BY EGUONO ODJEGBA
There is a buildup of heavy international military presence in the Gulf of Guinea (GOG) and along the fringes of Nigerian territorial waters, following worsening state of maritime insecurity in the region.
Reports indicate that over the weekend through Tuesday, the region witnessed multiple confirmed piracy attacks, which say Russia and Iranian navies, including others from America and Europe deploying swiftly to the trouble region to provide safe passage, reprieve and anchor for international cargo vessels.
The ugly development puts a question mark on the adaptability and indeed, the capability of the Nigerian maritime security infrastructure codenamed Deep Blue Project (DBP), launched by President Muhammadu Buhari under the auspices of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), recently.
Whereas NIMASA has consistently assured that the launch of DBP has the wherewithal to significantly dip piracy and other maritime crimes like kidnapping and sea robberies, there are no indication that the NIMASA Special Force were anywhere within the radius of the weekend attacks; leaving the region and Nigerian territorial waters up the exclusive economic zone; and by extension Nigeria’s maritime economy open to soft invasion by foreign military.
While a Panama flagged MSC containership reportedly come under attack in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria Monday, a Russian tanker and other coastal ships reportedly came under attacks multiple attacks; throwing up a fresh and worrisome dimension in the regional piracy challenge.
Dryad Global, a maritime security firm reported Monday that MSC Lucia was boarded by an unknown number of attackers approximately 86 nautical miles southwest of the offshore Agbami Oil Terminal, located approximately 70nm south-southwest of the Niger Delta.
“The incident is understood to be ongoing,” the company said, adding that vessels transiting the area have been advised to exercise extreme caution; noting that a foreign naval vessel was inbound, for intervention.
MSC Lucia is a Panama-flagged containership measuring 189 meters in length and 1,951 TEU, according to MSC’s website. The ship was built in 1985.
Similarly, a Russian Naval Fighter, Vice-Admiral Kulakov reportedly responded to the piracy attack on MSC containership, during the multiple attacks. Reports says based on AIS routing, the vessel carried out evasive manoeuvres during the attack, until it became stationary, while the crew reportedly moved away from the deck into the ship citadel for safety.
The arrival of the Russian Navy forced the attackers to vacate the vessel, even as the Russian Navy reportedly provided support to the attacked vessels. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, “the destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov received a distress signal from MSC Lucia on Monday morning.
“The merchant vessel reported that armed attackers had approached via speedboat and climed aboard. Lucia’s crew had retreated to the engine room for safety. In response, Kulakov launched her Kumov Ka-27PS helicopter carrying a boarding party of Russian marines.
“Upon seeing the approaching aircraft, the pirates fled the vessel, got into a fast boat and headed towards the coast at full speed.”
While ICC International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) latest quarterly global piracy report showed the number of reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships globally has dropped drastically, piracy spike in GOG and markedly within Nigerian territorial waters is already posing serious concerns to authorities, especially NIMASA, believed to be doing much to stem the tide.
Dryad Global reports that incidents in the Gulf of Guinea region, which it described as the global hotspot for pirate activity over the last several years, fell to 28 incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the first nine months of 2021, compared to 46 for the same period in 2020.
Nigeria reported four incidents in the first nine months of 2021, in comparison to 17 in 2020 and 41 in 2018. Crew kidnappings in the region have also dropped with only one crew member kidnapped in Q3 2021, compared to 31 crew members taken in five separate incidents during Q3 2020.
Commenting on the development, a maritime security expert, Captain Enusoh Warredi said insecurity in GOG and indeed the Nigerian territorial waters is an issue that cannot be wished away until the right anti-piracy assets replete with impregnable capability is put in place.
“Few days ago, I warned Merchant Shipping not to loose guard, and to continue to take measures to protect themselves. The Nigerian government is leading the emplacement of security infrastructure but l am not sure that its capability has been tested.
“Complacency shouldn’t feature in any nation or people’s security architecture. I guess that’s where we are presently. Until the capability of DBP or any other arrangement is certified and proven, merchant shipping must continue to take precaution.
“I don’t find anything wrong with the presence of foreign military stepping in to provide security, shipping is an international business. My only worry is that we are opening up our sovereign economic zone to unavoidable foreign exposure, we must avoid that.”
Under the circumstances, foreign nations are strategically positioning their navies at the Gulf of Guinea, and to a large extent, on Nigerian high seas, thus creating a corridor for their flagged vessels; which can at best be described as allowing Nigeria to do her thing as she see fit, while maritime nations doing business in Nigeria, look after the security of their ships, cargo and crew.
Neither NIMASA nor the Federal Ministry of Transportation has reacted to the weekend attacks on ships as at the time of going to press. How this will affect Nigeria’s quest to be voted into the IMO Security Seat, which election is billed to hold soon, remains to be seen.
In the buildup to the IMO election, NIMASA has already commenced an aggressive campaign for support from member maritime countries, spanning Europe, Asia, America and Africa.