant partners, and appealed to our reporter to be patient until a joint official statement is issued.

Following the Navy Statement however, TSSL contracted to help combat the menace of crude theft by the NNPCL was compelled to refute some of the misinformation there from; even as the NNPCL private security contractor said it will not be afraid to stand up against those it described as the ‘big fish’ that wished to be left alone to continue to swim unchallenged in the murky waters of crude smuggling.

The TSSL statement which acknowledged a robust synergy with the various arms of the military and others in the fulfillment of its mandate reads:

“On the 3rd of August 2023, news of a vessel the MT PRAISEL intercepted by Tantita broke on a news channel, while investigations were still ongoing, contrary to our corporate practices. As would be noted no official statement from Tantita or any of her directors or top management accompanied the news story.

“While Tantita was investigating the source of the news leak, on the 4th of August 2023 Naval Headquarters issued a press statement. We at Tantita have continued our investigation undeterred by press reports, careful not to jeopardize our investigations while conscious of our responsibilities to the public.

“The fight against oil theft has been grueling but successful in the last one year and the biggest secret of that success is the extent of collaboration between the community based private surveillance companies particularly, TANTITA and the Government Security Agencies.”

Specifically speaking on MT PRAISEL, the statement reads, “On the 1st of August 2023,Tantita received credible intelligence that a vessel which had obtained NMDPRA approval to deliver HPFO from Koko to LAGOS OFFSHORE would be proceeding in the opposite direction. On the 2nd of August 2023 Tantita operatives approached the MT PRAISEL as it made its way through a creek in Delta State off Benin River. On board the vessel were naval personnel, while the Tantita inspection crew included officers and men from the Operation Delta Safe (the Inter Service Task Force for fighting Crude Oil Theft, amongst other things in the Niger Delta).

“The intelligence suggested that the vessel ought to be sailing to Lagos, but the Master of the vessel indicated he was sailing to Bonny. Tantita requested for the naval clearance and the documentation showed by the Master of the vessel indicated Koko as port of discharge for storage only, there was nothing indicating Bonny as port of discharge in that document. In line with standard procedure, Tantita requested for further clarification from the crew as to the discrepancy between NMDPRA permit and the naval clearance and permission to take samples of cargo on board.

“Understandably, this infuriated the naval personnel on board who requested Tantita personnel to immediately disembark from the vessel. Tantita had no option but to escalate the issue to higher authorities who mandated that the vessel be anchored off Escravos roads for further investigation.”

From Tantita’s explanations, there are credible doubts in the claims of MT PRAISEL crew and the Navy that makes the former’s actions legitimate, thorough, professional and praiseworthy. From the cargo documents, the facts speak for themselves; and Nigerians are left to judge, between the two, who is more patriotic and committed to national interests.

“Tantita dispatched her personnel to collect samples from the vessel on the 3rd of August 2023. Those present at the time of collection on the 3rd of August 2023 were the Nigerian Navy, TanDta and the NSCDC. Tantita personnel were still on board the vessel collecting samples when the news broke in the media.

“The following day Tantita woke up to the Naval Headquarters’ press statement which appears to indicate that the NMDPRA gave approval to the MT PRAISEL to proceed to Bonny for discharge. We are yet to see that documentation, and as we noted above the Nigerian Navy clearance we saw did not also state Bonny as port of discharge. There are many vessels plying this area but Tantita does not board them, intelligence has to be credible.

“In the circumstances, there were reasonable grounds to be suspicious of the movement of MT PRAISEL in the opposite direction from the NMDPRA clearance seen. Contrary to the Naval Headquarters’ press release on the issue of who was present on Thursday the 3rd of August 2023, it was on Friday the 4th of August 2023 that a staff of NMDPRA first came on board to take samples from the cargo holds for laboratory analysis.”

Despite TSSL/NNPCL determination to de-escalate the matter, the NN obviously rattled by this biggest revelation and clear indictment has become a bull in the China shop, riding roughshod over the sanctity of other partners, and trying to bully Nigerians into accepting its narrative even as it has engaged in the disputation of documented evidence that belies certain narratives put forward by it.

By far the most odious is the naval authority’s open disdain and unwarranted vilification of not just TSSL but other partners in the war against crude stealing; notwithstanding that as an institution, its inability to contain crude theft and or, its routine alleged involvements significantly reversed the nation’s crude economy in the past two decades; until NNPC came up with TSSL to positively reverse the trend.

In sane climes where accountability is a culture, any navy that performs at the level of NN would conduct itself with high sense of decorum and respect, and not talk down those deployed from without to provide them frontline backing; like the JTF and private security firms.

