IT was a war among friends on the floor of the Senate recently on an issue that could have grave consequences for the stability, not only for the revenue generating assets of the country, but also for the security of the country.
At the centre of the arguments and counter-arguments, was the proposed Maritime Security Agency Bill sent to the National Assembly by the Presidency a few years ago.
Some of the actors who argued for and against are Senator Ibrahim Ida, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Defence; Senator Bode Olajumoke, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Navy; Senator Lee Maeba; Senator Teslim Folarin, Senate Majority leader, among others.
Those behind the bill which seeks the creation of the Maritime Security Agency are proposing that the Agency would have the broad function of promoting maritime security in Nigerian waters (implying the taking over of most of the policing functions of the Nigerian Navy in the maritime environment).
The agency would also take over the responsibility of providing direction and leadership in the sector, establish a platform and mechanism to protect all national maritime and maritime-related infrastructure in Nigerian waters, as well as regulate bodies engaged in the provision of maritime security in Nigeria’s territorial waters.
The bill further seeks the power to allow the agency to stop, board and inspect any vessel within Nigerian territorial waters and inland waterways and the power to interfere, intercept or do anything it deems necessary to enhance communication capabilities of ships within the maritime boundaries and domains of Nigeria.
The constitution as well as the Armed Forces Act CAP 20, Part 1, sub-section 4 states that apart from safeguarding the territorial integrity of the nation through the sea, land and air, the Navy is charged with enforcing and assisting in coordinating the enforcement of all customs, laws, including anti-bunkering, fishery and immigration laws of Nigeria.
The Navy is also charged with enforcing and assisting in coordinating the enforcement of national and international maritime laws ascribed or acceded to by Nigeria. It is further tasked with making charts and coordinating all national hydro-graphic surveys and promoting, coordinating and enforcement of safety regulations in the territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone of Nigeria.
These functions of the Nigeria Navy as spelt out by the letters of the Constitution and the Armed Forces Act, and the proposals being sought after by the Maritime Security Agency, one needs no soothsayer to know that there would be serious conflict, duplication of functions and loss of patriotism on the part of the Navy which had been in the forefront of protecting the territorial integrity for about 50 years of the nation’s existence.
It is pertinent to note that the prevailing peace of the graveyard in the Niger Delta, is as a result of the acknowledged roles of the Navy which have brought sanity to operations of multi-national companies in the lifting of crude oil, safe operations of offshore oil platforms and the almost non-existent cases of illegal bunkering, stand’s at a risk if issues concerning the maritime bill are not handled in the national interest.
Nigeria, today fulfils its target of oil demands to the international market and revenue from oil export accruing to the nation today has never been so good because of the effect of the Navy’s improved performance at sea and the calming of tension brought about by the Federal Government amnesty programme for militants.
Those in the maritime industry have nothing but praise for both the Navy and members of the Joint Task Force stationed in the waterways through whose efforts many questionable operators in the maritime businesses have been stopped from milking the nation’s resources. These gains would be eroded if the powers of policing the Nigerian maritime environment is taken off the Navy.
The argument has been that a situation whereby the maritime security agency which has no structures or trained personnel, a projected source of revenue that would entail taxing the already sapped Nigerian masses, is made to become the most powerful intelligence gathering organ in the maritime environment, surpassing even that of the Navy and the SSS is an invitation to disaster.
It is well known around the world that navies are not only formed from the perspective of national security considerations; their national security objectives are global and as such, even national navies of other countries feel comfortable and secure in their exercises and in exchanging technology with their counterparts anywhere in the world.
There is no gain saying that there can be no two navies for a nation as most of the functions of the proposed agency are already the responsibilities of the Nigerian Navy. An alternative maritime body that complements the Nigerian Navy in areas of necessity, is in place and is called NIMASA. Its functions take care of any shortfall observed in the Maritime Security Agency being proposed.
A close peep into the Maritime Security Agency bill brouhaha only shows that persons or groups behind the proposal simply took the statutes of NIMASA, extracted the relevant sections, sub-sections and chapters, and carried out a restructuring of the statutes to align with their vision of forming a separate maritime security body.
For instance, if as the bill proposes, the Agency will be charged with responsibility of ‘protecting all national maritime and maritime related infrastructure in Nigeria waters’, the consequences would be that the Navy, the marine division of the Nigeria Police, the Nigeria Inland Waterways and indeed the Armed Forces, like the Army which has a waterborne apparatus, would be left jobless in this area.
It further implies that the agency has the plan of becoming an armed organisation equipped with maritime fighting platforms like ships. Otherwise, how would it protect Nigeria’s maritime infrastructure? How will the agency begin to function considering the lead time for the procurement of ships, boats and the training of personnel?
Furthermore, paragraph 6, part 3 of the bill seeks to make the agency take over anti-poaching and pollution patrols in Nigerian waters. It also seeks the powers to prevent any passage in Nigeria waters. The implication is that the agency will be equipped to perform combat functions of the Navy in addition to the policing functions usually performed by other navies worldwide.
Deducting one percent of the gross value of inbound and outbound cargo of vessels calling at or departing from any port in Nigeria, slapping a national maritime levy on operators and deducting another one percent of the declared annual profit of any company having links with the maritime industry, according to stipulations of the bill, is an invitation to crises which the incoming administration of President Goodluck Jonathan and Nigerians would not want to be saddled with at this time in our nation’s history.
Consequently, the leadership of the National Assembly should avoid an unnecessary problem not only for the security of the Nigeria maritime environment, but also the peaceful co-existence between the already troubled citizenry by ignoring the distraction that is the Maritime Security Agency for now.
Mr. KINGSLEY OMONOBI is a staff of Vanguard Newspaper.