By Lekan Bilesanmi & Bridget Amata
I can’t remember the number of killings we have done since we came into this business. It is always like we were at war when 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.’’
With these words, Numbers Blessing, the alleged leader of ship hijackers recently arrested by security forces after they attacked a ship on Nigeria’s waters, revealed their modus operandi.
According to him, so powerful is the Nigerian oil mafia that a successful ship hijacking in West Africa or even Africa cannot take place without their input.
Blessing gang’s arrest by the security forces is only one out of many in the last 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 dare devil pirates and hijackers that have turned the Gulf of Guinea of the West Coast of Africa to a nightmare for oil vessels.
Made up of a combined team of the navy, army, airforce, officials of NIMASA and Global West Vessel Specialist Limited (GWVSL), a privately owned firm, the Blessing gang’s arrest followed the attack and seizure last August 28,on MT Energy Centurion, a Greek operated oil tanker, 17 miles off the shoreline of the Togolese Capital, Lome, where it had anchored. The pirates, Golden Energy Management, the operators of the vessel , said then stole about 3, 000 of 56, 000 tonnes of gas oil it carried and robbed the crew of 23 Russians of their jewellry and money.
As reports of the attack and hijack filtered in, NIMASA, the Head of its Corporate Affairs, Hajia Lami Tumaka, stated, immediately informed the Nigeria Navy and, backed by the airforce, swiftly moved in to rescue the vessel after about six hours of fierce chase after the marauders.
The task force consequently launched investigation into the incident, spreading its drag net across the country. The outcome of the investigation was revealing. Blessing, who described himself as Commander of ship hijackers in Nigeria, and his men were rounded up. 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 gang members planning another attack on a vessel in Cotonou, Benin Republic. The pirate leader, who has admitted in a confessional statement to the task force that he led the attack on MT Energy Centurion, further revealed at his detention camp in Lagos that he got a share of N10million 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.”
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 points 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 points 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, we do , however, assist at times to monitor it through arms support.
»I can’t remember the number of killings we have done since we came into 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. There can be no successful vessel hijacking in West Africa or Africa as a whole without inputs from Nigeria oil mafias, 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, lodgements of huge sums for operations are made here, it serves as hide outs for criminal elements, it is used as 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 meetings with our contacts in relevant security organisations, for every impending operation, huge sums are set aside for the 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 operation 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 N16million.»
Blessing’s identification and consequent arrest was aided by the security camera on board MT Centurion, 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 task force 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.