Whilst NNPCL the lead agency and other partners involved in the product laboratory analysis is yet to make any statement, NN Sunday went to town, saying the result  of the laboratory test has proven the suspicion of crude theft wrong; noting the content of MT PRAISEL is High Pour Fuel Oil and not stolen crude oil as suspected.

Again, its Director Dimfo, Commodore Vaughan went as far as literally putting words into NMDPRA’s mouth, as though the department which is also in the eyes of the storm is incapable of articulating its own response.

Vaughan said, “The clarification of the report became necessary therefore to put the record straight and avoid the misrepresentation of facts particularly the consignment/cargo of the vessel as at the time of interception by TSSL. As mentioned, MT PRAISEL was duly approved by Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority (NMDPRA) to load 1,114,721 Litres of High Pour Fuel Oil (HPFO) from Greenmac Energy Storage/Tarus Jetty Koko from 26 July – 8 August 2023.

“This has repeatedly been substantiated by NMDPRA. However, due to the allegation and suspicion of the vessel’s product to be stolen crude oil, samples of the product were collected on Thursday and Friday 3 & 4 August 2023 by relevant agencies in line with laid procedures for laboratory analysis and verification of the claim.

“As of Saturday 5 August 2023, the results of the laboratory analysis of the product onboard MT PRAISEL by all agencies including NMDPRA indicates that the product displayed properties consistent with Nigerian industrial standard specification for HPFO. This result therefore proves that the allegation and suspicion was totally wrong, unfounded, and perhaps mischievous. The intelligence which was said to have been received in respect of the vessel and its product is equally wrong.”

Then, the naval authority in a twist of righteous adumbration laced with unhidden innuendoes accused TSSL of antagonizing legitimate trade; plus questioning the efficiency and competence of TSSL, apparently in the brazen attempt to whitewash its own apparent deficiencies and doubtful character.

“This singular incident brings to the fore the high-handedness and unprofessional conduct displayed, with its attendant negative consequences for the supplier and buyer of the product, the vessel hired to convey it and other parties involved in the legitimate business.”

“Maritime security issues entails more than spontaneous actions from insufficient and unverified information because the resultant wrong responses have direct impact on the nation’s economy hence it must be handled dispassionately and professionally.”

TSSL on its part has maintained studied calm and refrained from unnecessary distraction.

In its statement Sunday, it said while the navy remain a major source of support in its operations, it’s posture regarding the current issue is nonetheless shocking, noting the statements are not in sync with the truth.

“While it is our honest belief that the Naval Headquarters’ press statement was actuated by the best motives, clearly there are questions which beg for answers. For example, why is NMDPRA approved port of discharge (Lagos Offshore) different from the Navy clearance (Koko as storage) and why are both different from the port of discharge indicated in the naval press statement (Bonny)?

“In the course of several joint meetings we have consistently asked for a single clearing house for all approvals so that each agency of government can see what the other is approving/has approved. We are all aware that unscrupulous elements can take advantage of existing gaps in procedures to clandestinely transport and sell stolen crude and illegally refined products.

“For example, a truck can load legitimate products at a licensed depot and pass on its papers and license plates to another truck carrying illegal products at a side road and if we rely on the papers alone the illegal cargo with the legitimate papers would beat the system. Same for motor tanker vessels.”

The statement continued: “At Tantita, it is our resolve that we will not allow a situation where the small fry is chased out of the illegal business only for the big fish to remain in business.

“A single 10 tonner vessel will do more damage to our economy in a single voyage than 1000 dugout canoes carrying jerrycans. And while the illegality with the dugout canoe is a crime of need the illegality with the 10 tonner vessel is a crime of greed.”

The private security firm says it is unshaken in its commitment to focus on its assignment and to fulfill all required courtesies essential to promote the collective partnership, noting that all organs of the security architecture, public or private should work as one.

It disclosed that when crude thieves attacked the Joint Task Force (JTF) recently and shot a soldier, its operatives provided a shield around the officer, and accordingly urged every participant to demonstrate similar spirit of camaraderie.

“For example, barely three weeks ago there was an ambush by oil thieves along the Ahoada axis of Rivers State where private surveillance personnel and GSAs came under deadly fire and a Nigerian Army soldier paid the ultimate price, amidst frantic efforts by our private security operatives to rush him to medical care. This goes to show the close working relationship between private surveillance operatives and the security agencies.

“Therefore, this is to affirm the partnership with hundreds and thousands of Government Security Agents, officers and men of the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Navy, Nigerian Air Force, Nigeria Police Force, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps as well as the intelligence agencies who have put their lives at risk in the service of the nation.

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